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« Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part Three | Main | Elsewhere »

January 23, 2004


Dear Friedrich --

Did you run across the news that the artist known as Jess died at the age of 80 earlier this month? Ken Johnson wrote a lovely and appreciative obit for the NYTimes, but it's now pay-per-view. Here's the good obit Kenneth Baker wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Have you seen much of Jess' work? An amazing artist, well-known in San Francisco but much less so in the rest of the country. I don't feel that Jess had a rough time of it -- his work is in collections at the Met, at MOMA, and at other major artplaces. So I can't play the satisfying game of railing against the cruel world for its injustice, darn it. The reason I think it's a pity that his name plays almost no role in the standard postwar-American-art story is simply that I suspect a lot of people would enjoy his work. I was wowed by it myself. Yet, despite being a bit more tuned into art-things than most people, the only reason I ever encountered Jess was that a friend who knew him personally browbeat me into paying attention.

Jess was a one-of-a-kind artist. Maybe that's the reason he isn't better known; he wasn't a member of any art team, and he represented no larger trends or tendencies. You couldn't point to his work and say, See, that's what Conceptualism, or Ab-Ex, or Neo-Geo is all about! He wasn't an example of anything; he was about as singular an art phenonenom as can be.

There wasn't much to Jess' biography. He was gay; he started out adult life as a scientist and an engineer; he found atomic bombs and atomic power so upsetting that he lost faith in science; he ditched his last name and cut off most contact with the outside world; and he turned to art. He shared a house and his life with the poet Robert Duncan.

Ken Johnson compares Jess's work to that of Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell, which is a good and smart comparison; it was nothing if not visionary. As far as I'm aware, most if not all of Jess' work was meant to be hung on walls, but he worked in strange and often hard-to-categorize ways. Some of his "paintings" incorporate what looks like thousands of pieces from jigsaw puzzles; others are made of coils of oil paint so skeins-of-yarn thick that it probably makes more sense to think of them as colored relief sculptures than as paintings. People who object to modernist art because it looks like a kid could do it would be taken aback by Jess' paintings. The workmanship and labor are plenty apparent, even obsessively overdone; some of his paintings took him years to complete.

His imagination seemed to enjoy feeding on visual material that's often considered unfair game for modernist art -- "literary" material, such as illustrations from Victorian children's lit, or pictures from science textbooks. He had tons of wit and made many collages; his "Tricky Cad" pieces -- weirdly re-done Dick Tracy comic strips -- are sometimes credited with a kind of relationship with pop art. But nearly everything he touched seemed to become a little dank and musky, and sexily creepy, like Henry Darger paintings done by a sophisticate; they often have a Victorian, "Alice in Wonderland," fairy-tale porn quality.

A large exhibition of Jess' work toured the country in '93 and '94 -- that's when I caught up with it. Spending a couple of hours in Jess-ville was like visiting some mythical, dreamscapish land of the imagination where the fanciest kind of high-gay avant-garde poetry found common cause with comics and cigar-box paintings. His work is childlike but sexual, and hallucinatory and intense too. It's both arresting and alive; when you look at a painting of his, then leave it, and then return to it, you do so half-expecting it to have morphed into something different.

Jess: A Grand Collage, the ultra-fab Michael Auping book/catalog for the '93 show can be bought here. I couldn't turn up a site devoted to Jess, or a large archive of his art either. But here's a good Artforum article by Robert Gluck. No pix, alas.



Thanks to Robert Garcia Tagorda (whose own blog is here), who wrote in to point out that Ken Johnson's excellent obit of Jess can be read for free here.

UPDATE UPDATE: Ray Davis writes an appreciation of Jess here. Ray found some repros of Jess' art I didn't run across too.

posted by Michael at January 23, 2004


Reminds me of another great master of collage, Sergo Paradjanov. [His work is childlike but sexual, and hallucinatory and intense too] - applies absolutly. Totally different concept - and life stories, too. Paradjanov spent 14 out of 15 sentenced yrs in high security prison, and only one charge out of 5 - homosexuality- was true.

See this

Posted by: Tatyana on January 23, 2004 3:34 PM

It is a little Paradjanov-ish, isn't it? Hadn't thought of the comparison but you're right. Paradjanov's work has a lustier quality, but they've both got that wild, my-invented-world quality. And they're certainly both one of a kind too. Thanks for the comparison and the link, and fun to learn you're a Paradjanov nut too. I always wanted to do a posting on him but haven't gotten around to it yet.

OK: faves. Mine's "Sayat Nova." Which is yours?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2004 3:38 PM

Mine too - now. I used to adore "The color of pomegranates". Can't sustain on pure decoration anymore, I guess

Posted by: Tatyana on January 23, 2004 3:52 PM

Wait, wait, am I misremembering? I thought "Sayat Nova" and "Color of Pomegranates" were different titles for the same movie. But I could be wrong here - middle-aged memory and all. Anyway, "Color of Pomegranates" is my fave -- decor rules. Too bad the DVD of it isn't great. The colors and fabrics don't sing the way they should.

I once saw him briefly onstage at the NYFF -- he'd come to present "Ashik Kerib." Most directors just appear shyly behind the microphone and say a few words. Paradjanov strolled majestically out on stage, all in black, big beareded bear of a man, with huge necklaces, and accompanied by two women in native costume of some sort (Georgia, maybe?) waving giant fans over him. A very Paradjanov moment...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2004 4:11 PM

You are right, sorry- I was thinking of "Legend of Suram" - I came to like it (in memory) more than "Sayat Nova". Last time I saw it - wait- 14(!) yrs ago, and "Legend"- 7... I never saw "Confession", would like to very much.
Interesting image - very like him. Women were probably in Armenian costumes, not Georgian, although they are similar. And fans - his own stroke, he liked "beautifying" things. BTW, everywhere Louis Aragon is credited with S.P. release and very few actually disclose proper instigator - Lilya Brik (who was in her 80's at the time) - she begged Aragon to interfere (thru her sister), and Paradjanov never properly thanked her. This is from the book about L.Brik by her step-son, Katanyan and I don't have reasons not to beleive him.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 23, 2004 4:53 PM

I think Jess is quite well-represented in major collections. MAMFW owns several, naturally. (That's Auping's museum.) The Hirshhorn owns a large Jess as well. Still, Jess strikes me as a David Bates -- a regionalist with a niche following who made some small but not substantial career breakthroughs.

Posted by: Tyler Green on January 24, 2004 12:03 AM

Jess was one of my favorite late-20th century artists, so I do tend to think of him of as neglected -- major collections may have invested in some pieces, but they hardly present him as we in his "niche following" would.

FWIW, I tried to paste down one of the characteristic effects of his collage here:

Posted by: Ray on January 26, 2004 10:37 AM

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