While some artists realize their internal visions out of whole cloth, others are like magpies, collecting visual fragments and putting them together in unpredictable ways. A brilliant example of the latter kind of artist is Jess (born Burgess Collins), who died in 2004 at 80. A San Francisco artist who was intimately connected to that city's visual-art and literary scenes, Jess created what his longtime partner, the poet Robert Duncan, evocatively called "visible poems" or "a night language."
Viewers can immerse themselves in Jess' world in "Jess: To and From the Printed Page," on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The show is a traveling exhibition organized by New York-based Independent Curators International. MMoCA has wisely supplemented it with "California Context," works from the museum's own permanent collection that shed light on other kinds of art-making in Jess' time and place.
Jess might be dubbed a proto-postmodernist, cleverly remixing bits and pieces of visual culture both high and low before postmodernism as such really existed. The 1950s, in which Jess' artistic production really took off, were the years in which Abstract Expressionism was at its fashionable zenith. Jess, on the other hand, drew heavily from earlier precedents like the symbolist painter Odilon Redon and surrealist collagists like Max Ernst - to name just a few of the dozens of influences called to mind by Jess' work.
When one draws from predecessors, the danger is that the resulting work might appear derivative, but such is not the case here. Jess' fascinatingly complex collages, many of which were designed to serve as exhibition posters, book covers and the like, hold the viewer's attention and have more to offer the more you have time to look. Jess' vision is by turns funny, melancholy, erotic and mysterious.
The show doesn't focus strictly on collage, however; a number of Jess' paintings and some drawings are also on view. Among the paintings, "The Adams Family in Nesbittland" (a reference to children's author Elizabeth Nesbitt) is especially fascinating, framed by a strip of velvet, a thick rope and an old wooden door. The style of the fantastical painting itself is almost a blend of folk art and the deadpan surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico.
Jess' biography is nearly as interesting as his art. He was drafted into the military in 1943 and played a small role in the Manhattan Project as a chemist. A few years after the war, he renounced science in favor of art. He also dropped his surname after a falling out with his family. In 1951 he exchanged vows with Robert Duncan, and the pair remained together until Duncan's death in 1988. Together, the two led a rich artistic life.
"To and From the Printed Page" proves Jess to be a prodigiously inventive and versatile artist capable of working in several modes simultaneously. Interested in everything from children's literature to romanticism, Jess was both conduit and creator.