The Revolutionary Spirit of the Bay Area at the Birth of Postmodernism
Poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988) and artist Jess Collins, simply known today as Jess (1923-2004) number among the most fascinating artistic couples of the twentieth century. After meeting in San Francisco in 1950, they created a domestic life together based on mutual intellectual and aesthetic interests that resulted in an array of fascinating artworks and writings.
Recently, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery presents the first overview to showcase their rich artistic production alongside works by their remarkable circle of friends. “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” derives its title from one of Duncan’s key books and features approximately 130 artworks - many of which have never before been shown in public - as well as numerous documents, books, and intimate ephemera.
Figuring prominently are a rich cross-section of Jess’s paintings and collages, Duncan’s colorful abstract drawings, and approximately eighty-five works by members of their coterie. Organized by independent curators Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff for Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, “An Opening of the Field” reveals the complex interplay between poetry and art in the mid-century Bay Area cultural scene.
The Homosexual in Society
Robert Duncan was born in Oakland, California. Shortly before the Second World War he spent two years in Philadelphia. While living here, he had his first recorded homosexual relationship with an instructor he had first met in Berkeley, Ned Fahs. In 1941 he was drafted and declared his homosexuality to get discharged. Long before it was safe to do so, Duncan “came out” in both his personal and public lives. He was not only a poet, but also a public intellectual and in 1944 he wrote the landmark essay “The Homosexual in Society,” which was published in the journal “Politics.” In this essay he compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews. This essay is considered a pioneering treatise on the experience of homosexuals in American society given its appearance a full decade before any organized gay rights movement in the United States.
Once he discovered himself to be a homosexual, Duncan’s cause as a writer was to denounce “dead Christianity,” white-collar conformity, racism, sexual repression, and the exploitation of the working classes. “By the mid-1940s,” wrote the critic Tom Christensen, “he had consolidated in himself the lore and experience of the social outsider. But rather than style himself an antihero or a social rebel, he sought to reach the general reader, whom he wished to serve as intermediary of larger but forbidden worlds. Duncan rejected the notion of a small, elite audience of initiates for poetry; the goals of art were to raise awareness and compassion in the mainstream audience.”
Known as one of the most erudite poets of his time and fascinated with myths, Robert Duncan appreciated all forms of poetic imagination. He was a voracious reader of everything from Paracelsus to L. Frank Baum, and published over forty volumes. His method, inspired by Ezra Pound, combines motifs and themes from diverse sources. For his biographer Ekbert Faas, Robert Duncan was a harbinger of the coming cultural revolution, the iconic “guru” figure who, in the late 1940s, pried opened the door to the late 1960s. Although not widely known, Duncan’s crayon drawings and set designs provide a fascinating backdrop to his writing. Recalling works by Picasso, Matisse, and Cocteau, Duncan’s colorful abstract compositions confirm his belief in the protean nature of form. Duncan, like Jess, believed in metamorphosis as a guiding beacon.
In his art, Jess, a progenitor of postmodernism, retrieved images from a culture overflowing with them. Trained at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), he quickly shifted from abstraction into a unique style of painting that reflected his interests in literature and mythology. In his collages - or, as he called them, “paste-ups” - he created mind-bending and fantastic juxtapositions, employing images lifted from sources ranging from Dick Tracy to Albrecht Dürer. Jess filtered these far-flung references through a self-described Romantic sensibility, one that valued the transformative power of the imagination above all else. The exhibition also includes a group of posters Jess made in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Berkeley’s Cinema Guild and Studio, which was run by the young Pauline Kael.
At their Victorian house in the Mission District in San Francisco and their cottage at nearby Stinson Beach, Jess and Duncan established domestic spaces that fostered creativity and inspired a generation of Bay Area artists and poets. The couple filled all four floors of their rambling San Francisco abode with libraries - Oz books and fairy-tale editions in the bedroom, French literature and an exhaustive modernist collection upstairs. All remaining walls were covered with visionary art by friends such as Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Edward Corbett, Norris Embry, George Herms, and R.B. Kitaj. Many works in the current show were once in the couple’s personal collection.
“Their Victorian home,” notes the show’s co-curator, critic Michael Duncan, “embodied an artistic philosophy shaped by two complementary sensibilities bent on revitalizing and re-inhabiting culture at large. The alternative aesthetic that Duncan and Jess espoused, and their symbiotic relationship and the cultural view it generated, are evidenced through their work and that of their immediate friends and colleagues.” Co-curator Christopher Wagstaff, an editor, writer, and friend of the couple, observes: “Jess’s collages and drawings were often published to accompany Duncan’s writing, acting as springboards or counterpoints for specific poems and essays. Duncan’s poems and ideas in turn permeated the complex imagery of Jess’s sensitive works.”
In his collage “On the VIIth Wave” (1979), Jess draws from arcane Celtic mythology and contemporary culture to produce a crest of sensual images that reference science and folklore. In “The Enamord Mage: Translation #6" (1965), he alludes to Duncan’s interest in hermetic and mystical thought, collaging Duncan’s portrait in the company of his esoterica. An untitled crayon drawing of 1947 by Duncan radiates with color and energy, in bright hues that spiral, coil, and intrigue.
In assemblages of found objects and richly weathered discards, the visionary George Herms sought to reinterpret and reinvigorate the past, accruing new connotations for detritus, as exemplified in the tongue-in-cheek “Donuts for Duncan” (1989). Norris Embry’s “Untitled (Woman sitting at a table)” (1951), reveals his passion for oil crayons, which he shared with Robert Duncan. This medium traditionally used by children granted freedom from the confines of “sophisticated art.” The associations Duncan and Jess built over time often resulted in notable collaborations; long-time friend R.B. Kitaj drew pictures of Duncan the sage, reading and writing, for the latter’s limited edition poetry collection, “A Paris Visit” (New York: Grenfell Press, 1985).
Also featured in the New York exhibition are vanguard films by James Broughton and Lawrence Jordan. Other works demonstrate the circle’s broader reaches, including collages and drawings by the poets Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer. Spicer forged a new kind of poetry through his alliance with Duncan and Blaser. These three, who were all gay, also educated younger poets in their circle about their “queer genealogy,” Rimbaud, Lorca, and other gay writers. Spicer’s poetry of this period is collected in “One Night Stand and Other Poems” (1980).
“As a university museum, we are always eager to showcase innovative exhibition strategies. By concentrating on the work and influence of one couple and the amazing artistic domestic environments they created, this show offers a fresh way to understand artworks in context,” notes Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery. “Likewise, with their wide array of friends and associates - including artists, poets, writers, filmmakers - Jess and Duncan’s relationship also opens up an alternative vantage point from which to appreciate the dynamism of the mid-century San Francisco cultural scene.”
Indeed, by focusing on the artistic production and relationship between the artist Jess, his partner poet Robert Duncan, and their remarkable circle of friends, this exhibition presents imaginative works that catalyzed an entire generation of poets and artists. For the most part, these figures operated outside the marketplace, making lyrical, intimate, and humorous works for their own edification and enjoyment. Their works in this exhibition collectively demonstrate both the heritage and the legacy of Jess and Duncan’s radical experimentation. Focusing on the rich intellectual and mythopoetic worlds spun by Jess and Duncan, “An Opening of the Field” features art with a refreshingly different set of values from mainstream art fare and spotlights a key moment in the birth of postmodernism.
“An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with over 260 illustrations, and essays exploring the life and work of Robert Duncan and Jess, and the artistic milieu they fostered. Michael Duncan’s introductory essay “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” peers into the world of myth and art they created. In “‘This Here Other World’: The Art of Robert Duncan and Jess,” Christopher Wagstaff explores the relationship between the sacred and the everyday in their work. William Breazeale”s “Paste-ups by Jess: A Reading in the Labyrinth” is a close reading of the forms and meanings in one of Jess’s complex layered works, and “Poetry as Primary Community: Duncan, Spicer, Blaser, McClure, Olson, Levertov, and Creeley,” by James Maynard, examines the network of overlapping communities that formed around Duncan and Jess, in which some of the most important poetry of the second half of the twentieth century took shape. Published by Pomegranate, the catalogue also includes selections from interviews with Jess, a photo album of some of the artists’ lives, and an exhibition checklist.
Grey Art Gallery, New York University,
100 Washington Square East,
New York, NY 10003 www.nyu.edu/greyart/