Surrealists, but especially Jess

On Thursday, back to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford for the successor to the “California: The Art of Water” exhibition (posted on here): “The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism” (12/21/16 – 4/3/17). A lot of wonderful stuff, covering a wide range of material (artworks in several media, manifestos, poetry, and more) over a long time span, and a nice size (comprehensive but not at all overwhelming). And including one artist I had been dimly aware of but should have investigated more thoroughly long ago, the San Francisco collagist, painter, and comic-book parodist (also gay activist) Jess (Collins) — “the essential San Francisco artist” (according to Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).

The museum’s announcement:

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is pleased to open The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism, an extraordinary exhibition set to chronicle the mesmerizing and unsettling nature of the Surrealist movement from historic master artists like René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp [and Max Ernst] to today’s artistic superstars, including Cindy Sherman, Jimmie Durham, and David Lynch [and Joseph Cornell and Ed Ruscha and …]. Having originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the show’s cross-historical approach, for which the Cantor is renowned, enables viewers to witness Surrealism’s lasting impact on contemporary artistic practices.

The gallery space is arranged so that when you enter it you’re immediately faced with a large wall, on which is displayed some large work of art setting the tone for the whole show. For the Califrnia Water show, this was a (typically) gigantic Albert Bierstadt painting, with heavy impasto and magical lighting effects. For the Surrealism show it’s a big goofy Magritte, one that I haven’t already posted about on this blog:


Magritte, Les Merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953

The Bierstadt was supposed to make you gasp, the Magritte is supposed to make you laugh — especially when you realize that the figures are a mermaid and merman in reverse, human from the waist down, fish from the waist up (a maidmer and manmer?). The composition is dreamlike and fantastical, and also playful.

The Chicago MCA has files that give all the commentary texts for the sections of the show and also the labels for every single item in the show — a great indulgence that’s been almost disastrous for me in writing this posting, since it makes me want to talk about everything. But I’ll pick a few items for brief comment and then focus on Jess, who’s represented in the show by a single (incredibly complex, meticulously composed, and delightfully playful) collage.

All is not painting, drawing, and photography. Also: assemblages of found objects and images, one more or less traditional piece of sculpture (a Calder mobile, here because its effect depends crucially on the chance movements of its parts), published manifestos, books of poetry, often with illustrations to match the surrealist poems, two films (see below), and a number of mixed-media constructions that lie somewhere in the borderland between sculpture and conceptual art (in particular, two Willie Coles and two Nick Caves, see below).

Note: If you’re someone who persistently and truculently asks “But is it Art?”, this show is probably not for you.

The films, one long and one short, both unnerving, both old acquaintances of mine. Eraserhead and Un Chien Andalou.

Eraserhead is a 1977 American surrealist body horror film written, produced and directed by filmmaker David Lynch. Shot in black-and-white, Eraserhead is Lynch’s first feature-length film [88 minutes], coming after several short works. The film was produced with the assistance of the American Film Institute (AFI) during the director’s time studying there. Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Jeanne Bates, Judith Anna Roberts, Laurel Near, and Jack Fisk, it tells the story of Henry Spencer (Nance), who is left to care for his grossly deformed child in a desolate industrial landscape. Throughout the film, Spencer experiences dreams or hallucinations, featuring his child and the Lady in the Radiator (Near). (Wikipedia link)

The film quickly achieved cult status. Many people — I am one — find its 88 minutes way too long to sustain reactions of surprise, alarm, amazement, bewilderment, and distress. Fortunately, the Surrrealism show allows you to sample bits of it, so that you can appreciate the surrealism without falling into Warholian ennui.

Un Chien Andalou (… An Andalusian Dog) is a 1929 silent surrealist short film [21 minutes] by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. It was Buñuel’s first film and was initially released in 1929 with a limited showing at Studio des Ursulines in Paris, but became popular and ran for eight months.

Un Chien Andalou has no plot in the conventional sense of the word. The chronology of the film is disjointed, jumping from the initial “once upon a time” to “eight years later” without the events or characters changing very much. It uses dream logic in narrative flow that can be described in terms of then-popular Freudian free association, presenting a series of tenuously related scenes. (Wikipedia link)

I think I was in my teens when I first saw this film, and I’ve seen it a number of times since then. Nevertheless, even though I know it’s coming (and now you are about to as well), the razor to the eyeball is physically shocking every time. But 21 minutes is a pretty good length for dream logic.

Cave and Cole. Both artists have had their own shows at the Cantor. Nick Cave I’ve written about on this blog (here and here); in the Surrealism show he’s represented by two constructions, both labeled “Hairbrush”, both looking like the broad brushes housepainters use for their work, so not looking like hairbrushes at all. My companion didn’t get it for a few seconds, then realized with a laugh that the hairbrushes were brushes of (human) hair (while the conventionalized N + N compound hairbrush refers to a brush for hair). As I often note here, compounds are potentially many-ways ambiguous; ambiguity is the price you pay for brevity. (These ambiguities are then played on in jokes and cartoons.)

Cole was the subject of the Stanford exhibition “Anxious Objects: Willie Cole’s Favorite Brands” (October 2007 – January 2008), which I seem not to have posted about here. One item of appliance art from that show:


Wind Mask East, 1990, consists of blow dryers attached by artist Willie Cole, whose works explore identity, race, consumerism, the environment and other contemporary concerns

On the artist:

Willie Cole (born 1955 in Newark, New Jersey) is a noted contemporary American sculptor and conceptual and visual artist.

Cole is best known for assembling and transforming ordinary domestic and used objects such as irons, ironing boards, high-heeled shoes, hair dryers, bicycle parts, wooden matches, lawn jockeys, and other discarded appliances and hardware, into imaginative and powerful works of art and installations. (Wikipedia link)

Jess. Start with the collage from the current show (in a very imperfect and unfortunately cropped reproduction):


Midday Forfit: Feignting Spell II, 1971: magazine pages, jigsaw-puzzle pieces, tapestry, lithographic mural, wood, and straight pin

From the Chicago MCA site:

From a suite on the four seasons, this inventively titled collage displays the poetic mysticism of Symbolism—a late-nineteenth-century predecessor to Surrealism that used symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas and states of mind. It also shows the free-association thought processes of Surrealism. The jigsaw-puzzle pieces provide a key: Midday Forfit is composed of fragments whose full meaning can become clear only when viewed as a whole. The punning nature of the title is continued in the work’s imagery: on the right, a doorknob permits the viewer to “get a handle on the work.”

Pretty much all of Jess’s works resist reproduction on a computer screen: they are too big and too full of minute details. (Also note the way the collage breaks out onto the work’s frame.)

About the artist, from Wikipedia:

Jess Collins (August 6, 1923 – January 2, 2004), simply known today as Jess, was an American visual artist.

Jess was born Burgess Franklin Collins in Long Beach, California. He was drafted into the military and worked on the production of plutonium for the Manhattan Project. After his discharge in 1946, Jess worked at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington, and painted in his spare time, but his dismay at the threat of atomic weapons led him to abandon his scientific career and focus on his art.

In 1949, Jess enrolled in the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and, after breaking with his family, began referring to himself simply as “Jess”. He met Robert Duncan in 1951 [or possibly 1950] and began a relationship with the poet that lasted until Duncan’s death in 1988. In 1952, in San Francisco, Jess, with Duncan and painter Harry Jacobus, opened the King Ubu Gallery, which became an important venue for alternative art and which remained so when, in 1954, poet Jack Spicer reopened the space as the Six Gallery. [Spicer on this blog here.]

Many of Jess’s paintings and collages have themes drawn from chemistry, alchemy, the occult, and male beauty, including a series called Translations (1959–1976) which is done with heavily laid-on paint in a paint-by-number style. In 1975, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art displayed six of the “Translations” paintings in their MATRIX 2 exhibition. Collins also created elaborate collages using old book illustrations and comic strips (particularly, the strip Dick Tracy, which he used to make his own strip Tricky Cad). Jess’s final work, Narkissos, is a complex rendered 6’x5′ drawing owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

From The Comics Journal on 12/19/12, a review of O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica (ed. by Michael Duncan) by Doug Harvey:


One of the greatest-ever fine art interrogations of the funny pages has to have been Tricky Cad, created by the San Francisco artist Jess (Collins) between 1952-1959. An eight-episode series of cut-ups made entirely out of fragments of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the five known extant collages have been collected and reproduced at a legible size [samples available on the net don’t reproduce at all well] for the first time ever in O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica edited by LA-based art writer Michael Duncan and published by Siglio Press — who also released a stellar 2008 collection of NY artist Joe Brainard’s decades-long body of work deconstructing Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy.

Tricky Cad is remarkable on a number of levels. For starters, Jess takes advantage of the ultra clean-line graphics of Gould’s grotesque cop-opera to amp up the pictorial weirdness to 11. Almost every panel stands as a tiny surrealist composition reminiscent of (and clearly inspired by) German Dadaist Max Ernst’s seminal collaged graphic novels of the 1920s and ’30s. Perspective and scale are thrown to the wind. A giant hand holding a key protrudes through a doorway into a dark and frozen meat locker, asking “Too High?” But in spite of its dream logic, Jess’s distortions of appropriated mass media imagery are at once more intelligible, more culturally current, and more laugh-out-loud absurd than Ernst’s.

A large part of that is due to the inclusion of words – Gould’s snappy, hardboiled dialog and Crimestopper Tips are subjected to a fragmentation and rearrangement whose results oscillate between incantory poetics and slapstick nonsense — with occasional bursts of satiric social and political commentary. As a gay man who had quit a lucrative career as a chemist working on nuclear weapons in favor of art, Jess possessed an impeccably alienated POV regarding ’50s mainstream culture. A healthy skepticism toward the authority of language permeates his work.

But in addition to uncovering the hidden beatnik glossolalia in Gould’s staccato noir storytelling – adding a Dada twist missing from Ernst’s wordless tableaux – Tricky Cad was Modern in a way that Ernst’s patched-together insta-nostalgia Victorian engravings never tried to be, not just because they were assembled from contemporary newspapers.

Gould’s Dick Tracy was profoundly influenced by the pictographic possibilities of Modernist formalism – geometric reduction, simplified color, aggressively linear compositions that eschewed photorealist nuance for an almost industrial graphic design immediacy – Gould had a primitivist magpie eye for purified ways of picture-making.

By breaking the linear narrative agenda of the original strips, but keeping the graphic vocabulary intact, Jess identifies and brings to the forefront Gould’s inherent avant-gardism. This undoubtedly would send Chester spinning in his grave — if he hadn’t been very much alive and kicking at the time the collages were made, in the middle of a long slide to the same cultural phantom zone occupied by Al Capp.

So: the collages, the paintings, the comic-strip parodies, and then the male body, notably in Narkissos (which I reproduce here, rather than on AZBlogX, in the belief that the “fine art exemption” applies to it):


Then to Jess and the poet Robert Duncan, from the Poetry Society of America site:

He met Robert Duncan in 1950 and began a relationship with the poet that lasted thirty-eight years until Duncan’s death in 1988. Together, the two of them became key generators of the Bay Area art and poetry scenes of the 50’s, 60s, and 70s.

Jess and Robert at Stinson Beach in 1958:


On Duncan, from Wikipedia:

Robert Edward Duncan (January 7, 1919 in Oakland, California – February 3, 1988) was an American poet and a devotee of H.D. and the Western esoteric tradition who spent most of his career in and around San Francisco. Though associated with any number of literary traditions and schools, Duncan is often identified with the poets of the New American Poetry and Black Mountain College. Duncan saw his work as emerging especially from the tradition of Pound, Williams and Lawrence. Duncan was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance.

… Duncan’s name figures prominently in the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture. In 1944, Duncan wrote the landmark essay The Homosexual in Society. The essay, in which Duncan compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews, was published in Dwight Macdonald’s journal politics. Duncan’s 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 (Mattachine Society).

Jess and Robert were not just gay, they were visibly, defiantly, politically gay, way back when.

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