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In 1956, rector Charles Olson invited Bay Area poet Robert Duncan (1919–1988) and his partner, Jess (Burgess Collins, 1923–2004), to teach at Black Mountain College and exchange ideas on avant-garde poetry. Inspired by Olson’s concept of “composition by field,” i.e., of verse organized by nonlinear, spontaneous associations, Duncan entitled his 1960 collection of poems The Opening of the Field. An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle applies this vision of imaginative interconnection to a stimulating group of works in varied media. Deeply rooted in myth and romanticism, Olson would have appreciated its broad cultural scope, grounded in the specifics of local history.
The curators—Michael Duncan (no relation to Robert) and Christopher Wagstaff, assisted by William Breazeale, curator of European art at the Crocker Art Museum—draw on extensive personal knowledge of the artists selected and on a wealth of material from the Bay Area. Their endeavors complement the 1993 retrospective of Jess’s work organized by Michael Auping for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, shifting its center of gravity from Jess’s remarkable collages and paintings to the “field,” featuring works by Duncan and over thirty of his friends. Spanning the 1940s to the 1970s, the exhibition includes many lesser-known figures who developed lively alternatives to the marketplace (of which not much was available to them). The fully illustrated catalogue includes curatorial essays, an interview with Jess, as well as a survey of poets in the group by James Maynard, associate curator at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection. Especially valuable are the thorough biographies of the artists and writers included. They highlight further connections between Black Mountain and the Bay Area, long identified with the Beats; and by tracing the participants’ later careers develop an extended historical narrative.
Jess remains a major focus. Trained as a chemist, he worked on nuclear weapons during World War II before an apocalyptic dream in 1948 inspired him to study art. Even before encountering Duncan in 1950, he had absorbed Finnegans Wake, which became a touchstone for his work. Duncan, steeped in world literature and philosophy, is equally complex. A 1978 documentary on Duncan, including readings and interviews, along with Wagstaff and David Fratto’s lovingly photographed 2006 film of Duncan and Jess’s San Francisco home, features many of the works in the show and supplies background information to help bridge the gap between the verbal and visual arts.
At the Crocker, a central gallery is devoted to Jess, while works by Duncan and others spill over into an adjacent corridor. This proves a lot to take in on a single visit, yet the show’s informal, open-ended character encourages visitors to browse in the “field” and participate in its spirit of exploration. Interconnections abound: Ronald Bladen teaches Jess about pigments; or Paul Alexander, from Black Mountain, applies Jess’s “translation” technique to a photograph by Thomas Eakins. Despite the sprawl, the Abstract Expressionism influence, originating in Clyfford Still’s tenure at the California School of Fine Arts, provides a broad stylistic umbrella, most faithfully embodied by the elegant compositions of Edward Corbett and his students, Lilly Fenichel and Philip Roeber. Like Still’s, their works are based on large areas of color, while younger artists such as Jack Boyce and Tom Field, another Black Mountain transplant, practice large-scale, gestural abstraction (one of Field’s works in the show includes graffiti added by Jack Kerouac on a road trip through San Francisco).
But Bay Area Abstract Expressionism generated a broader, more free-spirited experimentalism, incorporating commercial imagery and mixed media, much like Robert Rauschenberg (another Black Mountain alum) on the East Coast. The atmospherics of Corbett’s dark abstractions persist in Jess’s collages, or “paste-ups,” which he saw as indebted to Abstract Expressionism. They provide connective tissue among the literal images and nurture what Jess called the “flux space” of these intricately crafted compositions. Collage connects a range of works in the show, from the assemblages of George Herms to the tightly organized compositions of Ernesto Edwards. Standing apart from the flux are the bold, numinous heads of sculptor Miriam Hoffman, an isolated figure who died virtually unknown.
Domesticity figures significantly, especially in Jess’s early paintings of luminous interiors inspired by Pierre Bonnard and Jean-Édouard Vuillard, artists favored by Duncan. Duncan referred to his house as a “grand collage” (the title of Auping’s 1993 retrospective), and in their film produced after Jess’s death, Wagstaff and Fratto explore its light-filled rooms and their contents. Duncan spoke significantly about the “household” as a nexus of community and of connection to everyday objects, but also a gallery and Wunderkammer. The exhibition features a large, randomly patterned crayon drawing by Duncan, intended as wallpaper, which responds to Vuillard’s richly patterned interiors. Crayons were favored by Jess and Duncan, and by friends such as Harry Jacobus, for their pigment density and connections to children’s expression. Bonnard and Vuillard’s understanding of painting as composing with colored shapes also informs Jess’s later work; his 1965 portrait of Duncan, The Enamored Mage: Translation #6, recalls the densely worked portraits Vuillard made of prominent Parisians.
Several other large works on paper by Duncan, suggestive of Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, reflect the synthesis of Cubism and color he absorbed during a 1940 visit to Hans Hofmann’s school in Provincetown. Their sophisticated modernism contrasts with the current of academic art, based in the classical nude, that runs through much of the figural work in the show, particularly inspired in Jess’s case by nineteenth-century French painter Gustave Moreau. Moreau’s blending of the unfinished and the over-wrought resonates with Jess’s paintings, while his dense allegorical compositions provide a precedent for the “flux space” of the paste-ups. In a 1979 letter to Jess from Paris, Duncan lovingly describes the drawings he’s studying in Moreau’s home, which is now a museum.
Engagement with the figure is literary but also personal and socio-political. The “household,” intimately bound up with the couple’s unconventional domestic partnership, implicated deep psychological issues while implicitly urging social change. Jess addresses homosexuality quite frankly in works like Lovers III: Erotic Triptych (1969), which carries crayon drawing to a high level of sophistication. He treats sex more ironically in paste-ups like Untitled (Eros) (ca. 1956), which combines classical nudes with figures from men’s magazines. James Broughton sets his whimsical 1953 film In the Pleasure Garden in an overgrown formal garden reminiscent of a Moreau painting, where classical sculptures fuel an undercurrent of sensuality. It addresses in its own way the radical cultural changes at work within the “opening field.”
The inclusion of Broughton and his one-time partner Pauline Kael acknowledges the importance of experimental film. The exhibition features two animations, extended collages, on which Jess collaborated with filmmaker Lawrence Jordan. Heavy Water, or The 40&1 Nights, or Jess’s Didactic Nickelodeon (1955–62) alludes to Jess’s earlier participation in the Manhattan Project and incorporates shots of collages that veer from The Wizard of Oz into nuclear catastrophe. These dematerialized paste-ups glow like the magic lantern slides in Marcel Proust’s novel, in which a child’s wonder at old stories projected on the wall of his room develops into a life-encompassing artistic vision.
Such a visionary impulse animates Jess’s “Translations,” of which three are included here. Beginning in 1959, Jess sought to “slow down” his paintings by basing them on found images, “translating” them into highly crafted compositions of very thick paint. The linear character of his early drawings recalls Aubrey Beardsley’s, and here it informs the strong outlines that carve up thick layers of pigment. Something of his scientific background reemerges in these concentrated efforts, which he saw in terms of self-reflection. Absent here is Narkissos, his monumental drawing that developed over three decades, an encyclopedic meditation on images, which opens up comparisons to the hermetic works of Jasper Johns or the writings of Walter Benjamin.
In his “Salvages,” which involve reworking earlier paintings, Jess further develops his interest in layering, allegory, and the integration of text and image. “Rintrah Roars . . . .”: Salvages VI (1965/1981) includes a poem by William Blake, who seems the most direct influence on these idiosyncratic pieces. In the 2006 film of the home’s interiors, a print by Blake is one of the few images of older art. For all his openness, Jess anchors his explorations in a relatively few fixed stars. There is a cloistered quality to the magic world of the house, a self-enclosure reinforced after the 1960s by war and changes in the art scene, in contrast to the extroversion of Rauschenberg and his collaborators—more at ease with the marketplace—who took collage out into the world.
By basing themselves in the house, as though allowing Jess and Duncan to curate, the show’s organizers access a fascinating body of material, but in so doing exclude related artists like Jay DeFeo, whose monumental absorption in The Rose (1958–66) suggests parallels to Jess. On the other hand, why is Bruce Conner in the house but not in the show? How did Duncan’s group, with its erudition and links to Black Mountain, differ from Kenneth Rexroth’s Beats?
Michael Duncan views the 1950s and 1960s as a “golden age” of U.S. culture, and when it is reassembled in New York, this richly articulated exhibition should offer fresh perspectives on post-war groups like the coterie of poet Frank O’Hara or the eccentric Long Island household of painter Fairfield Porter. But An Opening of the Field should also bring attention to ongoing manifestations of Jess and Duncan’s romantic postmodernism. It can serve as a reference for artists and critics in search of cultural landmarks in today’s expansive field, where impulses for play, improvisation, and community spring eternal, but can all too quickly resemble marketing strategies.
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of California, Davis