Feature

Exhibit of the week: An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle

Ah, to be “young, gifted, and odd” in mid-20th-century San Francisco.

Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Through March 29

Ah, to be “young, gifted, and odd” in mid-20th-century San Francisco, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. Before America’s counterculture reached full boil, a “wonderland of an old house” in that city’s Mission District attracted an offbeat group of artists and writers. The home’s owners were poet Robert Duncan and his artist partner, Jess, who had met in 1950 and would remain devoted to each other until Duncan’s death, in 1988. “Espousers of the power of the imagination, they created a self-contained world, and their friends were welcomed in.” Combining 45 of the couple’s own works with 85 by roughly 30 of their close associates, this show sheds light on work that was less a movement than a “psychic collaboration, the communal property of lovers, spouses, and friends.”

“Jess’s work hums at the heart of the show,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. A trained chemist, Jess Collins (1923–2004) worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II and seemed an unlikely candidate for such a bohemian life. But after having a nightmare about the planet’s destruction, he abruptly changed course. He enrolled in art school, informed his parents of his homosexuality, and dropped his last name when they rejected him. Soon enough, he was producing work that showed an intuitive understanding of how to “expose the poetry” in glossy or quotidian images taken from books and magazines. The heavily impastoed 1963 painting Montana Xibalba: Translation #2 applies that strategy to an image from an old college yearbook. “In Jess’s sublime cosmology,” the University of Montana’s 1943 soccer team became Mayan gods determining the universe’s fate.

Duncan, for his part, was a “not untalented” amateur artist, said Christopher Lyon in Hyperallergic.com. He’s represented by colorful crayon drawings “but not, unfortunately,” by passages from his poetry that would show viewers how his work influenced Jess’s oddball mysticism. Still, you can clearly trace some of the thought processes of Jess and his peers in this group show, said Andrew Russeth in GalleristNY.com. Duncan’s images “look to Miró in their abstract, roving shapes and to Picasso, quite explicitly, in their manifold representation styles.” Jess’s disciples, meanwhile, produced highly accomplished work of their own—even if none ever quite mustered “his sense of composition, or his humor.” The presence of their work here tells a story about the power of cross-discipline collaboration that “has the potential to be deeply influential on young artists today.” At a time when austere modernism ruled the mainstream art world, these San Francisco eccentrics “rode an invigorating, ramshackle group energy” that produced some real magic.

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