Jess: Paintings and Paste-Ups
Tibor de Nagy
724 Fifth Avenue
New York City
212 262 5050
May 22 to July 31, 2008
At the Tibor De Nagy Gallery you can reconnect with the singular world of Jess, the poetic visionary who died in 2004, and whose work has not been seen in New York since his astonishing Whitney retrospective in 1994. The current show presents a robust sample of collages and paintings spanning Jess’s strange career, of which nothing is more emblematic than its origin. After years of the straightest imaginable life as a high security nuclear chemist, including a stint producing plutonium for the Manhattan Project, Burgess Collins had an apocalyptic dream that he heeded, in 1949, by enrolling in the San Francisco Art Institute, mythologizing his name, and hooking up for life with a learned bohemian poet, Robert Duncan. Nearly twenty years before the Summer of Love, Jess had Turned On, Tuned In, and Dropped Out.
The pre-hippy, pre-Beat San Francisco Renaissance was fancifully seasoned compared to the professional New York scene Jasper Johns and the late Robert Rauschenberg were setting out to conquer with ostensibly similar means–– collage, assemblage, and semiotics. Jess found himself surrounded by gay occult esoterica and Dionysian nature rite (duly psychotropic, one presumes), in addition to High Modernist poetics, both literary and visual. Clifford Still was an example of such, being one of Jess’s instructors at the Art Institute, though he may not have been as doctrinaire as one would suppose. (Some typically cantankerous letters from Still are on view at the Jewish Museum’s current Action/Abstractionexhibition.)
It was Max Ernst’s seminal tours de force in collage, however, that offered an immediate way into the dream syntax that Jess was in urgent haste to decode. There is an interesting selection of Jess’s collages in Tibor’s show whose salient characteristic is disorientation: resuscitated engravings of machines concatenate with body parts from Life Magazine, the celestial has truck with the banal, time runs backwards and gravity repels. He called them “Paste-Ups,” which can’t help but suggest William Burroughs’ and Bryin Gysin’s contemporaneous “cut-ups,” in which pulp narrative was randomized in search of opiated delusions of Jungian synchronicity. Jess’s early collages can seem, by contrast, a bit genteel, even amateurish; they also suffer in comparison to more formally resolute works by the likes of Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, or Harry Smith, on paper and film, arising in the same milieu.
But Jess’s learning curve quickly trajects to a sustained mastery. On view is a late epic from 1980 that is undoubtedly among the most ambitious spectacles in the history of the medium. A Cryogenic Consideration; Or Sounding One Horn of the Dilemma (Winter) is packed, as always, with disjunctive cryptic incident, yet the six foot-wide whole is held in tension by a dazzling cosmic sparkle that simulates –without remotely obeying –the laws of a unified visual field. In the age of Photoshop, one may speculate as to what portion of such meticulous whimsy is digitizable and what inheres in Jess’s lifelong labor-of-love of thrift-shopping, slicing, filing, arranging, pinning, and finally– without recourse to Undo– gluing.
Tibor is also showing a prime cross-section of oil paintings. On view are some early, hesitantly symbolist works, but already in Ex.1- Laying a Standard: Translation #1, (1959), you can witness the invention of a radical new practice seemingly declared by a higher authority. The year before, Jess’s colleague Jay DeFeo had started in on The Rose, which was to become the all time poster child for painterly obsession. Jess too began to pile up layer after layer of pigment, in this case upon the lucid perspectival lineaments of an obsolete apparatus from an 1887 issue of Scientific American until it took on the strange, sensuous density of a meteorite pocked and patinated by interstellar wear. Consider that this was the breakthrough upon which a staggeringly brilliant series of 32 Translations across 19 years was founded and it is not too much to say that the painting enacts a true metaphysical redemption: as image coagulates into thing, science is reclaimed by art; mass recaptures energy; and a thermonuclear chemist is reborn as magus, as artist.
In Ex. 3- Fionn’s Finnegas: Translation #4, (1964) a more complex antique diagram solidifies into dreamily colored matter, but here the image is wedged apart at every graphic joint, as if a river system had cut illustrational canyons through strata of time. The crepuscular palette is both quiet and loud, synthetic and organic, primeval and utterly new. The painting is an enigma that you can’t stop looking at. Four of the Translations are on view in this show, and each precipitates, like a word repeated over and over, a luminous, truly euphoric state of nonsense.
You can read the paint-by-number pictorial architecture of the Translations, straightforwardly enough, as a forced zoom into single details of the sort found in cacophonous abundance in the Paste-Ups– scientific diagrams, as noted, but also old postcards and snapshots, bygone children’s illustrations, comics, advertisements, and esoteric texts. Indeed, Jess explained that the series began as training for an epic synthesis of collage and painting, Narkissos, that was never fully realized. Because he needed to learn about free paint handling and remote color harmonics without, in the process, emulsifying the image, he temporarily put aside the fragmented syntax of Ernst. But something happened: an inadvertent stroke of compression which charged the Translations with the altogether more potent humor of Duchamp. This is Jess in a nutshell: sincere literalism colliding with arch semiotics and giving off rare alchemical heat.
Such genuine bathtub fusion as Jess offers may be more valuable to us than anything in art at this moment. Superficial comparisons to DeFeo’s, Milton Resnick’s or Alfred Jensen’s enriched transubstantiations of sheer paint aside, theTranslations might once have seemed outsider-ish. Now this very eccentricity appears to have been strategic, allowing Jess to sidestep Expressionist theatrics, dour Formalist abstinence, and toxic Pop cynicism as lastingly, if by no means as nimbly, as the canonical Johns and Rauschenberg.