One of the brightest spots of this past punishing NYC winter was the "An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle" show up at NYU's Grey Art Gallery. It was a staggeringly beautiful and comprehensive celebration of the myth-infused work done from the 1950s-70s by (and between) collagist and painter, Jess, and his poet partner, Robert Duncan, as well as that of their San Francisco community of creative kindred. In addition to enjoying the varied pieces individually, I was also buoyed by the collective energy of the show, and by the spirit of generosity that was its throughline. So many of the works were gifts between artists or the results of collaborative acts, forming a wider visual dialog about making, looking, and loving. I left feeling that the image of the hermetic creator toiling away in isolation had been turned on its ear, and was reminded that creative energy can reach new depths when shared amongst friends.
I was thrilled, then, that the good folks at Pomegranate sent me a copy of their book of the same name to review here. Not only does it give me another opportunity to talk about these remarkable artists again, but it is also the next best thing to having the show hang in perpetuity. I treasure this tome, and I think you will, too.
First of all, the book has the added benefit of several insightful and informative essays by the show's curators, Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff, as well as by the curator of European Art at the Crocker Museum (where the show debuted), William Breazeale, and associate curator of the Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo (which houses the largest collection of Duncan's papers), James Maynard. Duncan and Wagstaff's essays cover biographies of both artists and their relationship, and include illustrated analyses of their works and inspirations, as well as glimpses into what their day-to-day lives were like in their Victorian home, steeped as it was in imagination. This anecdote by curator Michael Auping included in the first essay particularly struck me:
Jess would always make me a healthy breakfast which Duncan and I were obliged to eat, and we would talk for an hour or two about images from books or paintings or street signs, anything that happened to come up that morning. Sometimes I would pick out one of the thousands of old books that seemed to line the interior of the house and ask them to recount the story of why they had collected it. Following a synopsis of the story, Jess would say, "It's here because that story isn't over yet. It's still unfolding." And then Jess might notice an image of a sports figure on the Wheaties box and go on about its mythogical origin. It's like the house was a transmitter for wandering myths...Jess had a special talent for getting time to slow down so that fantasy, which in the end is what creative thinking is, seemed as natural as breathing.
These two essays are followed by a selection of Jess and Duncan's work, which naturally are marvelous. There are paintings, illustrations, and "paste-ups" (how Jess referred to his collages) by Jess, poems and drawings by Duncan (himself also a very fine visual artist), and examples of Duncan's poems which Jess illustrated - a true testament to their mutual respect and partnership.
Next is Breazeale's essay about Jess's paste-ups, chock full of gorgeous examples. And then is Maynard's essay about Duncan and his poetry circle, which included Jack Spicer, Robert Blaser, Michael McClure, Charles Olsen, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. This section includes images of illustrations of their poems, done by Jess and one another.
The largest section is an alphabetized survey of Jess and Duncan's visual artist friends, with examples of their paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures. Most heartening to me here was seeing how many of these artists were female, implying a truly inclusive spirit amongst their group. While the pieces are as varied as the number of individuals represented, there is an overarching theme of mythology, magic, mystery, and transformation. Furthermore, several of their names were new for me, and I will be featuring some of these personal discoveries here soon.
The book closes with two appendixes: an interview between Wagstaff and Jess, and a photo album of images of Jess, Duncan, their friends, and their fantastical home. Both offer rare and intimate vantage points into their imaginal world.
In these digital days, Pomegranate's "An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle" is a wonderful reminder why physical objects matter. This is a truly gorgeous hardbacked book of 288 pages, with over 200 full-color reproductions, and 60 black and white photos. It is worthy of the artists therein, in other words, and pays homage to their sensitive, resplendent lives and work by being a thing of beauty itself. This is no mere catalog. It's a masterful recognition of two leading lights within the American mystical art movement, and I cannot recommend it more highly.