by Mark Van Proyen
Bruce Conner (1933-2008) and Jess Collins, known professionally as Jess (1923-2004), belonged to a bygone era in San Francisco, one far more interesting than the one that emerged during the dot-com 1990s, not to mention the one now emerging from the Covid lockdown of 2020-2022. At no point did either artist give in to the siren song of banal pusillanimity that earmarked the post-Warholian art world. Instead, they marched to the polyrhythm of their own Cold War-era percussionists, leading both to reinvent the parameters of their practices several times over. Their work was always animated by an urgent faith in the truth-telling power of art, emphasizing the particularized textures of lived experience and the continued possibilities of an avant-garde transformation of consciousness. Both of their careers have been rightfully featured in major museum collections and retrospective exhibitions, not to mention many volumes of art historical documentation. Even so, their work looks amazingly fresh and timely after 60 or more years.
Not everybody is fully aware of these artists’ richly deserved reputations. Both were key figures in the Beat scene of the early 1960s, riding the wave of legal controversy precipitated by Allen Ginsberg’s reading of his 1955 Poem Howl, and the Evergreen Review’s 1957 survey of the San Francisco scene. Conner and Jess forwarded an imaginative revival of surrealist poetics to their respective projects. One of the features of that scene was the cross-pollination between visual artists and poets, meaning both made work that simultaneously had the denotative power of visual embodiment fused with the connotative seduction of verbal poetics. In their own way, they were visual story tellers who drenched their work in a kind of mystical eroticism that intimated initiation into an obscure and esoteric mystery religion.
Over the decades, many of the same group exhibitions have included both artists. However, The Virtue of Uncertainty is the first to unite their works in a two-artist presentation. It contains 65 examples executed in various media, spanning almost the entirety of their respective careers. The majority of these works are small, many exceedingly so. Still, each packs a punch that almost always feels larger than their size might indicate. While the exhibition divides equally between the artists (about 32 works each), the installation makes little distinction between them, clustering their works together in several salon-style groupings, hinting that their output might be separate sides of a singular coin.
This approach assumes viewers are familiar with each artist’s work and are ready to consider what might be revealed through this unconventional juxtaposition. Granted, this is routinely done in art-historical exhibitions. But in the case of Conner and Jess, their work still lives with one foot in an officialized art history and another in the slipstream of contemporary art, meaning that the friction that emerges from their adjacence challenges and elaborates on received assumptions.
One of the earliest works by Jess is a painting titled Stillbourne from around 1951. The lore of the era reminds us that Jess was one of Clyfford Still’s favorite students at the old California School of Fine Arts, and this painting confirms that influence. It features jagged palette knife slatherings of thick oil paint in the dark red, blue and umber colorations prized by the older artist, emphasizing small, diagonal paint strokes. One of the many happy surprises in this exhibition is its inclusion of several of Jess’s figurative paintings from the early 1950s, executed at the time of his first collage works (which he called Paste-ups). In the achingly intimate Robert Weaving from 1953, we see Jess’s life partner Robert Duncan captured in a lush, sumptuously lit interior, tipping its compositional hat to the work David Park was doing at that same time. One of the Norns is Dead from 1955 (revised in 1971) shows a figure lying in a bed with an oversized hand reaching toward a vase of flowers at the top left of the composition. Prison Isle (1954), a relatively conventional fog-shrouded seascape, shows an elevated view of Alcatraz Island at the left foreground, while Lurid VII (1963) reveals ebullient colors in a composition that dissolves into an abstraction or, possibly, a view from a top-story window. Sea Cove (1952), an elaborate fantasy executed in de Kooning-esque oil paint, depicts a sea churning against coastal rocks.
The exhibition contains several of Jess’s paste-up works, including a few of the rarest from the early 1950s. One of them, Four Women on a Park Bench (1955), created from fashion catalog illustrations, advances a kind of Surrealism tinged with Victorian nostalgia. Boob #1 (1952) and Untitled (Lean Mouth) (1953) both make ample use of text in a way that brings to mind a better-known 1955 piece called Tricky Cad (in the collection of the Whitney Museum) while conjuring Tristan Tzara’s random word collages from the WWI era. Later paste-up works include Emblems for Robert Duncan II: #2 (Do you know the old language) and Emblems for Robert Duncan II: #2 (into the troubled childish day), both from 1989. In addition, three rarely seen freestanding works by Jess, including Assembly Lamp #7 (1963), make surrealist sport with antique household objects.
Conner’s 1958-1964 assemblages are well-represented by several works not included in his 2015 retrospective at SFMOMA. One of them, Sick Lady (1958), which conjoins old photographic film stock with dark red fabric and a tattered nylon stocking capped with a metal flower, evokes an obscure shrine. Birth of Venus (1959) uses reflective objects and surfaces in a concentric configuration to magical effect, while Persephone (1956) and Primavera (1959) combine applications of oil paint with collage. Mom’s Collage from 1961 is a standout, made from coffee-colored fabric with a pink fringe attached to the bottom, all surrounding a vintage photograph that floats high in the picture space.
The exhibition includes many drawings both artists executed in black-and-white media, usually pen and ink. Jess, for example, made many cover illustrations for volumes of Robert Duncan’s poetry, Tenth Muse #15 being a good example. Here, a decisive line describes a succession of thresholds revealed by female figures. Surrealist Shells (1966), which features a delicate, wandering line that explores the subtle convulsions of its subject, strikes a more evanescent note. Given that Conner abandoned assemblage work near the end of 1964 to focus on making films and drawings (along with photographs not included in this exhibition), it follows that The Virtue of Uncertainty would contain many of those psychedelic black-and-white works. Among the many standouts from this period are Untitled, February 28, 1967, an overwhelming testament to his manic method of energizing a picture space, and Untitled, November 5, 1963, where cloud-like clusters of marks coalesce into a kind of landscape fantasy that conjures da Vinci’s late deluge drawings. Also noteworthy are some of the late collages Conner did using antique engravings in a manner similar to Max Ernst. September 21, 1998 and Untitled (c. 2000) are excellent examples.
Both artists share a Victorian gothic sensibility that consistently bespeaks an uncanny hauntedness of images and objects. One critic from the early 1960s called Conner a “Dachau playboy.” Conner, for his part, once proclaimed himself as a “Baudelairian Satanist.” Overall, The Virtue of Uncertainty is an amazing feat of museum-quality curation. No doubt, bringing it all together required an enormous behind-the-scenes effort. A few months back, I predicted that Richard Mosse’s Broken Spectre video installation at the Minnesota Street Foundation Project would be on the shortlist for this year’s best exhibitions. The Virtue of Uncertainty also deserves that accolade.
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Bruce Conner and Jess: “The Virtue of Uncertainty” @ Hosfelt Gallery through October 14, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.