San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/iCI
The invention of collage as a medium of fine art early in the last century has been described as a “pasted-paper revolution,” an unprecedented way for artists to square the representational fictions of depiction with a newly emphatic sense of the literal presence of the picture surface (later to be known as “the materiality of the signifier”). When the California artist Jess (born Burgess Collins in 1923) made the first of what he called his “Paste-Ups” in 1951, however, it seems as though he was less inspired by his artistic forebears in Cubism and Dada than by the humble, unassuming crafts associated with making scrapbooks and other such memorabilia, twee pastimes cultivated by ladies whose sensibilities were formed during long Victorian afternoons: “I used to paste things up with my aunt,” the artist would later recall, “and that experience is probably more central to my love of this kind of art than the modern development of collage.” But he soon enough immersed himself in the latter. The following year his life partner, the poet Robert Duncan, bought him a copy of Max Ernst’s legendary Surrealist collage-novel Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), and he devoted himself to “absorbing” it.
Part of what Jess had to absorb from Ernst, probably, was the fact that something akin to his disregard for the distinction between the innovative strategies of the Modernist avant-gardes and the cozy diversions of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie was something the Modernists were already secretly onto; after all, if Ernst was able to make his collages from the engravings illustrating forgotten Victorian novels, this was in good part because the melodrama so characteristic of them was already imbued with the “omnipotence of dream” that the Surrealists and Dadas saw as potentially subversive of bourgeois reason. So when Jess defiantly referred to himself as “insistently a Romantic artist,” he was far from rejecting the art movements of his own century; he was articulating his understanding of their significance.
That an artistic vocation was synonymous with a choice to opt out of a dominant sense of reason was an idea even more vivid in Jess’s mind than in that of most other artists because, unlike them, he knew from the inside what Eisenhower would soon call the military-industrial complex and Allen Ginsberg simply referred to as Moloch. Having trained as a chemist, he’d gone to work first for the Manhattan Project and then the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington, on the production of plutonium. After experiencing a terrifying dream of the world’s destruction, he abandoned his scientific career in 1949 and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts–now the San Francisco Art Institute–where he studied with such Abstract Expressionist painters as Clyfford Still and Edward Corbett. The sense of nuclear threat would be recurrent in his art, above all in the ’50s. The year 1949 was also when Jess first encountered Duncan–already notorious for his outspoken 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society”–and on New Year’s Day, 1951, they exchanged the vows that would unite them until the poet’s death in 1988.