Long Beach, Calif.
A creator of collages he called “paste-ups,” assemblages, paintings and sculptures, Jess Collins was called “the essential San Francisco artist” by Harry Parker, the former director of the Fine Arts Museums. Jess and his partner, the poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), participated in the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s and were leading parts of the Bay Area’s avant-garde artistic and literary circles for decades thereafter. Burgess Franklin Collins was born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1923. He studied chemistry, first at Long Beach Junior College and then at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Drafted into the U. S. Army in 1943, he worked as a chemist on the development of the atomic bomb at the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Discharged in 1946, Collins completed his degree in chemistry from Cal Tech and went to work for the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Wash. While there he began to pursue painting. After a dream in which he imagined the destruction of the world, he changed careers, chose to pursue art, enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA, now the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1949 and decided to be called simply “Jess.” His teachers included Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991), David Park (1911-1960) and Clyfford Still (1904-1980). Jess met his life partner Duncan at a Berkeley poetry reading in 1949. They exchanged vows on New Year’s Day in 1951 and lived as domestic partners until Duncan’s death. Jess left the CSFA in 1951 without obtaining a degree, the year in which he had his first solo exhibition at San Francisco’s Helvia Makela Gallery and began making collages. The following year Duncan gave Jess a copy of Max Ernst’s book of surrealist collages, Une semaine de bonté, (“A Week of Kindness,” 1934), in which the images were made from cutting and pasting pictures from Victorian books and catalogs, inspiring Jess to create collages from various printed images and found materials. In late 1952 Jess, Duncan and the painter Harry Jacobus (b. 1927) opened the King Ubu Gallery to exhibit the works of avant-garde artists who were ignored by the downtown galleries, including Jess; as intended it was open for only one year. During the 1950s Jess painted figurative and abstract works, portraits and landscapes, as well as creating “paste-ups.” Jess and Duncan traveled across America in 1955, with stops including Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina and New York City, on their way to spend a year Mallorca, the island off the Spanish coast in the Mediterranean Sea. During their stay they conceived a book of Duncan’s poetry and Jess’s illustrations, “Caesar’s Gate,” published in Mallorca that year by Divers Press, the first of many books they created of Duncan’s poetry and Jess’s art. After their return to San Francisco in 1956 Jess received a commission from the film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) to paint a series of murals in her Berkeley home, twelve of which still exist in the house. He continued to paint and create collages. One series of collages, “Tricky Cad,” used images cut from Dick Tracy comic strips, with the images and words altered and pasted up to tell a new story; the series prefigured Pop Art. His works included illustrations for books published by Duncan’s White Rabbit Press, operated out of their house in Stinson Beach, where they had moved in 1958. During 1959 Jess began painting the series of paintings called “Translations,” in which he included images borrowed from a variety of sources, an effort that continued until 1971 when the paintings were shown at the Odyssia Gallery in New York City. One from the series in the Museums’ collection, “The Enamord Mage: Translation #6,” (1965), is a portrait of Duncan. Jess and Duncan bought a house in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1967, where Jess had a two-room studio. From 1969 Jess exhibited frequently in San Francisco and in 1968 had an exhibition of his “paste-ups” at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the S.F. Museum of Modern Art). After the 1971 exhibition at the Odyssia Gallery, he enjoyed several gallery and museum solo shows in Chicago, Cleveland, New York City and other American cities, including the Paule Anglim Gallery in San Francisco. He also exhibited in numerous group exhibitions across the country during the 1970s and 1980s. Jess stopped working in 1984 to care for Duncan, who had begun suffering from kidney disease and died in 1988. Jess resumed working the following year. His national reputation was cemented by a 1993 solo exhibition “Jess: A Grand Collage,” organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and then shown in Boston, Minneapolis, New York City and San Francisco. Jess died in San Francisco in 2004. A major retrospective of his works, “Jess: “To and From the Printed Page,” toured museums in seven American cities from 2007 to 2009. (TNB 2/2017) Selected bibliography: Duncan, Michael, Christopher Wagstaff, William Breazeale and James Maynard. An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and their circle. Exhibition catalog. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Schaffner, Ingrid. Jess: To and From the Printed Page. Exhibition catalog, with a prologue by John Ashbery, an essay by Lisa Jarnot and a glossary by Thomas Evans and Brandon Stosuy. New York: Independent Curators International, 2007.