Jess (1923–2004) was an influential artist who emerged in
the 1950s from within the literary context of Beat culture in San
Francisco. Focusing on his intimate ties to poetry, books, and printed
matter, Jess: To and From the Printed Page features examples
of the celebrated impastos from his "Translation" series
together with many of his collages and designs, as well as the books
and magazines in which they were reproduced.
In concentrating on art created especially for publication and
reproduction, this exhibition will show Jess’s imagery to
be a form of dialogue with the written word. Jess collaborated extensively
with poets and other writers, and worked with small presses and
limited-edition publications throughout his life. During the early
1950s, he and his life partner, poet Robert Duncan, ran the Ubu
Gallery, named after the anti-hero created by French avant-garde
writer Alfred Jarry more than a century ago. Jess’s own hero
was Max Ernst, the Dada/Surrealist who made entire books of collage
narratives. Among Jess’s first collages, which he called “paste-ups,”
are the Tricky Cad Case books of Dick Tracy cartoons, cut
up and scrambled on page after page of deliberately disordered sequences.
These are among the works that led Jess to be considered a progenitor
of Pop art and an early exponent of appropriation art.
He ultimately stands apart from any contemporary art movements,
though, and is perhaps best seen as a late practitioner of Surrealism,
a radical movement championed by poets and artists in 1920s Paris
that was literary in origin. Besides Ernst, two other key references
for Jess are writers Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, whose use of
words as found objects, broken rules of syntax, and penchant for
puns are all translated by Jess into his collage constructions.
Something of a cult artist, Jess may not be widely known, but his
art is deeply revered. The diverse, intricate work presented in
this exhibition rewards close and sustained viewing, and provides
a sense of the intensely fertile literary and art-world environment
in which he thrived.
The exhibition, curated by Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at
the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, is accompanied
by an illustrated catalogue.
San Jose Museum of Art
San Jose, California
March 18 – June 10, 2007
Pasadena Museum of California Art
October 14, 2007 – January 6, 2008
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
The University of Texas at Austin
February 12 – April 8, 2008
The University of Iowa Museum of Art
Iowa City, Iowa
September 12 – November 9, 2008
Additional venues to be confirmed