Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Jess, Boob #3, 1954. (Detail)

Jess: To and From the Printed Page
Interview with Host Curator Peter Mears

Harry Ransom Center Curator of Art Peter Mears speaks with Public Affairs intern Anne Frugé about the life and work of the artist featured in the exhibition Jess: To and From the Printed Page. The exhibition focuses on the influential San Francisco artist known as "Jess" (Burgess Collins) that explores his ongoing dialogue between visual images and printed text. Imaginative collage works and paintings derived from poetry, literary classics, and even the Sunday comics are featured.

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ANNE FRUGÉ: So, who was Jess?

PETER MEARS: That's a very good question. That's really what the show is all about. It's both simple like his name and also incredibly complicated. Burgess Collins was his name and when—basically in his mid-20s he decided to change his name to Jess, and he decided to shift his career from chemistry to art. He, prior to World War II, he went to school and studied chemistry, was drafted into the military, and while he was in the military, he started working as a radio-chemist and got involved with atomic energy and had an apocalyptic dream one day, which changed his life completely and pointed him towards art. He always loved art. He painted as a child. He painted when he was in school, watercolorist. But it wasn't until he got into college, or into art school that things really started turning his head around.

Well, when you ask what kind of—who was Jess as an artist? That's a tough question for me in that he's such an individual, a free spirit. But essentially he called himself a romantic artist. He was a romantic person, and he fell in love with art but at the same time, he was very close to literature, and so his art was very much about his language, which included combining words and images together. And that's what we'll see in the exhibition.

ANNE FRUGÉ: And then I was going to jump ahead to a question farther down, which is: What is collage?

PETER MEARS: Collage, Anne, you should know that. Collage is—it's a French term. It comes from—apparently it's a French term which means to glue or paste things, put things together. In the case of Jess, collage is all about gluing bits and scraps and pieces of paper, of course, but more importantly things from the past. He goes out and, and purchases old books and magazines, and he mines these—sort of these historical tomes from the past, cuts them up and puts them back together. That's his language, and when he does this, it takes him a very long time. He thinks about it a long time, and he pins everything together as if they were, sort of, specimens, if you will. These works are always in a state of flux, and that's really what he wants us to feel when we view his work, that everything is, is happening at once. Everything is equal to each other. Everything points to another work and leads to another opportunity to view what he's expressing, what his creations are. I'll leave it at that.

ANNE FRUGÉ: And so is there anything about his creative process that we should know about, or that's different than most artists?

PETER MEARS: Yes and no. He works—he works intuitively, and he's very adamant about approaching the material with his heart and his gut rather than his mind. Although he's—he really is an individualist and very much a genius at that. I mean, he approaches material from a very thoughtful way, but he's also approaching it a very intuitive way, which is the way he also approaches his subject matter.

In an interview he, he spoke of pulling images, that is found images, from the past to the present and working through a state of flux until the collage literally takes over. "It becomes the maker, and I become the instrument" he said. So that the idea of literally losing oneself in one's work is—applies here with Jess.

ANNE FRUGÉ: And I was curious to learn where he drew his inspiration from.

PETER MEARS: Well, as far as the art—artwork goes, of course he was painting and drawing before he went to art school. He was in the San Francisco College of Art. He was in, in a school that Clyfford Still, famous abstract expressionist, taught at. So he knew or understood really what was going on in the art world, in the art mainstream. He had that to look up to as far as his training goes. But I think more importantly, his—the major influence—his major influences were the literary influences in his world. And they took the form of a variety of things: mythology, Victorian poetry, romantic quests, even complicated, contemporary, or modernist works like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, and then this book I brought along here Max—a book by the famous surrealist Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, is a book that, in fact, was given to Jess on his birthday by Robert Duncan, his companion, and we'll find these are graphic Victorian images that are cut up and pasted just like Jess's only they're done, of course, as a very surreal element in terms of Ernst's work. That book, Une Semaine de Bonté, was very influential in Jess's life and, and in his work, and he readily admits that. Although he wasn't a surrealist. He says—

ANNE FRUGÉ: Right

PETER MEARS: He says, I was not—he really didn't understand or didn't align himself with the surrealists because he approached art making and that—and the gathering of that old material for use in his work in a very different way. He was calling his art basically an act of translation where he is taking items that were of interest to him, and there were a variety of things. They're anything from photographs and reproductions to even baseball cards, and he was transposing them through his own personal process and retranslating this work that's in a state of flux to become something else.

ANNE FRUGÉ: Okay, so I finished my questions. Is there anything you think we need to know about Jess that I haven't touched on?

PETER MEARS: One thing, you can't help but not wonder, let alone appreciate, the complexity of Jess's work when you look at it. And one thing that people should know was that Jess was a very well-organized, very well-read and incredibly focused artist. Much of his work, which—his collage work in particular, what he called his paste-ups, he had his own terms or his own terminology even for his artwork. His paste-ups seem like this explosion of different shapes and forms and colors and pictures and subject matter all colliding or imploding, or exploding, at the same time. They're very dense, and they're very layered and intentionally so. But this all comes from some very thoughtful exercises, and I think what's interesting to know about Jess is that actually he was an archivist. He archived his sources and his material not unlike we archive things here right at the Ransom Center. He had his own library, which he shared with his companion, Robert Duncan. And they explored so much together through their archive and their library, which again is very common to and very much reflects what we do here.

I wanted to add a couple of—a couple more interesting points about the exhibition itself. Along with the paste-ups or collage works and the translations, which are some of the paintings and other imaginary paintings in the show, there are two components that really add texture and insight to who Jess was. First, is we have a CD being piped in to the galleries of Jess reading his poetry and other people's poetry so you actually get a chance to hear Jess reading. The pace, the rhythm, the syncopation is really quite wonderful to hear. The other thing is a DVD, which is also on a loop, a work—an experimental film that Jess worked on with another artist essentially about his nightmare, which was nuclear holocaust. And it's in the form of an old Nickelodeon, which is a sort a machine where you flipped cards, and they animated the imagery. Jess's machine, of course, is done through film, which is transposed in a DVD. It adds another layer and a wonderful opportunity to see where Jess was coming from in terms of some of his inspirations and his fears. Those are important things as well.

ANNE FRUGÉ: Great. Thank you so much.