An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle

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The Enamord Mage: Translation #6, 1965 Oil On Canvas Over Wood 24 ½ X 30 In. © Collection of The M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle

490 East Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91101
September 14th, 2014 - January 11th, 2015
Opening: September 14th, 2014 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Wed-Sun 12–5; 3rd Thursdays: 5–8


The Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) is proud to present An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, the first exhibition to focus on the artistic production and relationship between the artist Jess, his partner Robert Duncan, and their remarkable circle of friends. The exhibition draws its name, “An Opening of the Field,” from the title from one of Duncan’s key books and features approximately 130 artworks—many of which have never before been shown in public—as well as numerous documents, books, and intimate ephemera.

Jess Collins, known simply as Jess, and his partner, the poet Robert Duncan, were one of the most fascinating artistic couples of the 20th century. Jess, a progenitor of postmodernism, retrieved images from a culture overflowing with them.

Trained at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), he quickly shifted from abstraction into a unique style of painting that reflected his interests in literature and mythology. In his collages—or, as he called them, “pasteups”— he created mind-bending and fantastic juxtapositions, employing images lifted from sources ranging from Dick Tracy to Albrecht Dürer. Jess filtered these far-flung references through a self-described Romantic sensibility, one that valued the transformative power of the imagination above all else.

Known as one of the most erudite poets of his time, Robert Duncan appreciated all forms of poetic imagination. He was a voracious reader of everything from Paracelsus to L. Frank Baum, and published over forty volumes. His method, inspired by Ezra Pound, combines motifs and themes from diverse sources. Although not widely known, Duncan’s crayon drawings and set designs provide a fascinating backdrop to his writing. Recalling works by Picasso, Matisse, and Cocteau, Duncan’s colorful abstract compositions confirm his belief in the protean nature of form.

Soon after meeting in San Francisco in the early 1950’s, the two began both a romantic and professional partnership that lasted until Duncan’s death. The domesticity that came with their relationship helped focus their creative process and they ultimately merged their personal and artistic lives by exploring their mutual interest in cultural mythologies, transformative narrative, and the appropriation of images. Jess’s collages and drawings were often published to accompany Duncan’s poems and essays. Duncan’s writings and ideas in turn made their way into Jess’s dense and allusive works. Visionaries in their own right, the couple heavily influenced an entire generation of poets and painters who would gather at their San Francisco home, which served as a salon and gallery space for their artist friends. 

This exhibition looks at Jess and Duncan’s influence and unique position as precursors of Postmodernism. Featuring a rich cross-section of Jess’s paintings and collages, Duncan’s colorful abstract drawings, the exhibition includes approximately 85 works by members of their coterie, including R. B. Kitaj, Edward Corbett, Wallace Berman, Lawrence Jordan, and George Herms, as well as the poets Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and Michael McClure. The exhibition will also include a group of posters Jess made for the Berkeley Cinema Guild run in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by the young Pauline Kael.

Co-curated by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff for Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, the exhibition is accompanied by a 250-page catalogue, which includes essays by the two curators, as well as James Maynard, associate curator of the Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo, and William Breazeale, Ph.D., coordinating curator for the exhibition and curator at the Crocker Art Museum. The International Associations of Art Critics-United States (AICA-US) honored An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle with an award in Excellence in Art Criticism and Curatorial Achievement for Best Thematic Show Nationally.

The exhibition comes to Pasadena Museum of California Art after being at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University and will travel to the Katzen Arts Center at American University after being on view at the PMCA.

opening reception*
Saturday, September 13, 2014 | 7–9pm
$5 admission | Free for PMCA members
*Complimentary parking is available in our Kosmic Krylon Garage. For our reception only, additional parking is available in the adjacent lot at Union
Street and Oakland Avenue (entrance on Oakland).

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