Review: Creative era of Jess Collins, Robert Duncan brought full circle

Los Angeles Times Art Critic

The circle of artists and writers around Bay Area painter Jess Collins and his lifelong romantic partner, poet Robert Duncan, didn’t have a memorable name or a specific program. But it was to San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s something of what the Bloomsbury group was to London in the first decades of the 20th century.

The California crew was composed of exiles — not entirely refugees from the upper-middle professional class, as their British forebears were, but from the dull, often small-minded and oppressive American realities of the day. Like the Bloomsbury group, and not unlike the West Coast Beats with whom they overlapped, they were bohemians.

Art for them was a self-created — and privileged — refuge. In true democratic style, anyone was welcome to join in, choosing the privilege for him- or herself, regardless of past social standing.


The group did not produce a raft of major art, but overall the ethos is beguiling. At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a thorough and impressive survey lays out the contours of their work.

“An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan and Their Circle,” organized by Michael Duncan (no relation to the poet) and Christopher Wagstaff for Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, is completing a yearlong national tour. In addition to works by Jess Collins (1923-2004), who went by his first name only in a not-so-subtle separation from traditional identification with family, and Robert Duncan (1919-1988), it includes paintings, sculptures, drawings and films by 28 members of their circle.

Some works are directly related to the writers in the group, which included Denise Levertov, Jack Spicer, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley and Jack Olson. Duncan, for example, made crayon drawings. The nine here are mostly dreadful, their derivation from the sophisticated paintings and collages of Matisse, Klee and Picasso not enhanced by Duncan’s seemingly intentional effort to celebrate childlike freshness.

Jess also made fairly routine, Cocteau-like posters for a cinema series organized by Pauline Kael, the thirtysomething daughter of a failed Petaluma chicken farmer, who would go on to a hugely influential career as movie critic at the New Yorker magazine. But Jess is indisputably the show’s leading artist.

Drafted during World War II, he worked on the production of plutonium for the atomic bomb – a hands-on relationship with the cataclysmic potential of modern science that seems to have shaken him to his core. He did a 180, leaving science behind for art.

Today Jess is most widely known for jampacked collages composed from cut-up book and magazine illustrations and comic strips, frequently on homoerotic subjects. They meditate on metaphysical themes of love and chaos, using images from popular culture past and present.

He was also way better with a crayon than Duncan was. In the show, Jess’ most powerful work is a very small, very haunting crayon drawing on paper, just 8 inches by 6 inches. It shows a shadowy figure with arm outstretched toward a glowing white orb within a splintered field dominated by green, violet and crimson marks. The figure, speckled with white dots, seems to be dissolving, atomized in the radiant light.

The drawing is titled from the King James Version of the Bible — Qui auget scientiam auget dolorem, or “Who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). The paradox of wisdom begetting grief, which goes to the heart of life’s joyful yet arduous journey, is at the core of Jess’ artistic production.

Much of that viewpoint likely comes from his study with Edward Corbett at the California School of Fine Arts. Corbett was instrumental to the development of Abstract Expressionism, though he is far less well-known than he should be. (He was chosen by Dorothy Miller for the pivotal 1952 “15 Americans” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, along with Jackson Pollock and Corbett’s Bay Area colleagues, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.) An untitled 1950 painting, somewhat the worse for wear, is composed from visually sliding planes of rich but brittle gray and dun colors.

Corbett’s seductive painting draws in your eye, only to bump it up against an impenetrable wall of dense, dark color. The layered planes simultaneously energize and frustrate your urge to perceive. Nearby, a similarly sized 1951 painting by Jess uses different means to achieve something similar.

Dedicated “To Corbett,” it is resolutely abstract. Yet, its loose, wide, cross-hatched slashes of black, gray and red oil paint over a pale yellow and orange ground yield a sensation of looking through dense underbrush toward the light. There’s nothing whatever to see on “the other side” — just thick, coagulated lumps of pigment on canvas. The image is simultaneously an object, a fleeting picture made physically material.

That sensibility got marvelously extreme in the work of Ronald Bladen (1918-1988), today better known as a sculptor than a painter. In the mid- to late-1950s, he was a maker of densely clotted canvases. “Connie’s Painting” is a square patchwork of heaving gold, red and blue oil paint that Bladen literally troweled on with a palette knife. Sometimes the roiling paint is so thick as to cast its own internal shadows across the field.

Jess’ paintings and collages have long had a committed following. (Thirty of the show’s 169 objects, which include ephemera, are by him.) Because his work is not unfamiliar, it is usually the more obscure members of the circle that draw attention. Often they partake of Jess’ famous infatuation with Romantic myth.

For instance, Helen Adam (1909-1993) made Surrealist collages with eccentric captions banged out on a typewriter. In one, a pretty fashion model surrounded by ginormous white kittens is posed in a boat like Diana, the Roman goddess of nature and fertility, above the enigmatic legend, “Where are the snows.”

A watercolor in bleeding crimson by William McNeill (1930-1984) suggests a still life of poppies, recalling turn-of-the-century French Symbolist Odilon Redon. Poppies are a symbol of Morpheus, ancient god of the dream-world, as well as of sacrifice.

Paintings by Virginia Admiral (1915-2000) use abstraction as an unexpected bridge between the suggestion of fecund landscapes and random still-life elements. A committed Socialist, devotee of psychoanalysis, wife of painter Robert De Niro (and mother of their actor-son) and one of Duncan’s closest confidants, she evoked a free-association of the world churning on a table top.

In one sense, the work produced by these artists could be called life-style art. Its primary aim was to chart the emotional and spiritual way of life explored by its bohemian cohort.

Not insignificantly, homosexuals and women were central to the group, for theirs was a way of life that was undergoing significant contraction in the wake of World War II’s upheaval. The war, for all its bloody horrors, had also pried open the narrow social field of American life. The most bracing element of the exhibition is its sense of just how determined to keep it unrestricted was the circle around Jess and Duncan.