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Back in the 1950s in the Bay Area, the center for creatives a little off the trail in experimental art was a Victorian house packed to its wooden walls with books. As the home of Jess and Robert Duncan, a couple where within their own relationship there was a constant collaboration between visual art and writing, it became one of the magnets for an eclectic group of artists. They likewise shared influences and would in many ways propel the radical art of the 1960s. However, this collaborative moment hasn’t been looked at in an exhibition until An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, now at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University.
The exhibition, its title referencing a work by Duncan, debuted last summer at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, where it was masterminded by curators Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff. After the Grey, it will make stops at the Katzen Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art, taking this microcosm of San Francisco art with it. And it is a dense sampling with over a hundred works, many on view for the first time, by not just Duncan and Jess, but their broad circle of friends. It’s definitely an exhibition that perhaps reaches a little too far, with not every work or artist in the maelstrom having enough of a impact or relevance, but with enough energy through the couple at the center to keep it grounded.
Duncan is better known for his poetry, and with good reason, as while his crayon drawings in the exhibition have a thick textured color to them that seem to almost make the smell of wax whiff into the gallery, they’re not on the same level as his writing that took that same embrace of motifs into an engaging rhythm of the esoteric. However, they are interesting in revealing another side to his work and how he and Jess both opened their practice to the focus of the other. Jess, for his part, came into visual art after working as a chemist with plutonium during World War II, but had a dream in 1948 of the Earth being destroyed in 1975 and switched to art.
It seems appropriate that a vision would bring Jess to art and later to Duncan, as they both embraced myths as a sort of romanticism along with the esoteric and occult, as well as a heavy helping of literature and current culture. Jess in particular with his painstaking collages did not reject mass media so much as transform it, splicing magazines and advertisements into stories as heavy with symbolism as any of his beloved Celtic legends. There are also his paintings where the pigment is piled on almost like another assemblage, sometimes with characters from sources like Don Quixote, other times they mythologize his own circle of friends.
However, while whole separate retrospectives could be held on Duncan and Jess (in fact, uptown Tibor de Nagy Gallery is hosting a coinciding exhibition of works by the latter), where you can really tumble into this ephemeral past is through the lesser-known artists. Sure, there are works by familiar names like R. B. Kitaj and Llyn Foulkes, but it’s more fascinating to discover artists like Miram Hoffman. The sculptor created earthy, figurative works from terracotta and bits of stone, a few of which are on display in the gallery, but she found the commercial side of the art world not for her, and lived in obscurity and poverty for most of her life.
Less forgotten, but also often overlooked, is Helen Adam, who like Duncan was a poet, but cut out models from magazines into humorous and oddly dark collages, such as a woman in pink surrounded by cats in a canoe with the text: “Where Are The Snows.” There’s also Virginia Admiral, mostly known now as Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro’s mother, who created striking paintings along with spirited progressive writing, and Philip Roeber with his rich painting abstractions. The Grey Gallery helpfully has a small gallery of all the players online, which evokes almost as much as the work itself the different minds melding in a sort of loose community at the time.
Granted, the work contained in An Opening of the Field skitters over the careers of a whole cavalcade of artists, crashing into different decades and pasting moments together like in one of Jess’s collages, and can only tell so much about the kindling of postmodernism in the Bay Area. Both halves of the influential couple have now passed away, Jess in 2004 and Duncan in 1988, yet they each were incredibly prolific and it’s likely this won’t be the last exhibition to really delve into their relationship and linked art. However, it’s an admirable grasp at this time in San Francisco when aspects of the mythical and a fluidity with expression were spurring forward art into new dimensions.
An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle is at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village) through March 29.