December 2013

Patrick James Dunagan


An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff, and Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica edited by Michael Duncan

The poet Ronald Johnson rather infamously referred to San Francisco as Oz, the Emerald City. He freely intermingled his love of Frank L. Baum's novels about the magical realm with his poeticized vision of the real city in which he lived for a significant period of his adult life from the 1970s up until the early 1990s. His vision of his adopted hometown, however, was likewise adopted, having earlier been a firmly shared, key connection in the romantic relationship of poet Robert Duncan and the artist Jess. The couple met each other in Berkeley during the 1950s and soon set up a household together in San Francisco (with various relocations from Stinson Beach to Mallorca, with a short stint at Black Mountain College, back to San Francisco) lasting until Duncan's death in 1988. In the 1960s, with a small windfall from some family inheritance along with some benefactor assistance and pooling together Duncanís income from poetry reading fees with Jess's gallery sales, they purchased a Victorian house in the Mission district in which they thereafter resided. Baum's novels had their own set of shelves among the many themed libraries abounding in different rooms throughout their home. In addition to many, many books, art works adorned every wall and surface.

As with another recent poet-related show John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things (Loretta Howard Gallery) the items, objects, and art found throughout the household of Duncan and Jess are star features in An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle. The collection of material assembled together here is a major celebration of their artistic lives where the imagination reigns supreme. In the catalog for the Ashbery show, Adam Fitzgerald notes how Ashbery's "Hudson house has only recently entered into the awareness of a small group of scholars, critics, fellow poets and artists, who are beginning to develop a vocabulary and methodology to assess its significance." In contrast, 3267 20th Street in the Mission district has long been in the sights of Duncan/Jess enthusiasts, yet similarly the critical process of assessing "its significance" is just beginning. This show is a fundamental first step, as are the accompanying essays in the catalog.

In addition to the many pieces drawn directly from Duncan/Jess's home, there are two DVDs playing on looped feeds which offer unbridled viewing of the interior space of 3267 20th Street itself: Richard O. Mooreís WNET The Originals: The Writer in America -- Robert Duncan contains footage of Duncan walking through several rooms, discussing and reading from his work, while co-curator Christopher Wagstaff's and David Fratto's The Household of Robert Duncan & Jess: An Intimate Portrait of a Legendary Home is a twenty-minute visual room-by-room, bookshelf-by-bookshelf, artwork-by-artwork walkthrough of the entire house. As Duncan's biographer, Lisa Jarnot, remarks in a recent Jacket2 interview: "In their house you really felt like a participant in the imaginary, in the 'made place'; it was an amazing place to be." The entire exhibit affords a previously heretofore unavailable immersion into this "made place," containing an impressively large number of intimate companion-pieces central to both of their individual arts and full of visual cues for further elaborating upon influences evident in their own works.

The majority of the artists and work included date back to the San Francisco area during the 1940s and 1950s. Several of the artists (including Jess) attended either Berkeley and/or later the California School of Fine Arts/San Francisco Art Institute. Others, such as Paul Alexander and Tom Field followed Duncan in a general westward drift away from the slow disintegration of Black Mountain College in the mid-50s. Painter Virginia Admiral's connection to Duncan, however, began in the 1930s and continued during the early 1940s in New York City. Together they stood apart in the social crowd gathered around AnaÔs Nin who "observed in her diary, 'They are both children out of Les Enfants Terribles.'" Thereís something entirely fun about thinking of Duncan palling round with the mother of actor Robert De Niro -- who also lent one of the works included in the show. Admiral's paintings are quite pleasing to look at, richly colorful, and fully rewarding in their delivery of a post-Picasso European abstraction. Both of these two fairly large works of hers are easily among the nicest of surprises to be seen.

In general, the work by women in the show is top notch. There's no cause for disappointment other than being left wishing for a great deal more work to be on hand. From balladeer-poet Helen Adam's familiar (to many of her readers, at least) and terrific collage work -- the mixed-media studies of the relationship between classic femininity and surreal horror and absurdity sends the head spinning -- to the completely satisfying surprise of Madeline Gleason's alternately bright, nightlife filled early paintings to her more broodingly moody "semi-religious" later work, the women writers in Duncan's circle prove themselves as interested and accomplished, if not more so, as Duncan himself in the visual arts. Similarly, Fran Herndon's paintings only further substantiate the artistic strength with which she engaged the often literary-heavy portrayed atmospherics of the San Francisco Renaissance. Herndon's Jack Spicer and His Radio is an especially apt companion-painting to the poet's own work, capturing the warmth, along with childlike glee of the relationship. This glee carries over as well into her painting Opening Day with its depiction of baseball being played with rabbits in hand rather than balls.

Nemi Frost's portrait paintings likewise offer a lighthearted glimpse of this social circle of artists that is both psychologically and mythically serious. Portrait of Robert Duncan doesnít hold back its punches, softly mauling as they may be. Duncan lies on a Freudian-style analysis couch with a look of inert melancholic whimsy as a lion mounts the couch at his feet. Whimsy is also the order of the day in The Mad Hatter's Tea-party, Starring Dora Dull and Tom Field where an extra-bulbous looking Field is slathered in a pink and black superhero-like look and Dull is graciously draped in oranges and browns with one breast exposed, holding a cup aloft resembling some Tarot insignia. While Frost's Aunt and Joss (Whippet) possesses a fascinating visual texture. The artist has pasted flowery wallpaper to canvas in order to form the dress of the "Aunt" figure in the painting while bold, solid colors of large fronds provide the background. Such strongly dark choices of color mark Frost's work out as explorations of fantastical mirror-realities of the everyday.

Works by Patricia Jordan and Lyn Brockway further round out the social milieu in which these artists intermingled. Brockway's Breakfast in a Paris Lodging being a still life from her trip abroad with fellow artist Jay De Feo as newly university graduated young artists in the early 50s. The gravelly partial-spiral turns of paint immediately enchant, offering what is a classic Parisian setting: a corner countertop with steel percolator atop a Bunsen burner and baguette propped up against white-gray wall. Alternately, Jordan's Stinson Beach photographs offer relaxed images of a bearded Jess and Duncan in shorts ready for an afternoon at the beach yet instead cozied up at home with his writing. While an intricate vertical scroll work by Jordan, Golden Damsels Descending from the Clouds contains several photos of Shirley Berman, wife of artist Wallace Berman (publisher of Semina, some of whose work is included here), looking the ever bohemian, ever chic Goddess of sorts she's remembered as, surrounded by "Byzantine religious icons, Pre-Raphaelite nudes, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Aztec Gods, and Hindu deities" while Jordan's handwritten text taken from Song of Solomon 7:1 runs round its borders.

Among the most startling works are sculptures by Miriam Hoffman. A piece such as Goddess from 1953 looks forward toward what's at the time yet to come from the California Assemblage works of George Herms (who also has work included here) and Bruce Conner. Apparently discarded materials used include: a short plank of wood; another shorter, smaller scrap of wood; and some bit of scratchy-looking metallic fabric, all of which Hoffman has arranged with a cross-legged ceramic female figurine in attentive prayer-position facing one midsized ceramic head placed before her on the plank and a smaller head atop the scrap of wood, which is raised up in the position of a leaning podium with one end of the wire wrapped around it and the other end attached to the fabric which clings to the side of sitting figure's head. Hoffman has an apparent fascination with totemic heads. In a fascinating act of doubling-up on implications and images, readily recognizable faces appear directly behind the front "face" of many of her works, as though emerging from out the work, perhaps offering possible alternate directions and intentions. Such duplicate faces, or indeed duplicate heads, appear embedded in the base of the spectacular, impressive in size Head, which unfortunately won't be appearing outside of Sacramento but is deservingly in the permanent collection at Crocker Museum.

There's just literally too much in this show to ever attempt to mention every artist, let alone every work. This is what makes the catalog so tremendously useful and necessary. Inside are images of nearly every piece, along with extensive commentaries and an endless supply of (until now) rarely seen photographs, all of which is reproduced in the best of quality. While the rich impasto technique brought about by the substantial gobs of paint plied on by Jess to Duncan's forehead curl of hair in The Enamored Mage or Ronald Bladen's swirling abstraction of interior image in Connie's Painting is impossible to bring off in a flat two-dimensional image, novelist Jack Kerouac's doodle of a skeletal figure is clearly visible in Tom Field's aptly titled Kerouac Painting. About the only things understandably left out of the catalog are some of the manuscripts and correspondence found in display cases. These are well worth attending to in person, to take note of comments such as Wallace Berman's quip to Duncan after a night stroll outside some strip clubs in Los Angeles: "This city is the lowest & I love it." There's also a substantial display of correspondence, cover art, and art work relating to the poets Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, and Charles Olson.

A large, generous amount of work by Jess himself amounts to nearly a quarter of the show. There are several meditations on love and sexuality. One of which is the 1954 gorgeous, tall, and narrow A Thin Veneer of Civility (Self-Portrait) where a nearly life-size Jess in the nude playfully dangles some yarn down to the outstretched paws of a cat turned over onto its back beneath him. The poet W.H. Auden hilariously misread this painting upon seeing it, asking Jess "Why is that man peeing on the cat?" It is a painting perfect for a bathroom interior, full of physical gregarious jovial animalism. A later painting Lovers III: Erotic Triptych from 1969 is a richly homoerotic paean to the abiding love found in his relationship with Duncan. These are among the most intimate of paintings by Jess and one of the largest gatherings of them yet held. Small nods to other artists abound, such as the appearance of a miniature-like version of Jay De Feo's The Rose in the form of a distant glimmering star over the shoulder of the figure in Moonset at Sunrise. There's enough work here to fill a medium-sized room of its own and the full range of his oeuvre is represented.

A number of Jess works commonly referred to as his "Paste-ups" often get short-changed in favor of larger, more easily viewable pieces. The Paste-ups tend to be smaller, often involving what -- especially when reproduced in catalogs -- appears to be at times near minuscule found text which he's cut up and then arranged in his own manner, successfully queering (both figuratively and oftentimes literally) the original meaning. There has never been a feasible way to reproduce many of them in a published collection without charging an exorbitant price. Jess: O! Tricky Cad and Other Jessoterica finally changes that state of affairs. The entire chronological range of Jess's practice within the medium is made available, no more peering into display cases in vain attempting to make out a tiny word or wishing without hope to turn a page over. This volume will never take the place of viewing the original works but it is without doubt an essential tool in future scholarly and leisurely engagement with his work. The intricacy of the Paste-ups world invites reverie. Even the realigned comic shenanigans of Tricky Cad and Nance where Jess takes his text-collaging practice into the comic strip worlds of Dick Tracy and the Texas Western, not so much transforming them as rather bringing to surface the strangeness lying beneath the casual veneer of the popular everyday mundane found within the world of the strips. Where there are the to-be-expected jokes, they're generally rather muted, avoiding the slapstick. The bits of bizarre dialogue, non sequitur, or unusual appearance of, say, a rather large fish in somebody's lap or hand, strikes the eye as a welcoming invitation to engage with the comic-book world from a newly enhanced perspective.

Among the many nice touches of Jessoterica is the fact that the cover-wrappers may be taken off, unfolded, and flipped over to reveal a large nineteen-by-twenty-five-inch poster of a Jess paste-up. Also Jess's 1960 paste-up chapbook O! is included as a separate booklet, a reprint of the original published by Hawk's Well Press in New York. The chapbook includes a preface written by Duncan in which he sardonically hazards the claim that O! is "a book that oughtn't have been done to Art." He continues, offering a fit description and commentary on the Paste-ups as a whole, noting how it is as if Jess offers viewers whatís impossibly seen:

...a serious alteration in the possibilities, as if one could supply a map given the borderlines of Ernst's Femme 100 Tetes and Baum's Land of Oz. But Baum was right, the American homeland of the imagination is surrounded by a Deadly Desert and cannot be seen by airplanes. Someplace unseen Jess has built up out of advertizements and old throwaway masterpieces a serial image multi-phasic crowd...

With these works Jess relocates common images and phrases from out the commercially marketed print media of the everyday world into a visual juxtaposition that mirrors back a skewed version of reality and is nonetheless all the more accurate. Immersion into these various scenes is an oddly familiar experience as if daydreaming away an afternoon flipping through glossy magazines and the daily papers. Jess structures his Paste-ups much as daydreams play off the stored images and information accumulated within the unconsciousness of the dozing individual. The images return the regular world to viewers. Only it is the world enlarged upon, deepened to such extent, and with surprisingly perverse magnification, that it astounds with delightful verisimilitude. As Duncan declares O! to be, every Paste-up image Jess builds upon the page is "an imaginary real thing for those who look" that endlessly rewards repeated gazing.

Unlike the relatively broader critical interest and somewhat positive reception Jess has received over the years, many of the artists represented in An Opening of the Field with whom he and Duncan mingled have received little or no critical attention. In a lengthy interview conducted by co-curator Christopher Wagstaff and published as a pamphlet (Rose Books 2010), painter Paul Alexander remarks on the vast discrepancy between concerns shared throughout this circle of artists with Jess and Duncan at its core, compared with wider trends occurring within the art world at large: 

...our work is thought to be either too romantic or too pretty or too beautiful in a time when there has been a rejection of all that in art. This trend began in the mid-sixties which coincided with the middle of my mature life, so everything I did and cared about was seen as out of date and uninteresting to the dealer and the magazine writer. I've almost gotten used to being considered behind the times, though it's been difficult to be told that right to my face by certain people. But I donít feel that it's true about my work at all, and I just want to go on doing it.

This relative lack of interest Alexander identifies has been directed on occasion toward Jess' work (e.g., "too romantic"), yet over time, general recognition of its value only continues to grow. A similar trend may or may not continue to develop in relation to the reception of Alexander's own work, as well as so much other work gathered here. In the meantime, this history will only make this show's presentation all the more a surprising revelation.

An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff
ISBN 978-0764965821
288 pages

Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica edited by Michael Duncan
ISBN: 978-1938221002
192 pages