Jess (born Jess Collins, 1923-2004) is one of those idiosyncratic American art figures with a trajectory that defies categorization. California born and bred he became a nuclear chemist, joined the military and even worked on the Manhattan Project. Disenchanted with the realities of atomic energy he turned to art in his late twenties. Immersed in the pre-Beat San Francisco scene he soon met the poet Robert Duncan (author of the landmark essay “The Homosexual and Society” ) and the two stayed together in improbable monogamy for almost forty years until Duncan’s death in 1988.
Long a hero in the San Francisco scene, especially among the radical queer hyper-aesthete set, Jess is not as well known outside that city or art circles in general (despite an amazing retrospective at the Whitney in 1994), and among those who are aware of him he is primarily thought of for his inventive collages (or “paste-ups”) particularly the Transitions series which in their frantic recombinant density almost redefine horror vacui for the modern age. The current show at Tibor de Nagy however shows us a different side of this very different artist. This suite of simply lovely paintings is drawn from Jess’s early work, mostly from the fifties, some even from Jess’s student days at the San Francisco Art Institute. He covers familiar ground: landscapes, still lives, portraits and interiors. While simple and sometimes even spare, the traditional subjects however are given special intensity, often by heavily worked surfaces and glossy impastoes, that take them beyond the physical reality they actually possessed into a realm located instead somewhere deep inside. But that’s usually the case with masterful figuration, right? - because what makes all these paintings feel both special and of a singular mind is an pronounced sense of interiority. The works don’t have the same complicated sensational qualities as his later collages, and feel anything but socially or historically observant. In fact they bear little if any reference to an outside world at all - anything beyond the artist’s field of vision at the moment. They are restrained, quiet, self contained and the simple glance they offer is actually a glimpse into an sensitive artistic intellect, one which for his young age was quite impressive.
But these are not works about the “artist” himself. They’re not filled with psychological signifiers of the kind found in some of the collages with their chemical/alchemical references, but instead simply display subjective feeling. (That’s something all too often missing in modern work, especially without qualifying self-conscious quotation marks.) As a result the paintings are all beautiful, courageously felt and darkly luminous and their unassuming subjects belie the intensity of the witness and his brush. A few do have Jess’s signature flat “paint by numbers” feel but are nevertheless inhabited by beautiful if humble light - the kind other Bay Area painters would later interpret in much more overt ways but in Jess’s hands is much more matter of fact and less sentimental.
Few galleries today are as invested in the tradition of figural painting and assert its vitality the way they do at Tibor De Nagy - Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter - all familiar names from an often under-sung midcentury moment in New York when Abstract Expressionism started to collapse under the weight of its own ponderous importance and artists began looking at things again (right before Pop jaundiced that view however and drew us into another half century of irony). Last year’s “Poets and Painters” exhibition at the gallery gave us the clearest and most comprehensive survey of this interesting moment in American history when the poetry (Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch) upended tradition while their painter friends and lovers seemed to reinvent it. They held hands while they worked and the result was nothing less than an illuminating double-teaming of the zeitgeist. Jess finds a natural home at deNagy, and even his hopped-up Transitions find a place in this same trajectory. (The collages are almost textual themselves after all.) This is not just a place for pretty paintings then but instead one of the most cogent clearinghouses for an oft neglected curlicue in the too often rigid branches art history offers. Few other galleries seems as loyal to context, and do so without clumsy pretense. A number of hard-to-pigeonhole artists like Ashbery and Joe Brainard exemplify the ecumenical deNagy outlook. Jess in his deep and complicated career is another, and it is a revelation to see.