The idiosyncratic, Beat-associated San Francisco artist Jess (born Burgess Collins, 1923–2004) and the masterful poet and sometime visual artist Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) were featured in adjoining shows illuminating their highly personal visions.
Jess, best known for his collages (which he called “paste-ups”), chose a life of art in 1949 after a dream of nuclear disaster prompted the close of his career as a chemist and his enrollment in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). His teachers included David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Clyfford Still. Though Jess worked outside of mainstream styles, numerous museum shows, beginning with “The Art of Assemblage” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1961, brought him national recognition. Jess and his longtime partner, poet Robert Duncan, were for decades influential cultural and political mavericks in the Bay Area.
Twenty of Jess’s paintings were on view (all from the 1950s and ’60s, except for one from ca. 1990, which was his last). At first it was hard to believe they were all by one artist. Some consist entirely of ultrathin turpentine washes, others are painted as heavily as Soutines, and several combine both modes. Their subjects range from still life objects to landscape to literature, from symbolic portraits to models sitting straightforwardly in studios. A few of the paintings incorporate text. Looking at the works side by side, you see influences of Puvis de Chavannes, Redon, the Pre-Raphaelites, Matisse, Bonnard and thrift-store paintings (which Jess was known to use in his “Salvages” series). Park and Bischoff are also in evidence. Though Jess didn’t have a signature painting style and was an appropriator extraordinaire, most of the works are well synthesized, and his playfully subversive romanticism emerges distinctly.
Don Quixote’s Dream of the Fair Dulcinea (1954, 40 by 52 inches) is painted with remarkable directness. A craggy negative space of beige wash suggests a mountain at left. Castle and forest appear at right in thick, rapid brush- work. In between, drawn in expressive shorthand with ultramarine blue, Don Quixote rides on horseback toward Dulcinea, who appears nearly faceless yet alluring in the foreground. In Hyakinthos—Apollon (1962), Jess retells the Greek myth his way, integrating a lush Pre-Raphaelite idiom with explicit homoerotic imagery.
The small back gallery, devoted to Bishop, featured 11 works on paper, two assemblages and much memorabilia and art that she collected. Family portraits, paintings by Key West folk artist Gregorio Valdes (1879-1939) and Brazilian sculpture and furniture filled the room. (Those were both places she lived.) In Bishop’s lively, intimate watercolors, such as Sleeping Figure (n.d.), which depicts her lover Louise Crane small and asleep in a bed that seems to burst out of the room, im- pact resides in standout details, much as in her poems. Copious wall texts by James Jaffe, a rare book dealer who collaborated with the gallery on the exhibition, cited apt remembrances of Bishop and choice quotations from her writing. Rather than a show of Bishop’s visual art, this was an installation of her overall esthetic.
Photo: (left) Jess: Hyakinthos-Apollon, 1962, oil on canvas, 57 by 30 inches; at Tibor de Nagy. (right)