Saturday, May 26, 2012
The Return of Narkissos
Narkissos, the last great collage completed by the San Francisco artist Jess has made a welcome return to the permanent collection gallery on the second floor of SFMOMA.
Jess was born Burgess Collins in Long Beach in 1923, was drafted into the military after studying chemistry at Cal Tech, and worked on the Manhattan Project during World War Two. He followed that with a three-year stint at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington where he became completely disillusioned with his scientific career and its role in the atomic destruction of the world. In 1949 he enrolled in the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and began referring to himself as "Jess". He met the Berkeley poet Robert Duncan in 1951 and the two became lovers until Duncan's death in 1988.
Duncan and Jess were central spokes of San Francisco gay bohemia in the 1950s and 1960s which culminated in the Beat and Hippie movements, along with whatever we're calling the digital revolution that also flows from their work.
A Wikipedia entry on Jess notes that his collages are known for themes drawn from chemistry, alchemy, the occult, and male beauty, which pretty much describes Narkissos to a T. He worked on the piece from 1976 to 1991, and it's great to have it back out of storage.