A Delightful Pamphlet

“Got Wallace’s Art Forum (tore out everything else) and made a delightful Berman pamphlet,” reported Jess in January 1966.1 He had just reduced that month’s Artforum magazine to a four-page booklet comprised only of the pages featuring Wallace Berman’s mystical Verifax collages. It is a small gesture, but one that speaks volumes about the San Francisco artist Jess and his work. On its face, it was a tribute to the success of a friend and fellow Californian with whose work Jess’s was identified.2 That very month, an exhibition would open in London, where Berman and Jess, together with Bruce Conner and Lyn Foulkes, were presented as avatars of a new, American West Coast approach to collage.3 Funky with the residue of not-so-distant pasts (the Victorian era, the Depression) and uncanny visions of the present (the psychedelic and occult), the California Assemblagists used the stuff of scrap yards and scrapbooks to make art that often looked ready to return to being found.4 Tearing up magazines was basic practice, and collage a language in which they were all conversant. On the other hand, Jess’s gesture was also a tacit act of reproach. Not against Berman, but against the contemporary art world represented by Artforum’s other sixty-one pages of features, criticism, and advertisements that Jess had discarded. Apparently he didn’t consider the rest of the magazine worth cutting up for collage material. Even given Artforum’s West Coast origins (founded in San Francisco, it moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1967), the content simply wasn’t part of Jess’s picture.

That said, Jess contributed significantly and imaginatively to the history of contemporary art. Born in 1923 in Long Beach, California, he turned to art and changed his name from Burgess Collins in the late 1940s. In the 1950s, using just a flick of the knife (and some glue), Jess subverted Dick Tracy comic strips into the series of Tricky Cad collages that became early icons of Pop art. During the 1960s, he transformed all manner of found black-and-white images into strangely gorgeous appropriation art in his series of paintings called Translations. Of the juxtaposition between these works’ illustrative imagery and lumpy molten surfaces, the poet John Ashbery wrote, “The neat, workmanlike transpositions ignore the anomalies of surface, as though a magic lantern slide were projected on a lunar landscape.”5 During the 1970s, Jess achieved an ambitious new scale for collage, creating compositions—some measuring over six feet wide—that are as complex and clotted as they are whirling and baroque. Curator Michael Auping, the leading scholar on Jess’s art, sees in these grand-scale collages an “activated field of interlocked, free-associated images that vaguely resemble the painterly explosions and gestural coupling of action painting.”6 They occupied Jess, who worked at an increasingly incremental pace, throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

Jess’s art is book-ended by abstraction. As a student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), he studied with some of California’s leading exponents of Abstract Expressionism, most significantly Clyfford Still. His move from painterly abstraction to collage was preceded by the emergence of pictorial and symbolic elements in his paintings.7 Like Joseph Cornell, Jess worked from a studio archive, which he developed over years of collecting and clipping source material and filed according to subject.8 He spoke of pulling images from the past into the present and working through a state of flux until the “collage takes over, it becomes the maker and I become the instrument.”9 In the process, he attached hundreds of fragments to the support with pins, then stirred the composition like magma or energy, until it was resolved and ready to glue into place. He called the results “Paste-Ups,” a term he coined to set his art apart from Dada and Surrealist collage, which he felt an admiration for, but little affinity with.10 Likewise, he called his assemblage objects ‘Assemblies.” Or, as if to kill any possible link with precedent or the California Assemblage scene, “Necro-facts.” The latter term also implied the redemptive angle of working with found images and forgotten materials, a small power that seems to have given Jess a great sense of purpose and pleasure. For one of his later series, Salvages, Jess recycled abandoned abstract paintings (his own old canvases and those found in his habitual trawling of junk stores) by inserting pictorial passages into the existing fields of brushwork. In “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me”: Salvages II, 1963-1972, isolated figures dot an abstracted landscape to create a sense of uncanny incident. While previously Jess had abandoned abstract imagery for pictorial representation, the Salvages give equal footing to the non sequitur narratives of dream (or myth) that appear to be taking shape and to the hazy matrixes that envelop them. Not only had his art come full circle; Jess had, in a way that seems truly American in its resourcefulness, invented an ingenious means of recuperating for a postmodern age the glorious pasts of both abstraction and easel painting, using this clever gizmo called collage.

Despite these achievements, Jess’s reputation remains marginal. When he died in January 2004 at the age of eighty, his New York Times obituary called him “an artist whose idiosyncratic paintings and collages made him a cult figure in American art.”11 Indeed, Jess’s following was limited, if devoted. So the question is: How might we access his work—which is so openly inviting—more fully? Consider once more Jess’s extractive gesture, this time not as a tribute to Berman but (to borrow Jess’s terminology) as an act of translation. Jess turned an art text into a literary one—for what is a pamphlet but a little book? Pay attention to the object at hand. A slim thing, it resembles a chapbook, the kind of volume once hawked by chapmen that contained such miscellany as a romance, a ballad, or the life story of a notorious criminal, an artist of the underground. It is by way of this rendition of Jess’s act that the “delightful Berman pamphlet” guides us in how Jess’s work might be most delightfully read: by focusing on its bookish aspects.

This interpretive framework bumps directly into a certain modernist art-historical prejudice against the literary to find meaning in the marginal. It is an illuminative one for considering the paste-ups that Jess created specifically for publication or reproduction, which are central to this survey. Turning printed matter into material to be printed, Jess made many of his works in collaboration with poets, most significantly his partner, Robert Duncan, recipient of the tell-tale January 1966 letter. He also made extraordinary collage announcements and brochures for his own exhibitions, suggesting that he valued the chance to increase his art’s “readership” by disseminating his work in print. But it is not only the literary work that this bookish framework illuminates, it is Jess’s work overall. When art as idiosyncratic as Jess’s is looked at with an eye for books and poetry, words and literature, stories and translations, it comes into plain view.…


The author would like to thank Chris Taylor for his accompaniment on so many of the journeys this Jess essay represents, and for his insights along the way.


  1. Jess to Robert Duncan, January 26,1966. Robert Duncan Papers. The Poetry Collection, State University of New York at Buffalo. All correspondence from Jess to Duncan cited below is housed among the Duncan Papers; in all quotes, Jess’s spelling has been preserved. All Jess quotations courtesy The Jess Collins Trust.
  2. See Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna, Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle, exh. cat. (Santa Monica, Ca.: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2005). This exemplary exhibition catalogue provides an invaluable history of the assemblage-style journal of art and poetry that Berman published from 1954-64, along with researched biographies of those who contributed to it, including Jess and Robert Duncan.
  3. Held at the Robert Fraser Gallery (January 31-February19, 1966), the exhibition Los Angeles Now was not an entirely proper context for Jess, who was firmly based in San Francisco, but whose work Fraser had seen exhibited in 1965 at Rolf Nelson Gallery, Los Angeles.
  4. California Assemblage appears to have been spawned in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower of Los Angeles, the Watts Towers. Jess himself considered formative the childhood memory of seeing Simon Rodia’s visionary architecture while it was still underconstruction. He wrote, “My father, in most everything a reactionary, one day taking the family ‘for a drive,’ took us from home in Long Beach out to Watts to see ‘the Towers.’… As a student engrosst on becoming a Chemist (but still repressing a desire to become an artist) I filed this salient experience away for later sustenance.” Unpublished correspondence from the research files at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art related to the 1992 exhibition Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, organized by Maurice Tuchman and Carol Eliel with contributions by Barbara Freeman.
  5. John Ashbery, “Jess at the Museum of Modern Art,” Art in America (March/April 1975), p. 89. The anomalous surfaces were of course highly contrived. Jess developed a unique technique whereby a slow accretion of layers of oil paint forms a surface that is so thick it’s practically a veneer. In the process, he would incorporate excess blobs and wads of paint, scraped off the palette or picked off the floor, sticking them on and plastering them over with more layers of paint, translating not just an image but also what seems like the very alchemy of painting into his art.
  6. Michael Auping, Jess: A Grand Collage 1951-1993, exh. cat. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1993), p. 46.
  7. Jess said he initially abandoned painting for collage because it was too fast moving a process to capture those images that slowly percolated in his mind’s eye. Then there were certain technical advantages. As he told Michael Auping, “What my mind wanted to see happen would require skills that I could not possibly use. Therefore, I had to use images that had already been made for me.” Quoted in Michael Auping, Jess: Paste-Ups (and Assemblies) 1951-1983, exh. cat. (Sarasota, Fl.: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1984), p. 11.
  8. Jess must have used very sharp and tiny scissors, so meticulously cut are the paper elements that he stocked by the drawer-full and filed according to both subject (“Animals,” “Toys,” “Signs of the Tarot,” “Sufi Mythology”) and subjectivities. Auping notes, “There is a broad section simply entitled ‘Pink Material’ and a ‘Mean Section’ further broken down into ‘Police,’ ‘Bigots,’ ‘Militarists.”’ Auping, A Grand Collage, p. 49.
  9. Auping, Jess: Paste-Ups, p. 11.
  10. Jess told Auping, “I used to paste things up with my aunt and that experience is probably more central to my love of this kind of art than the modern development of collage.” Auping, A Grand Collage, p. 26. Another oft-mentioned childhood experience was coming across an abandoned prospector’s shack on a trip with his father to the California desert. Jess described it as “a little palace assembled from scrap wood, pieces of aluminum, junk, tins, almost any type of found object you can imagine.” Auping, Jess: Paste-Ups, p. 10.