One of the most productive artistic couples of the twentieth century, artist Jess (1923–2004) and poet Robert Duncan (1919–1988) established a domestic space that fostered their creativity and inspired a generation of San Francisco Bay Area artists and poets. The couple nearly filled all four floors of their rambling Victorian house with libraries—mythology and reference on the ground floor, Oz books and fairy-tale editions in the bedroom, French literature and an exhaustive modernist collection upstairs. All remaining walls were covered with visionary art by friends such as Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Edward Corbett, Lilly Fenichel, Tom Field, George Herms, Harry Jacobus, R. B. Kitaj, and Philip Roeber. This exhibition showcases Jess and Duncan’s synergetic relationship and the cultural view it generated, evidenced through their work and that of their immediate friends and colleagues.
Jess’s art was about the retrieval of images from a culture overflowing with them. Trained at the San Francisco Art Institute, Jess quickly shifted from abstraction into a unique style of painting that reflected his interests in literature and myth. In his collages—or, as he called them, “paste-ups”—he created mind-bending intermingling and fantastic juxtapositions, using images taken from sources ranging from Dick Tracy to Dürer. Jess filtered these far-flung references through a self-described Romantic sensibility, one that valued the transformative power of the imagination above all else. Robert Duncan offered in his writings a myth-obsessed appreciation for all forms of the poetic imagination. A voracious reader of everything from Paracelsus to L. Frank Baum, Duncan published over forty volumes and has been acknowledged as one of the most erudite poets of his time. The publication of a six-volume edition of his collected works is now under way.
To varying degrees, the visual artists and poets who were intimates in their circle shared a penchant for romanticism, appreciation of myth, and sense of joyful play. Operating in large part outside the marketplace, they made lyrical, intimate, and humorous art for their own edification and enjoyment. Seen in concert, their works demonstrate both the heritage and legacy of Jess and Duncan’s radical experimentation.