SAN FRANCISCO — I first became aware of the artist Jess (1923 – 2004) in the late 1960s, when I bought a copy of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field (1960) at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street, near Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jess’s ink drawing was the frontispiece of that singular volume, which was part of my introduction to the existence of alternatives to official verse culture. Although I went on reading Duncan, I did not see any more of Jess’s art until I came to New York in the mid-1970s and saw his work at the Odyssia Gallery, where I also saw pieces by Irving Petlin and, later, Robert Birmelin for the first time.
It is clear to me now that this was the beginning of my awareness that there was a multitude of what John Ashbery called “other traditions” and not everything that happened in art was made in New York. While most of us are familiar with art movements in Chicago, from the Monster Roster to the “The Hairy Who” and the Imagists, California’s art scenes from 1960s and ’70s are impossible to sum up with a single term.
You get a hint of this complexity in the title of the marvelous exhibition Mythos, Psyche, Eros: Jess and California at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), curated by Nancy Lim and Solomon Adler. Among the 50 or so works in the exhibition are books, magazines, gallery announcements, and exhibition flyers. It features works by a number of artists in Jess’s milieu, though most are by Jess. It includes an early painting, “Vista” (1951), as well as the Paste-Up (Jess’s term for collages) “The Mouse’s Tale” (1951-54), an openly homoerotic work, and culminates with the drawing “Narkissos” (1976-91), which is in the museum’s collection and has not been displayed in many years. If you have not seen this drawing in person, you should head to this show as soon as you can.
“Narkissos” represents the diametric opposite of Minimalism, a movement contemporary with Jess’s work, in which artists emptied their work of explicit content. He tried to put everything into this drawing-cum-collage, which took him more than 15 years to complete. It is accompanied by the drawing “Study for Narkissos” (1964) and the undated “Narkissos pinning board,” on which he pinned and moved around his sources as he worked out the composition.
The density and diversity of sources in “Narkissos” are formidable, to say the least. The drawing compels you to engage in activities that the New York-centric art world has historically downplayed or dismissed: to think, reflect, and wander without obvious guideposts. By these standards, Jess was too literary, esoteric, and gay; and by conventional aesthetic standards, his work gives viewers too much to consider. It demands a kind of slow looking that is rarely found in today’s art world, with its emphasis on immediate consumption and instant political messages, in keeping with late capitalism’s appeal to people who know how to live well and healthily.
The only essay on this drawing worth reading is “On Jess’s Narkissos” by the poet Michael Palmer, printed in the catalogue Jess: A Grand Collage 1951 – 1993 (1993), for his traveling retrospective, organized by Michael Auping. The first paragraph of Palmer’s essay is worth quoting in its entirety, as it characterizes the commitment to looking required of the viewer:
A first impression of Jess’s Narkissos drawing is one of daunting iconic complexity. Literary and pictorial references abound. Multiple homages to writers, painters and illustrators are secreted within the work. A swirl of images drawn from radically disparate sources confronts the viewer. An image from popular culture is juxtaposed with the sacral; fragment of auratic, “high” art finds itself counterbalanced with the familiar, or, at least, the familiar-made-strange. Jokes and puns proliferate, all pointing towards the linguitic unconscious. Spatial perspectives establish themselves, only to dissolve, like a Baroque façade, before our eyes. Yet there is an equally paradoxical stability to the whole, a sense of the operative and consistent counter-logic, which lends an undeniable coherence and unity to the visual field.
Palmer adds that “The work was first conceived in 1959 and completed in 1991” and that “Study for Narkissos” was the second “imagining” of the work, “which was originally conceived as the mirror (entantiomorphic) image of a painting of the same size.”
For all of its visual density, “Narkissos” never feels clotted or airless. In fact, Jess has constructed a visual space that is remarkably easy and rewarding for one’s attention. I found myself unexpectedly and delightedly shifting focus from large clusters of disparate images to small details, feeling alternately lost and directed, as every element of the composition led to something else. It was like being in a maze in which there was always something interesting and surprising to see.
Narkissos, the dominant figure, is in the mid-ground, on the drawing’s left side, with a smaller figure of a nude archer in the upper middle of the drawing. As Narkissos was a young deer hunter in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the larger figure holding a comic strip of Krazy Kat by George Herriman is likely Jess’s vision of himself as an artist, while the archer is his earlier self-image, when he was working on the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Washington, before he committed himself to art. These two figures help anchor the work, letting our eyes wander off and return.
Despite being composed of myriad images and details, one never feels that the artist got bogged down. The composition’s fluidity is contingent on one image always resonating and connecting with what is around it. Beyond the work’s formal features, Jess took the gestural trails and arabesques of Abstract Expressionism and transformed them into something completely his own. It is a remarkable achievement.
The exhibition also includes works by artists associated with Jess and his circle, as well as other independent figures, such as Jean Conner, Betye Saar, George Hermes, Lyn Brockaway, and Los Angeles-based artists Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg. None of these artists worked in a way that we would associate with prevailing styles in New York. In sharp contrast to New York and Chicago artists at the time, these artists all pursued different paths and apparently were uninterested in what was happening in the so-called commercial art world.
As Lim and Adler state in the press release, the exhibition was “structured around the guiding aesthetics of Jess’s oeuvre–mythos (story), psyche (soul), and eros (desire).” These words continue to be all but verboten by writers associated with October and Artforum, not to mention the artists they champion.
In addition, the exhibition contains a selection of flyers and announcements from the King Ubu Gallery, which Jess, Duncan, and Harry Jacobus opened in 1952, holding 15 exhibitions over the years and hosting readings and films. Later, the space was taken over by a group of six artists and poets and renamed the Six Gallery; it is where Allen Ginsberg first read his poem “Howl.”
There should be an in-depth examination at some point of the lively scene of artist-run galleries in San Francisco in the 1950s — a West Coast version of Inventing Downtown: Artist Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965 at the Grey Art Gallery (January 10 – April 1, 2017), curated by Melissa Rachleff, which I reviewed.
By bringing these disparate artists together, and connecting them through myth and Eros, Lim and Adler suggest an unbridgeable chasm between artists on the West and East Coast throughout much of the 20th century. In New York, artists and critics valorized the visible. On the West Coast, there were pockets and networks where artists and poets honored the visionary.