'You don't have to be a poetry fan to enjoy this show," said Crocker curator William Breazeale in describing "An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan and Their Circle." But if you are, you will love this show that focuses on a fascinating 20th century artistic couple.
Artist Jess Collins, simply known as Jess, and poet Robert Duncan met in 1950 at a time of great cultural ferment in San Francisco. The San Francisco Renaissance, in which poets and artists came together at small galleries, is best known for Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, and Beat artists like Bruce Conner.
Jess and Duncan, who had a romantic as well as an artistic partnership, were right in the middle of things, at the center of a circle of more than 30 poets and artists who frequented their households in the Mission District and at Stinson Beach. The show, which opens at the Crocker Art Museum on June 9, includes approximately 160 works, from large paintings and small sculptures to illustrated poems, letters, and posters done for Pauline Kael's Cinema Guild movie showings in Berkeley.
Jess, who had served in the army and subsequently worked as a scientist on the Manhattan Project, suffered a crisis of conscience that led him to change his goals. In 1948, he moved to San Francisco and enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts where he studied with Clifford Still, Hassel Smith, Edward Corbett and other members of the legendary faculty assembled by Douglas McAgy.
Duncan, who was the child of theosophists from Bakersfield, was already a well-known poet when they met. A voracious reader of everything from the Zohar to the Oz books (which Jess also loved), he was well-versed in mythology from a variety of cultures and mystical traditions. An admirer of the poets H.D., William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, he is known as one of the most erudite poets of his time, embracing an "open field" poetics derived from the projective verse of Charles Olson, who hired him to teach at the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Also knowledgeable about art history, having sought out museums wherever he traveled, he brought a wide knowledge of art, from surrealism and dadaism to the innovations of the art scene of the 1930s and '40s, as well as the writings of Freud to the relationship, which Jess described in a letter as "a crash course in every aspect of Western art."
Like Duncan, Jess reveled in myth and literature, bringing a multilayered language to his collages, which he called "paste-ups." In them, Egyptian gods like the bird-headed Horus mingled with up-to-date car advertisements. In "Paste-Ups by Jess," the bird-headed figures dance under a ram's head while bulls from a Goya print fight near a brain with eyes and ears. On the right, a huge woman's arm offers a glass of beer over the head of a man with a nail-paring moon.
It's a labyrinthine image brilliantly explicated by Breazeale in the exhibition's finely illustrated and informative catalog, which also includes essays by guest curators Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff, as well as an essay by James Maynard on poets such as Michael McClure, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley, who were associates of Duncan.
There are also bios of artists in the Jess-Duncan circle, among them Corbett, George Herms, Wallace Berman and the actor-artist Dean Stockwell. Many of their names are unfamiliar to me, but I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Lynn Brockway, Ronald Bladen, Nemi Frost and Harry Jacobus, with whom Jess and Duncan started the legendary avant-garde gallery King Ubu.
In addition to the collages, the show includes a number of paintings that Jess called "Translations," in which he painted over found imagery or photographs with thick paint applied in a paint-by-number style. Among these are a scene of a soccer game that references the Mayan ball game and "The Enamord Mage," an intimate portrait of Duncan in his study with books that gave him inspiration for his poems.
Many of Jess' illustrations for books and poems of Duncan and others are included, as well as some surprisingly good wax crayon drawings by Duncan. A number of the works in the exhibition are seen for the first time since their creation.
A sense of humor and visual and verbal puns runs through the show, including the Crocker's own painting, "Feignting Spell," which includes images of Jess, Duncan and their friend Norris Embry. It's a romantic piece in which the figures move in and out of focus in a landscape of drips and swaths of pigment.
The show coincides with several Pride Month programs at the museum that celebrate gay, lesbian and transgender culture, artists and organizations. There are some exhibition-related programs planned, including a concert for violin and piano featuring a postmodernist piece by William Balcolm, inspired by "An Opening of the Field"; a panel discussion with guest curators Duncan and Wagstaff moderated by Breazeale; and "Love on the Big Screen," a courtyard presentation of classic movies with love stories in celebration of the love between Jess and Robert Duncan.
AN OPENING OF THE FIELD
What: Paintings, sculptures, illustrated poems and more
When: June 9-Sept. 1; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Cost: $10 adults; $8 seniors, military and college students; $5 youths 7-17; free for children 6 and under and members. Every third Sunday of the month is "Pay What You Wish Sunday."
Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org