The oil paint is laid on thick, like the most scrumptious cake frosting imaginable, in the portrait of the poet Robert Duncan that his life partner, the artist known as Jess, made in 1965. Duncan, his almond-shaped eyes wide open but looking not so much at us as beyond us, is nearly overwhelmed by the bohemian excess of the home on Stinson Beach, near San Francisco, where he and Jess lived together for a time in the 1950s. Among their possessions, as chronicled in this voluptuous little canvas, are volumes of esoteric literature (The Zohar and Thrice Greatest Hermes), flourishing houseplants, a phantasmagorical candle holder with a lit candle, and other fin-de-siècle bibelots. An art nouveau hanging lamp, with leaves and berries in pungent greens and reds, sets the hyperbolic mood. Every nook and cranny of the painting bursts with unexpected color combinations. Jess celebrates the high-minded hedonism of the mid-twentieth-century San Francisco Bay Area avant-garde with a canvas that rivals the enameled richness of a medieval altarpiece.
Jess’s portrait of Duncan, part of a series of paintings he called Translations, has an enigmatic title, The Enamord Mage, which was adapted from one of Duncan’s poems (see illustration below). If this title, with its archaic wording, identifies Duncan as a beloved and charismatic magician, he was also a thoroughly modern one, who along with Jess saw the liberating power of certain esoteric and occult ideas. Duncan and Jess believed that the social, sexual, and artistic choices they made in their own lives, although they might strike some as revolutionary, were among many other things a celebration of older modes of thought and feeling.
These men felt an affinity with dissident spirits from many times and places: the unconventional Victorians and Edwardians who let their imaginations run wild when they wrote books for children; the Symbolists who transformed French art and literature in the late nineteenth century; the early-twentieth-century experimentalists, especially James Joyce and Max Ernst, who reshaped verbal and visual syntax; and the filmmakers among their Bay Area cohort who broke all the rules of naturalistic storytelling and narrative coherence. They admired ancient Greek literature and the paintings of the Old Masters, but also took an interest in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and the brash, full-color advertisements in Life magazine. The archaeological, antiquarian, and archival aspects of their avant-gardism are worth contemplating now, when the swagger and free-spiritedness of the old West Coast bohemia have been buried beneath a tech-savvy San Francisco that they would find unrecognizable.
Duncan and Jess have in recent years inspired a considerable number of books and exhibitions. Tara McDowell’s The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess is the most recent effort to excavate the works and lives of Duncan, who was sixty-nine when he died in 1988, and Jess, who died sixteen years later at the age of eighty. A biography by Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus, was published in 2012. The University of California Press has brought out Duncan’s collected writings in four stout volumes, one devoted to The H.D. Book, a work of over six hundred pages that began as a salute to the poet who was born Hilda Doolittle and morphed into a wide-ranging meditation on the nature of art in the modern world; only parts of it were published during Duncan’s lifetime.
More than twenty-five years ago, Jess was the subject of “Jess: A Grand Collage, 1951–1993,” a retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo that traveled to major museums in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Since then, there has been a steady stream of engaging books and exhibitions. “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle,” which toured in 2013–2015 and was accompanied by a valuable catalog, was perhaps the boldest attempt yet to set Jess and Duncan at the center of San Francisco’s avant-garde heyday. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) explored similar themes in last year’s “Mythos, Psyche, Eros: Jess and California.” The men and women who were part of their circle included many of the significant writers, artists, and filmmakers who at one time or another made Northern California their base of operation. Although some of their friends, like the poet Helen Adam, are little known, others, like Pauline Kael, who in the 1950s lived in a house in Berkeley full of murals painted by her good friend Jess, need no introduction.
We now have, close at hand, not only much of the work that Jess and Duncan created but also a significant amount of archival material relating to them and their circle. (The SFMoMA show included some of the collections of clippings from books and magazines that Jess stored in his studio.) What may still be lacking are the analytical tools necessary to describe and define their visual and literary worlds. Both men were formalists; they believed in the freestanding meaning, integrity, and value of a work of art or literature. But their formalism involved a vehement rejection of what Duncan saw as the impersonal and maybe even mechanistic view of tradition that writers from T.S. Eliot to Clement Greenberg associated with the creative act.
Duncan believed that the forms of art and the forms of life were forever intertwined—wonderfully, mysteriously, miraculously. In “Pages from a Notebook,” first published in 1953, he wrote of wanting “to live in the swarm of human speech. This is not to seek perfection but to draw honey or poetry out of all things.” A little later in these notes he praised the importance of the unplanned as a key to emotional authenticity: “A longing grows to return to the open composition in which the accidents and imperfections of speech might awake intimations of human being.” Duncan said the poetry of Pindar, which he embraced as in some ways exemplary, was “not a statue but a mosaic.” Both the openness and what sometimes even feels like the messiness of Duncan’s poems and the collages that Jess referred to as his “paste-ups” grew out of a conviction that artistic form was less a matter of long-sought resolution than perpetual evolution.
When they met in 1949, Duncan was thirty and Jess was twenty-six. Jess, who had been born Burgess Collins, had grown up in Southern California and studied chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. In the army, he worked on the manufacture of plutonium at Oak Ridge, the Manhattan Project’s site in Tennessee. After the war, he joined General Electric Laboratories and was assigned to the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Washington State, until he became disillusioned with the government’s nuclear programs and moved to the Bay Area, where he began studying painting at the California School of Fine Arts. Jess first met Duncan when he attended a reading the poet gave in Berkeley. “Shy, willowy, and the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome”—so Lisa Jarnot describes Jess in her biography of Duncan—he “attracted Duncan’s attention immediately.” Soon enough, they were lovers. Duncan was born in Northern California. When his mother died shortly after his birth, he was adopted by a family with theosophical enthusiasms who saw the timing of the adoption as related to their hermeticist interest in the alignment of the stars; Duncan’s later mystical inclinations had deep roots. By the time he met Jess, Duncan had studied at the University of California at Berkeley, lived on the East Coast, and established himself as a poet of promise.
As early as 1944, in the essay “The Homosexual in Society,” published in Dwight Macdonald’s short-lived and strikingly independent magazine Politics, Duncan had made a bold argument for the relationship between sexual and artistic freedom. “What I think can be asserted as a starting point,” he wrote, “is that only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a freedom, and that is a devotion to human creative life and expression, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations.” Seven years later, in 1951, he and Jess embraced that “liberation of human love” when they took what they always described as “marriage vows,” although as far as I know nobody has described the content of that resolutely unofficial ceremony. Duncan moved into Jess’s studio, a renovated ballroom with an improvised kitchen in a building known as the Ghost House; it was a big old San Francisco Victorian wreck of a place, where they shared a bathroom with other artists and writers. They embarked on their life as what they referred to as “householders.” “I’m a householder,” McDowell quotes Duncan as explaining. “My whole idea of being able to work was to have a household.” While a gay household was by no means a unique arrangement, what was striking about theirs was the insistence that the liberation of love forged the conditions that made significant creative work possible.
McDowell’s book is a quartet of essays in which she meditates on the relationship between Duncan and Jess and their art and the spaces they shared, especially the Victorian house at 3267 20th Street in San Francisco, where they moved in the late 1960s and remained until their deaths. She quotes the painter R.B. Kitaj, a friend of Duncan’s, as referring to their “safe-household” and goes on to say that “this curious neologism suggests a slight mutation of the safe house, a refuge for individuals in active conflict with the state, or engaged in acts of espionage or terrorism.” For them, the house, she argues, was “a physical place,” “an imaginary site,” and “the precondition for artistic production for both men.”
They were deeply attached to their possessions, which included a great number of books and records as well as antiques and curiosities picked up inexpensively in Bay Area thrift shops and junkshops. Duncan liked to work at the kitchen table, while Jess was upstairs in his studio with the magazines and assorted books and ephemera that he mined for his paste-ups. My only qualm with McDowell’s emphasis on the unconventional charms of this domestic arrangement is that she may underestimate the extent to which many literary and artistic bohemians, whether gay or straight, have chosen to be homebodies. For every Rimbaud who can’t settle down—and for many people that remains the quintessential bohemian type—there are many more artists and writers who depend on the stability of a home that can function as a reflection or extension of their art and ideas. If Kitaj understood his friend’s hunger for a safe-household, it was in part because the homes he created for himself in London and, later, Los Angeles also functioned as creative cocoons.
Jess made lunch for me one day in the kitchen on 20th Street in San Francisco, after I’d written something about him and we had corresponded a bit. Duncan, always known as the voluble one in the couple, was no longer alive. Jess was easy company, more matter-of-fact and plainspoken than some friends had led me to expect. The wild imaginings were left for the work, at least at that point when he was a relatively old man. The house had its unusual and off-beat elements, but not ostentatiously so, and the overall sense was of a place much lived in. The illumination over the table in the kitchen came from a fixture containing some old bulbs that had filaments with elaborate, quirky designs. Jess explained that years earlier he and Duncan had scavenged them from abandoned buildings in the city. Those bulbs were strange and beautiful and apparently made to last: they were still shedding light in the 1990s.
Like many commentators on Jess’s work, McDowell is particularly fascinated by Narkissos, a nearly monochromatic composition in pencil and gouache on cut and pasted paper, which he worked on for a couple of decades and left unfinished in 1991. This nearly six-foot-high vision is a bewildering gathering of images derived from sources as varied as classical sculpture, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons, and Physique Pictorial, a midcentury health and fitness magazine marketed to gay men. In a two-hundred-page notebook, McDowell explains, Jess gathered together quotations and sources related to the myth of Narcissus. There is a curatorial impulse here that he shared with many figures in the modern movement, from Ezra Pound, with his gathering of far-flung sources in the Cantos, to the “souvenir boxes” that Joseph Cornell composed of photographs and ephemera to honor the ballerinas and movie actresses who struck his fancy.
At the center of Narkissos is the handsome young Narcissus, but in a shift that reaffirms Duncan’s interest in the intermingling of art and life, the face that returns his gaze in a pond crowded with waterlilies and occult symbols is not his mirror image but Brancusi’s sculpted head Le Narcisse. Jess’s protagonist—whose downcast gaze and lean, muscular physique are derived from photographs—discovers his dopplegänger in a simplified head by the artist who by most reckonings was the first modern sculptor. What powers this strange work, which McDowell justly characterizes as having a “visual density bordering on vertigo,” is Jess’s genius for knitting together figures, landscapes, and architectural elements of widely different sizes, scales, and styles. This is a composition that continually forces us off balance with its spatial push and pull.
While Ernst and Kurt Schwitters almost invariably juxtaposed variegated elements in collage and collage-like compositions that had an insistent, overall frontality, Jess prefers spaces that twist, buckle, and bend. In Narkissos and in the many paste-ups he did without recourse to pencil and gouache, he brings together the far off and the nearby. A nude boy featured in Narkissos, based on a drawing by the Mannerist painter Pontormo, proffers an arm so dramatically foreshortened as to foreclose any possibility of a lucid spatial geometry. Jess’s compositions, despite the plethora of classical references, are insistently unclassical or even anticlassical. He gives the spatial surprises we know from everyday experience a discombobulating magic.
Around 1950, when Jess was attending the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the improvisatory and experimental spirit of the Abstract Expressionists was still in the ascendance. Both Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko taught there for a time, and West Coast painters, including Edward Corbett and Hassel Smith, must have encouraged an emphasis on moment-to-moment intuitions that Jess embraced even as he marshaled representational images in his paste-ups and paintings. Although the handling of figures and spaces in his paintings occasionally strikes me as inept rather than provocative, he has a way of arriving at visions so strange and unexpected that I’m left feeling that no further justification is required. A relatively large canvas, If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink (1962; see illustration at the top), with its circle of dancing children, confetti drift of particolored rectangles, and shadowy cardplayer watching the unfolding action, is enjoyable and inexplicable—at least until you discover that it’s derived from a dream that Duncan related in The H.D. Book. For a series of works called Salvages, Jess began with old paintings discovered in junkshops or antique shops and used what was already on the canvas as a jumping-off point for his own visual ruminations. The results are Janus-faced, with the found image and the invented image locked together.
Perhaps the most striking of Jess’s paintings are the Translations; he worked on the series from the late 1950s deep into the 1960s. Some Translations were derived from engravings in old copies of Scientific American, others from photographs that struck Jess’s fancy. After precisely tracing the outlines of his chosen model onto a canvas, he went his own way with colors and surfaces. We watch as the dutiful empiricist becomes the shameless romanticist. Some works in the series fall flat. With Fig. 4—Far and Few…: Translation #15, based on a photograph of the Beatles standing up to their thighs in water, Jess seems flummoxed by the rather banal pop culture image. But a couple of the Translations that focus on old experiments or apparatuses from the pages of Scientific American yield bemusedly lyrical salutes to the forever receding dream of scientific certainty.
With the lushly ambiguous Montana Xibalba: Translation #2, Jess turns a black-and-white photograph of soccer players into an exuberant eruption of youthful bodies and fancy athletic garb, all rendered in zany complementary colors. On the back of each Translation, Jess included an inscription. The one for Montana Xibalba is from the Mayan book of creation, about a ballgame in the underworld. The photograph, from a college yearbook, is juxtaposed with an ancient American myth. The fruit of this unexpected confrontation is unlike any other image I know.
The slippage between the present and the past and the ordinary and the mythic was as essential for Duncan as it was for Jess. In an essay, “Ideas of the Meaning of Form,” Duncan complained that for all too many poets—the ones, so he believed, who were “obsessed by convention”—form was only “significant in so far as it shows control.” What interested Duncan were the structural possibilities that defied all conventional principles of artistic control. The Opening of the Field, a book of poems published in 1960, is generally regarded as the key to his work. There, in a series of poems collectively titled “The Structure of Rime,” he describes discovering “a snake-like beauty in the living changes of syntax.” The life of the poem can’t ever really be separated from life itself.
“In the feet that measure the dance of my pages,” Duncan writes, “I hear cosmic intoxications of the man I will be.” To shape the poem isn’t about closing down experience but opening it up. “I in the guise of a Lion roard out great vowels and heard their amazing patterns.” It is the writing, which takes place in real time, that shapes poetic time. Inevitably, Duncan’s meaning turns out to be slippery, elusive. “The Master of Rime,” he writes, “time after time, came down the arranged ladders of vision or ascended the smoke and flame towers of the opposite of vision, into or out of the language of daily life.”
Duncan’s poetry—and there is a lot of it—can shock with its shifts from off-the-cuff observation to grandiose declaration and from the private to the public. “An Essay at War,” written in the early 1950s, moves from the predicaments of the poet as he strings words into poems to the horrors of the Korean War, and does so with a dexterity that discomfits and astonishes in almost equal measure. We begin with “the design of a poem/constantly/under reconstruction,/changing, pusht forward.” The design, so we are told, is “a conception betrayd.” Some pages later—this is a long poem—we find ourselves confronting the war. “We are fighting over there/Without a plan.” Men, Duncan writes, are “orderd to stand—there being/no order—/we do not understand.”
The yearning for order, Duncan suggests, is there in the poem but also there in the wider world. “What does it mean?” he asks. “The design/constantly in reconstruction. Destroyd./Reformd.” Duncan was too fine a mind and too ethical a man to ever suggest any direct analogy between the disorder of art and the disorder of war. What he did was something riskier and deeper. “An Essay at War,” with its punning title, suggests movements in the world that might link radically different forms of order and disorder.
The most convincing writing about Duncan’s poetry is by Thom Gunn, who was born in England but lived much of his life in San Francisco. Perhaps because Gunn’s own poetry was so alien to his friend Duncan’s freewheeling sensibilities, his admiration strikes with a particular clarity and force. Gunn writes of the “adventure of entering the process of a Duncan composition,” which is “energetic yet tentative, assertive yet self-revising, opportunistic yet receptive, taking place as it does in some area between directionless flux and rigid authorial control, an area which the poet defines as he goes along.” There are many modern writers and artists whose embrace of ambiguity leave us with a sense of loss or defeat. What’s so invigorating about Duncan’s ambiguities is that they move toward affirmation and even ecstasy. Gunn sees in Duncan’s work a contemporary reimagining of older forms of romantic feeling, which Duncan described as “the intellectual adventure of not knowing.” Jess’s work also involves that intellectual adventure of not knowing. He once explained that when he was learning about Abstract Expressionism at the California School of Fine Arts he “was really learning Romance.” “I am insistently a Romantic artist,” he said, “poetic artist, who-knows-what-somebody-pigeonholes-me artist.”
Jess knew that he was going to be pigeonholed and maybe even dismissed—perhaps as an incurable romantic, perhaps as a West Coast artist and therefore by definition a provincial artist. The same was true of Duncan. There is no question that at times East Coast and West Coast artists and writers have regarded one another with more than a little suspicion. When Duncan introduced Randall Jarrell at a reading in 1956, he was hardly complimentary, complaining that Jarrell “has no obsessions” and that his poetry “never yields to unreal convictions.” Not long after, when Duncan reached out to Frank O’Hara, he was rebuffed. O’Hara wrote to Jasper Johns that although there might be something interesting in Duncan’s poetry, “I can’t stand him myself, but he is their Charles Olson—to me he is quite flabby by comparison, but maybe because I’m on the East Coast.”
Of course, there were also friendships and alliances with artists whose sensibilities and careers had been formed back east. Gunn has written of the “immediate mutual attraction” between Duncan and Elizabeth Bishop when they met in 1969. Duncan’s long and for many years enthusiastic friendship with Denise Levertov would have been unimaginable without the enormous number of letters they sent back and forth between the coasts. As for Jess, although firmly planted in San Francisco, he exhibited throughout his life with the Odyssia Gallery in New York, and as early as 1974 a show of his Translations was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art.
The story of the artistic and poetic life of the West Coast has all too often been told from the vantage point of the East Coast. There has long been a feeling in some circles that it took “The San Francisco Scene,” a special 1957 issue of the New York–based magazine The Evergreen Review, to put the Bay Area bohemia on the national map. There is certainly something to be said about the chauvinism of New York, but only when we have put that aside do we come to the really interesting question of whether there is some particular cluster of qualities or characteristics that sets San Francisco and its artists and writers apart. If for some the city would always look like a cultural outpost, for others its outsider status made it something of a cultural mecca.
Duncan and Jess and some of their friends believed that living at a remove from the center of things had much to recommend it. In a fascinating essay, “Provincialism,” the English art historian Kenneth Clark muses on the particular qualities that may inhere in an art formed outside of the great urban centers. He suggests that “provincial painting is at its best when it is poetical painting” (he cites the Pre-Raphaelites and Caspar David Friedrich). And he describes what he regards as “the characteristics of a positive and independent provincial art: it tells a story; it takes pleasure in the facts; it is lyrical, and it achieves a visionary intensity.” These words bring to mind not only Jess’s but also Duncan’s work; perhaps theirs was an art that could only flourish at a remove from the cultural center.
Christopher Wagstaff and Michael Duncan (no relation), who have written a great deal about Jess as well as Duncan, believe that we need to see these men within the larger Bay Area community. In their 2013–2015 exhibition “An Opening of the Field” and the accompanying book, Duncan and Jess are joined by more than two dozen artists and writers who lived or spent time in the Bay Area or at least shared many concerns. In addition to Kael and Kitaj, they include the assemblage artist Wallace Berman, the poet Helen Adam, the filmmaker and poet James Broughton, and the painters Lyn Brockway, Harry Jacobus, and Norris Embry.
There are motifs, themes, and even obsessions that link many of the Bay Area figures. They valued the intuitive, the quotidian, and the fantastical—and they liked to mix it up. What was it that held them together? Did they all feel the strong impact of the teaching at the California School of Fine Arts? Or did Jess function as a sort of diffident chef d’école and Duncan as the atelier’s exegete, the couple’s interests so captivating that they influenced what their friends were doing? It’s also possible that these artists and writers were under the spell of something more pervasive and elusive—what we might call the spirit of San Francisco.
In “The Ballad of the Enamord Mage,” the poem from which Jess took the title for his portrait, Duncan wrote with tempered optimism about the evolution of an art “informd by Grief, Joy, insatiable Desire/And cold Remorse.” Perhaps San Francisco, where seventy-five years ago you could still feel the pull of the city’s Barbary Coast beginnings, was conducive to an art that rejected definitive statements and embraced extreme and even reckless emotions. Could it be that the city offered a riposte to Manhattan’s hard, clear geometry? Could it be that San Francisco, with its precipitous hills and mysterious fogs, set the stage for an art that celebrated uncertainty? Such speculations can’t be proven or disproven. What we are left with are the works that individuals made. In “The Ballad of the Enamord Mage,” Duncan wrote that “Worlds out of Worlds in Magic grow.” And so they did, in the homes that Jess and Duncan shared for so many years.