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by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
"Jess 1923-2004: Paintings and Paste Ups," May 23-July 31, 2008, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016

"1968/2008: The Culture of Collage," June 12-Aug. 8, 2008, at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, 539 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

"Manufactured Unreality: The Art of Collage," May 16-June 27, 2008, at Francis Naumann Fine Art, 22 East 80th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

Don’t get me wrong. I love collage. It’s one of the most fertile and flexible formal innovations of the 20th century. But before I saw the current exhibition of Jess’ collages and paintings at Tibor de Nagy, I usually found his super-obsessive and idiosyncratic "paste-ups" super creepy. Now the gallery has done a wonderful job of pulling together some of this image hoarder’s most impressive work, producing what amounts to a mini-retrospective and proving that the artist’s best pieces deserve high praise. The exhibition shows that it’s time to take a closer look at this mid-century California romantic who has remained more of a cult figure than a household name.

Jess died four years ago at age 81. In our Photoshop age, his scrupulously handmade works on paper seem touchingly antique in their madly labor-intensive cutting and pasting, His visual stream of consciousness forever embodies the bohemian 1950s of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady as well as the libertine psycheldelic ‘60s. In fact three-quarters of the 27 pieces on display at Tibor de Nagy were made between 1952 and 1972, the artist’s richest and most productive period.

Jess’s back-story is complex. Born as Burgess Collins in Long Beach, Ca., in 1923, he was educated as a chemist. During the Second World War he was drafted and worked for the Manhattan Project. After he was discharged in 1946, Collins was employed at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Wash. He painted in his spare time, but his escalating hatred of atomic weapons led him to abandon his scientific career and focus on his art. In 1949 he went back to school at Berkeley. He then enrolled in the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where he studied with Clyfford Still. Becoming estranged from his family (perhaps because he was gay), he soon began referring to himself simply as "Jess,"

A cultural fixture in San Francisco for decades, he also wrote poetry and maintained a lifelong relationship with the poet Robert Duncan (who died in 1988). Both were key players in the formation of the lively 1950s San Francisco art and literary scene. In 1952 in San Francisco, Collins, along with Duncan and painter Harry Jacobus, opened the King Ubu Gallery, named in homage to Jarry’s absurdist anti-hero. The gallery immediately became a galvanizing venue for the emerging local alternative art world.

Jess’s eccentric, erudite style changed little over the next 50 years. His early works borrow liberally from Max Ernst. They are simple and fairly derivative. Goddess. . . because. . . because from 1954, his version of the three graces, those handmaidens of Venus who personify beauty in classical mythology, simply layered cutouts of models in evening gowns against a sylvan landscape. Instead of the legendary apple, one of them holds a roll of toilet paper, the artist’s wry product placement signifying the debasement of modern culture (and his pun on the sanitary napkin ad).

His later, progressively surreal narratives still owe big debt to the compositional strategies of Dada and German Expressionist collage. He also was very taken with the chic poetry of Cocteau’s movies. (His small 1952 Untitled (with Jean Cocteau) is mostly black-and-white photomontage based on the films.) Jess’ tightly composed later montages are built on the idea of graphic impact rather than illusionistic space. Magazines, comics, newspapers and illustrated books provided the raw materials for his increasingly crowded conglomerations. His nostalgia-drenched themes come from advertising, chemistry, alchemy, occult symbolism, literature, Greek and Roman architectural and sculptural fragments and borrowed images of male beauty. He also threw in many cut-out pictures of machines and devices as well as fragmentary imagery clipped from art history. With what can only be called psychedelic abandon, he piled these random signs of civilization’s flotsam on top of barely perceptible panoramas of magnificent snow-covered mountains. His cutout technique freed him to use stunning shifts of perspective and to ignore realistic scale to create his tapestries of excess. His elaborate collages also surrealistically transformed book illustrations and comic strips. He cleverly altered the Dick Tracy strip to make his own comic, using the anagram "Tricky Cad" as its title.               

It helps to see this stuff in person. The larger and more densely layered the collage, the more amazing it is -- and the harder to see in reproduction. His dense thickets of overlapping, superimposed images make it fiendishly difficult to successfully shrink them onto a printed page or into a jpg. (Jess’s final work, Narkissos, a complex, beautifully rendered and huge (6 x 5 ft.) drawing owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is almost impossible to reproduce.)

And the better Jess’ works are, the more they beggar detailed description. Here’s a single paltry example. His evocative 4 x 6 ft. A Cryogenic Consideration or Sounding the Horn of the Dilemma (Winter), dated 1980, crowded as a dream, borrowed from a private collection for the Tibor de Nagy show, is a visual reliquary of civilization’s detritus dominated by the head of the soldier from Man in the Golden Helmet, a 1650 Dutch masterpiece that may or may not be by Rembrandt van Rijn. Jess has superimposed the grimacing face from a late Roman sculpture over the old warrior’s cockade and partially obscured his face with a bunch of keys, a prism and a floating stoplight while the head emerges from a small cabinet of chemical vials and floats above a tiny Ferris wheel. Boulders and mysterious abstract symbols hover in the sky while various birds and animals roam the edges of the picture. An airplane, some red high heels, astrological charts, bits of diamond jewelry and a tiny orchestra conductor in white tie are a miniscule part of the composition. You get the idea.

Jess’s paintings turn out to be much less interesting than his extravagant collages. Two lumpy examples in the show are from the series "Translations" (1959-1976). They were executed with heavily impastoed oil on wood in a paint-by-numbers, crudely figurative style that these days comes across as self-consciously primitive, arty and awkward, almost as if an entirely different artist made them.

Two other recent Manhattan shows productively mine the abiding romance many other 20th-century artists have had with collage ever since 1912 when Pablo Picasso glued that patterned oilcloth to a cubist still life and Georges Braque pasted bits of flowered wallpaper into a painting. The subsequent availability of new materials such as polymer emulsions, acrylic gels, and the invention of various technical processes such as color Xerox, image duplication, digital printing, photo-transfer and computer-generated images (plus the infinite snatch and grab of Photoshop) have infused new energy and diversity into contemporary collage.

Collage has consistently been a focus of the shows at Pavel Zoubok Gallery on West 23rd Street. The summer exhibition, "1968-2008: The Culture of Collage," showcases collage and assemblage by 46 European and American artists. Zoubok’s curatorial idea was to survey some 40 years of work bracketed by two years of exceptional political ferment. Earlier pieces, like Salvatore Meo’s tiny boxed flag (My America, 1968) and Ron Monroe’s inclusion of the tabloid headline "RFK Dead" in his assemblage RFK in 68 (1968) are explicitly political. Right before Stonewall, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s 1968 assemblage of little tinsel-festooned pieces, is his momento of the gay liberation milestone. The artist describes the charming ensemble as "handmade Homo-conceptual Knick-knacks." Alice Attie contributes the timely newspaper collage, Requiem: Iraq (2008).

Nevertheless, most of the densely hung works from both older and younger generations, stress personal associations over the political. Miriam Wosk’s Bones of the Golden Serpent (2008), a sort of lurid fantasy of nature using tinfoil and butterfly wings, is one of the more ambitious pieces. Max Premo’s Seeing Seeing (2008) voyeuristically incorporates a hidden video of a mysterious interior. The wide-ranging survey also includes longstanding members of what might be called the New York Correspondance School, including gallery artists Geoff Hendricks, Al Hansen and John Evans, and certified collage masters Joseph Cornell and Ray Johnson. The show feels a reunion of distant relations in the same family.

Jiří Kolář (1914-2002) and May Wilson (1905-1986) are represented in the show as well. Other examples of their collages also appeared in "Manufactured Unreality," a tasty recent group exhibition of 19 artists organized by gallery artist Don Joint for Frances Naumann Fine Art (which moves this month from East 80th Street to new quarters at 24 West 57th Street). Joint, known for his meticulously embroidered colorful abstractions, put some of his own work in the exhibition. He also has brought together nice examples of traditionally formalist collage like those by Herbert Bayer along with examples of more expressionistic, narrative and fantastic juxtapositions of images from Bill Copley and Enrico Baj.

The exhibition also revealed that certain artists who double as critics are very good at this seductive medium. Exhibit A: Maureen Mullarkey’s Schwitteresque combines of evocative book covers, old papers and letters, and Mario Naves’s very appealing altered Florida postcards.

ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a New York critic who also worked as a studio assistant to Joseph Cornell.