JESS & The San Francisco Renaissance
By John Mitzel
The other morning I woke up with a strange and urgent desire. I had to obtain a copy of the catalogue from the Jess show I had seen in 1993. I had had two copies once, purchased at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts after seeing the show; I had sent one to a friend and the other went missing. I went on-line, to an out-of-print book vendor, and found a copy. Cost me $85.00. Why this sudden obsession with the work of an artist from a show I had seen over twelve years ago? I cannot explain it. Things like this just happen.
Who was Jess? He was born in 1923 in Long Beach, California. He was named Burgess Collins. He attended Long Beach Junior College and the California Institute of Technology where he studied chemistry. After war was declared, Collins was drafted and was assigned to work with the Army Corps of Engineers. He had a small role with those working on the Manhattan Project, developing the atom bomb. He was demobilized in 1946 and went back to school to get his degree. He worked for a time at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington. In his spare time, he continued his painting.
1948 was a pivotal year for Collins. He had a break with his family, over what I do not know, but I suspect his sexual orientation was an issue. He also had an epiphany, the result of a nightmare in which he saw the world destroy itself. He had had enough of A-bombs and atomic research. He gave up the world of scientific research and a year later enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts, later known as the San Francisco Art Institute. He dropped his name and was known simply as Jess. Jess lived with poet Robert Duncan from 1951 until Duncan’s death in 1988. Jess died 07 January 2004 at age eighty.
Jess and Duncan were central figures in the counter-cultural scene in the Bay Area. In 1953, the two of them, along with another partner, opened the King Ubu Gallery on Fillmore Street. The gallery featured the work of emerging artists, including Jess, that the more established downtown galleries regarded as too edgy. The work that Jess created is all over the place—do a web search for Jess Collins and you can sample some of his canvases and constructions. I see influences from Brueghel, Duchamp, Tchelitchev and the comic strips. His Krazy Kat constructs are amazing. Later in the 1950s, Jess was sought after to do cover work and illustrations for small press titles in the flourishing San Francisco alternative publishing scene. By that time, the countercultural scene in San Francisco had reached a density and vitality rivaling that in New York. A number of former Black Mountain students were resident in the Bay Area, Duncan being one of them. Jack Spicer, formerly of Boston, was a large presence in the poetry scene. Allen Ginsberg first read HOWL in San Francisco. After Lawrence Ferlinghetti published HOWL through his City Lights imprint, he and the press were put on trial for obscenity. John Wieners wrote his famous HOTEL WENTLEY poems in San Francisco and established his reputation. This energetic scene is presented with affection by author Michael Rumaker in his 1996 book, Robert Duncan in San Francisco. Needless to say, this scene was populated with many gay men and lesbians, as had been Black Mountain, as noted by Martin Duberman in his informative history of that school.
When I saw the Jess show, the installations were accompanied by small bits of text, often a poem by Duncan or others, perhaps a musing inspired by the work. I thought this affectation might be distracting; in fact it had a complementary effect and made the viewing even more satisfying. While pondering the artifacts of the SF art scene from the 50s and 60s, in a world before the Stonewall Revolution—which could be argued was already underway in California before the queens in New York created a sensation—it occurred to me that what is missing is a comprehensive history of this SF culture of the 50s and 60s, a real overview of what turned into a national cultural force. As a bookseller, I often think of the books that have not been written (or written and not yet published). It was decades before a full biography of Frank O’Hara (Robert Duncan’s more or less New York equal) got published (the admirable City Poet by Brad Gooch). We have yet to see a really good biography on Carl van Vechten, who had a fabulous life and was a huge cultural influence. I suspect there are still secrets out there about Carlo that a curious biographer could unearth. But a great rambling cultural history of SF over two decades, using Duncan and Jess as the narrative subjects, would be endlessly fascinating. Anybody interested?