Jess, Robert Duncan: a collaboration both romantic and artistic


It was a romance that fueled an intense artistic collaboration.

The relationship between Robert Duncan and Jess Collins, simply known as Jess, was the envy of many friends, straight and gay alike. But it was the men’s influence on each other’s work — the esoteric Beat poetry of Duncan, the collages (or “paste-ups”) of Jess — that came to define their union after their deaths.

That influence is examined in detail for the first time in a new exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle.”

Jess and Duncan met in San Francisco in the early 1950s. Duncan was influenced by Ezra Pound, Jess by Max Ernst. Both had a keen interest in history and alternative culture.



Robert Duncan and Jess: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, an article about poet Robert Duncan and the artist Jess includes the quote “It’s so interesting to see a literary and artistic couple who really thrive on each other’s work.” The quote should have been attributed to curator Michael Duncan, not Robert Duncan. The error was discovered after the section was printed.
“They had strong literary interests and fed off each other,” said co-curator Michael Duncan (no relation to Robert). “Jess’ work fed off of Duncan’s poetry, and Duncan’s poetry fed off of Jess’ visual art.”

Jess’ work was often published in conjunction with Robert Duncan’s poems and essays. In 1952, the men, along with painter Harry Jacobus, opened King Ubu Gallery, which became known as a valuable space for avant garde art in San Francisco.

Jess and Duncan were magnetic personalities and friends with many of San Francisco’s most interesting artists, writers and literary figures. They held vibrant, Rue de Fleurus-inspired salons at their home in the Mission District.

“What’s really unusual about the show is that it features a group of artists that made work for themselves and each other. The art and literary markets had nothing to do with it,” Michael Duncan said of the show, which originated at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and has been traveling. “That’s why it was so well received in New York and D.C. It’s an alternative to the big, market-driven art in the larger museums.”

The Pasadena exhibit features 130 artworks as well as documents, books and ephemera. Nearly 85 of these are by members of Jess and Duncan’s lively circle, including R.B. Kitaj, Edward Corbett, Wallace Berman, Lawrence Jordan and George Herms, as well as poets Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser and Michael McClure.

The show also includes posters that Jess made at the request of a young Pauline Kael for the Berkeley Cinema Guild, which she was running at the time.


“Pauline Kael went to UC Berkeley, and she was a friend of Duncan’s when he was there,” curator Duncan said. “She was very taken with Jess’ work, and she hired him to do murals in her house as well.”

Berman, the L.A. artist known as the father of assemblage art, also was a close friend of the men and an admirer of Jess’ collages. He often visited the couple in their home, and he introduced them to a good friend, actor Dean Stockwell, who became a fan and for whom Jess made a collage.

Spicer, the poet credited with helping launch the West Coast Beat movement, was closely aligned with Duncan and Jess. He took over their gallery and turned it into the Six Gallery, which staged legendary readings, including one in October 1955 where Allen Ginsberg first read his poem “Howl,” with a drunken Jack Kerouac in the audience yelling, “Yeah! Go! Go!”

Jess and Duncan nurtured their friends’ talents and kept a large collection of their friends’ artwork at home. (The pieces on display at PMCA come from the artists’ trusts, galleries, institutions including UC Berkeley and private collectors such as Robert De Niro, among others.) A video in the exhibit features a tracking shot through the house after Jess’ death, and viewers can see the art on the walls, much of which is featured in the show.

Jess died in 2004 and Duncan in 1988. Duncan was the more prominent of the two, but Jess has steadily gained interest. His work became more valuable toward the end of his life, and his legacy is part of the current revival of interest in West Coast Modernism.

Jess was born in Long Beach and studied at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. His collages were deeply rooted in a fascination with mythology and the occult; an obsession shared by Duncan, whose adoptive parents were Theosophists.

“You can see the metamorphosis taking place in front of your eyes,” curator Duncan said of Jess’ collages. “Kittens become clouds become mountains. Everything in the collages is intentional.”

Jess was such an intense artist that he created special glasses for himself that blocked out his peripheral vision so he could concentrate solely on the work before him.

As time passed, his loquacious partner traveled more to give lectures and Jess turned inward. Robert Duncan became Jess’ eyes, and the men wrote to each other daily when Duncan was on the road. When Duncan visited painter Gustave Moreau’s house in Paris, he wrote a seven-page letter to Jess, who loved Moreau, as he walked through the museum.

“It’s so interesting to see a literary and artistic couple who really thrive on each other’s work,” curator Duncan said.

Also interesting is that they were openly gay, seemingly without many issues, in the 1950s.

“They let the world accept them as it may, which I think is terrific,” curator Duncan said. “They weren’t waving their rainbow flag — not that there was one. They were what they were, and the people around them were just fine with that.

“And it’s remarkable. We think of the ‘50s as a time of victimhood for gay people, and Jess and Duncan were not victims at all.”

Twitter @jessicagelt