An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, Grey Art Gallery, New York – review

The love affair between the poet Robert Duncan and the artist known as Jess spanned almost four decades, attracted a retinue of like-minded creative types and fostered enough good work to fill a delightfully weird show at the Grey Art Gallery, “An Opening of the Field”. Duncan was the gay culture’s avant-garde bard, a poet who beat the Beats to San Francisco. Jess was a visionary in various media. The two men met in 1950 and set up a household that quickly became the focal point of a freewheeling Bay Area art scene. Misfits, dreamers, Quixotes and Kabalists filed through their kitchen, finding strength in each other’s creativity. (Duncan died in 1988, Jess in 2004.)

Jess’s work hums at the heart of the show, though during his lifetime it always hovered at the edges. He honed a radical aesthetic that reached deep into history and heralded postmodernism. In his paintings, allegorical symbols float in misty splashes of luscious colour. His collages fuse the preoccupations of Victorian ladies with Dada-esque flourishes and bold homoeroticism. His sculptures – he called them “assemblies” – redeem refuse with morbid elegance.

Born Burgess Collins in Long Beach, California, he trained as a chemist and worked on the Manhattan Project during the second world war. But his atomic-energy labours haunted him. One night in 1948 he dreamt the precise date of the world’s inevitable destruction. The nightmare drove him out of science and into the frontiers of myth. Within weeks, he had truncated his name and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where he studied with Clyfford Still. But he never succumbed to the Abstract Expressionists’ influence. Instead, he met Duncan, who came from a family of theosophists and was raised to believe that in a past life he had been a citizen of Atlantis.

The two men bonded over James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Their Victorian home in San Francisco was a labyrinth, every corner and cubby brimming with books, curiosities and the creative outpourings of their many friends. Jess’s powerful encounter with spiritual arcana confirmed him in the course he would pursue for the rest of his life.

He is best known for obsessional collages that, in their horror vacui and surreal juxtapositions, recall the canvases of Bosch. “The Chariot” (1962) sets the faces of Jesus and Garbo side by side, surrounding them with spoons, jugs, dogs, dead deer, lobsters, roses, doves, foxes, human eyes and countless other ingredients that proliferate over the entire surface. A profusion of eggs – some whole, others cracked, one hatching an infant – gives a trippy nod to the “Garden of Earthly Delights”.

Jess saw his first collage at a friend’s mother’s house – she had glued flowers from magazines into lacy compositions. Later, Duncan bought him Max Ernst’s 1934 volume of repurposed Victoriana, Une semaine de bonté, but by then Jess had intuitively understood how to expose the poetry hidden beneath the contemporary gloss of Life, Newsweek and Time magazines. “What if we could find the dreams within the photographic images we are bombarded with each day, wouldn’t that be something,” he marvelled to Christopher Wagstaff, who, with Michael Duncan (no relation to Robert), curated the current show.

Jess extended the principle to the incredible series of paintings called “Translations”, redoing images from old books, postcards or magazines in oil paint applied as thickly as tinted mud. He wanted to elevate scraps found in used bookstores and jumble sales to a higher spiritual plane, to reach for “the empyrean [and] into heaven”. “Montana Xibalba: Translation #2” (1963) is based on a photo from a 1944 University of Montana Yearbook. In Jess’s sublime cosmology, the young soccer players illustrate a Mayan creation myth of the gods playing a ball game to determine the fate of the universe.

Back on the East Coast, the high priest of Abstract Expressionism Clement Greenberg railed at “literary” painting as the weak gruel of timid souls. Poetry and painting, he insisted, belonged in distinct and non-overlapping spheres. No ideology of modernism could have rung more false in the Duncan-Jess household. Duncan dabbled in visual art, making crayon drawings and illustrations that borrowed freely from Picasso and the surrealists. Jess invoked the Duncan-like figure of William Blake, along with Odilon Redon, Albert Pinkham Ryder and the Pre-Raphaelites – all painters profoundly engaged with poetry. But if Jess, Duncan and their friends were promiscuous with words, they were chaste with money: while the Ab Ex stars cultivated patrons and collectors, the California crew insisted on the purity of their spiritual quest.

The artists who gravitated into their charmed orbit were united less by style than by an aura of picturesque mysticism. They bypassed New York’s austere modernist orthodoxies and reached across the Atlantic for their repertoire of references. Helen Adam, a Scottish poet who recited her morbid ballads at group events, produced equally creepy collages: a society lady dressed in a gown made of bats, a headless hero in kilted regalia levitating in front of a mushroom cloud. Eloise Mixon cut up old illustrated fairy tale books and reassembled them into a deceptively cheery tableau of characters about to be boiled alive, dismembered by beasts and tossed from high walls. This hallucinatory mixture of 20th-century angst and Edwardian decadence prepared the way for a new California genre: the psychedelic rock poster of the 1960s. One generation of oddball bohemians begat the next, even if the soundtrack changed.

Until March 29,

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