Jess: West Coast Scene Painting

“When something makes the scene too fast it’s gotta be minor.”

                                    Clement Greenberg, Painters Painting

  Jess Collins (known simply as Jess) was a multi-media artist with a penchant for the personal. His work is deeply hermetic, addressed to an audience of intimates, and seemingly untroubled by its wider role in the history of art. A suspicion of publicity is typical of the scene with which Jess was associated: the so-called “San Francisco Renaissance,” a largely literary movement identified with poets such as a Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Kenneth Rexroth. At the center of this scene stood Jess and Duncan, his husband, who pulled a large and interdisciplinary group of artists into their orbit. Jess’s diverse body of work—which includes expressionist paintings, illustrated books of poetry and children’s stories done in collaboration with friends, “paste-ups” (montages that take a cue from Max Ernst) and his well-known “Tricky Cad” series (an absurdist, cut-and-paste intervention into the Dick Tracy comic strip)—is filled with a personal iconography that often extends no further than the scene in which he lived and the man with whom he shared his life.

In its cultivated intimacy and conspicuous regionalism, which manifest as a disinterest in larger historical and aesthetic concerns, Jess’s work raises an important question about modernism at mid-century and its seeming inability to account for regionalist projects. Clement Greenberg most likely would have characterized Jess’s work as “novelty” or “scene” art—art made for immediate consumption, the value of which, according to Greenberg, inevitably fades along with the scene to which it speaks.[1] In its local orientation, scene art appears to disregard Greenberg’s charge that the task of all modern art is to pursue the project of “self-criticism in the arts,” a project that is fundamentally concerned with testing and demonstrating art’s value in general.[2] The question Jess raises for me (and it’s a question that a lot of postwar West Coast art raises for me) is whether his works might be seen as participants in mid-century modernism nonetheless. Is this merely “outsider” art—a term often used to describe Jess’s work, which renders modernist concerns moot—or can it be said to be in communication with historical and aesthetic concerns that exceed the immediacy of the domestic scene in which and for which it was created? If the answer is the latter—as I feel it is—its more worldly orientation is to be located in the manner in which it engages the intimacy of that scene itself and the politics it inevitably attracted.

The Enamord Mage: Translation #6 is exemplary of the intimacy threaded through Jess’s work—an intimacy that willfully indexes its significance to the domestic scene from which it emerged, as opposed to modernism’s generalizations. The painting reproduces a 1958 photograph of Duncan taken by Jess. As with the other works in the “Translations” series—a series which comprises heavily impastoed paintings that “translate” black-and-white photographs into lyrical pictorial objects—this one is an obsessively faithful reproduction of the original image. The photograph, which shows Duncan surrounded by the decorative and mythical/mystical objects that crowded his and Jess’s rambling Mission Hill house, was likely taken in the “French room,” a back room on the third floor that housed Duncan’s collection of foreign-language texts.[3] Several of these texts, which we know to have been important to Duncan’s poetry, occupy the foreground of Jess’s painting: the fourth-century Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia, which documents Gnostic cosmology, the Kabbalistic Zohar texts, which track the mystical contents of the Torah, and two volumes of G.R.S. Meade’s Thrice Greatest Hermes, a study of the esoteric tradition identified with Hermeticism. This is what I mean by Jess’s personal iconography. While it is obvious that Jess has painted an interior space, the significance of that space and its objects, the identity of the man, the man’s relation to the painter—the legibility of all of these details not only relies heavily on the kind of biographical knowledge that can be obtained only in studying Jess’s domestic life and the work of his lover (whose idiosyncratic spelling is present in Jess’s title). The painting also explicitly addresses the private and esoteric nature of its subject by referencing Gnostic and Hermetic traditions. It is the self-consciously material translation of this representational content, however, that makes of this domesticity something both more sharable and more modern.

The painting’s surface is an accrual of several layers of oil paint; a palette of umbers, neutrals and pastels supplants the black-and-white of the original photograph. Every inch of the crowded canvas is submitted to the same treatment, each item made equal through the thickly applied paint: Duncan’s patterned face, a heavily ornamented pot of feathers, pressed flower, living plant, Tiffany lamp, candle stick, flame, wall-hung pictures, window, all translated into the same carefully sculpted, decorative surface. We might look for the first clue to something like a modernist claim here, in the reduction of all objects to the materiality of the medium. This isn’t Greenberg’s materialist imperative, however. Whereas the emphasis on a medium’s materiality, as theorized by Greenberg in essays like “Modernist Painting” (1960), aimed at distinction through specificity (painting’s flatness, for example, as opposed to sculpture’s three-dimensionality), Jess’s materialism seems designed to eliminate distinction. The uniformity of the surface of the Translation paintings, as well as the manner in which Jess moved between mass images and intimate content (in the paste-ups and Tricky Cad work), signal a desire on Jess’s part to emphasize similarity while undermining difference. This is an emphasis on the similar that is carried over as well in the fluidity by which Jess moves across kinds of cultural production—from modernist painting to neo-dada collages and accumulations. To propose such uniformity suggests that the serious in art—viz. the modern—can emerge from any and all sectors of cultural production and even within the most intimate of scenes. The challenge such a claim poses to modernism in general mirrors the modernist project that was being simultaneously pursued by Duncan and his cohort of poets at the center of the San Francisco Renaissance. It is from within this particular locale, at once geographical and biographical, that Jess’s intimate modernism is most clearly discerned.

Jess first encountered Duncan in 1949 at a Berkeley poetry reading, which included Spicer and Robin Blaser, who at the time comprised what Spicer called a “secret boy’s club.”[4] It was from within this homosocial fraternity that Duncan, Spicer and Blaser began to construct a “public” voice capable of reaching beyond its self-inscribed borders toward a more sharable figuration of modernism. The troubled relationship between a necessarily self-protecting and inward-looking homogeneous community and the public dimensions of poetry posed a crucial aesthetic question for Duncan, as he made clear in his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society.” After first admonishing the straight community for its violent rejection of homosexuals, Duncan spends the remainder of the essay cautioning the gay community against a too-thorough retreat into a “secret language,” a “camp” that defines itself against the hetero-majority. Such an opposition, while necessary to the basic survival of the gay subject, can for the gay artist result in a rejection of “the universal,” “the human,” to which all art, according to Duncan, must speak. Duncan argued, however, that it was within the very community that provided gay subjects protection from the rabid and institutionalized homophobia of postwar America that a link to the wider public could be found. He discovered a successful (though tragic) example in Hart Crane, whose “suffering,” “rebellion,” and “love,” were “sources of poetry for him not because they are what make him different from, and superior to mankind, but because he saw in them his link with mankind; he saw in them his sharing in universal human experience.” [5] To understand the extent of that achievement, Duncan contends, one can neither make of Crane’s work a cult object, discernable only to members of the “private” community from which he hailed; nor can his “body” be dressed up “in the window display of modernist poetry.” The achievement of Crane, according to Duncan, is to be located in the continuity he achieved between his “homosexual imagery” and the intimate “sensibility that colors so much of modern writing.”

In his best works Jess strove for something similar as he moved from an intimate to a communal statement by emphasizing not difference—the kind of difference that modernists continue to assert all art must manifest—but the similar, the familiar. If Jess’s private pictures can be said to reach beyond the protective borders of his “immediate scene,” as Duncan termed it, to touch “the human,” it is here. Not, as Duncan says of Crane, in speaking to the manner in which we all love, suffer, rebel, but in the manner in which Jess’s leveling treatment of a diverse iconography trace, to borrow the language of Leo Bersani, “designs of sameness in our relations with the universe”[6]—an emphasis on sameness, I would argue, that the North Beach community taught him to embrace. As such, Jess can be said to create a sharable experience out of the lack of distinction his works obtain, a lack of distinction that challenges the very grounds upon which scholars continue to claim that mid-century modernism is staked.[7]

[1] Greenberg used the term “Novelty art” to refer to a number of contemporary practices, such as Op, Pop and Minimalism. If West Coast art even registered for Greenberg, he most certainly would have grouped it under this category.

[2] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism; Vol 4 Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969. John O’Brien, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 85-93. For a longer rumination and more thorough demonstration of how “self-criticism” and “self-definition” amount to making a claim for value in art in general see Steven Melville Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

[3] Lisa Jarnot offers a tour through the Duncan and Jess household describing a room “at the very back of the third floor…in which Duncan kept his foreign-language books and his multivolume edition of the Zohar” (Jarnot, Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 264).

[4] Jarnot, 102.

[5] Robert Duncan, “The Homosexual in Society,” Politics (August 1944), 209-211.

[6] Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 120.

[7] See, for example, Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2004).