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The 1950s in America — prosperous, industrious, entrepreneurial — produced some of the most radical and rebellious artists especially in California. That is just one point to be gleaned by a visit to An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan & Their Circle, a show of art by poets, artists and filmmakers working in the Bay Area in the 1950s and 1960s now at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Often compared to the Bloomsbury circle that thrived outsided London in the early 20th century, this group of friends were anchored by the relationship of poet Robert Duncan and the artist known as Jess. Organized by Michael Duncan, (no relation to the poet) who has long studied the work of the California Beats, and Christopher Wagstaff, it is an exhibition that brings to light the work of artists better known in legend than in fact. It is on view through January 11, 2015.

Jess (1923-2004) was born Burgess Collins in Long Beach. Disillusioned by his work as a chemist for the Manhattan Project, he moved to the Bay Area in 1948, changed his name and enrolled in what was then called the California School of Fine Arts. Two years later, he became involved with poet Robert Duncan, a relationship of shared aesthetic sensibilities that continued through their lives. Their King Ubu Gallery, run with Harry Jacobus from 1952-53 showed the work of his former teachers, David Park, Elmer Bischoff as well as the work of Jess.

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Jess, Qui Auget Scientiam Auget Dolorem, 1959
Wax crayon on paper, 8 x 6 in.
Collection of Nancy Boas, San Francisco

Many of Jess’s paintings in the show, including the exquisite Qui Auget Scientiam Augut Dolorem (1959) — translated as “who augments knowledge augments sorrow” — reveal a romantic sensibility. He and Duncan used symbols and explored mythology throughout their work. However, Jess’s true talent lay in the use of collage. Obsessively detailed compositions were compiled from illustrations, photographs, advertisements and comic strips, often homoerotic or entirely absurd.

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Jess, Untitled (Eros), c. 1956
Collage, 18⅞ x 27⅛ in.
Collection of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

There was a retrospective of his art in 1993 so this exhibition aims to shed light on the extended relationships among a group running counter to the culture before the term of was invented. At times, the personalities are more interesting than the art that they produced while others are revelations. Virginia Admiral, for instance, is known today as the mother of actor Robert DeNiro. She befriended Duncan when studying at UC Berkeley. Her delightful painting The Red Table (1944) once hung in Duncan’s home office.

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Virgina Admiral, The Red Table, 1944
Oil on canvas, 44 x 38 in.
Collection of Anne and Robert Bertholf, Austin, TX

There are exquisite works by George Herms and Wallace Berman, who had moved from L.A. to the Bay Area in sympathy with the permissive living and creative conditions there. The collages of Robert Dean Stockwell, inspired by Berman, are included as well as one that was sent to him by Jess, who was a compulsive correspondent. On Sunday, October 26 at 1:00pm curator Michael Duncan will discuss Jess and Robert Duncan's circle in relation to the development of the art and literature scenes of the 1950s and 60s, with artist Richard Kraft, writer and curator Kristine McKenna, and publisher and designer Lisa Pearson. For more information, go to pmcaonline.org.

There is a detailed catalogue for the exhibition as well as a marvelous book issued by L.A.’s own Siglio Press called Jess O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica that was edited by Michael Duncan that provides an opportunity to study in depth the artist's hilarious rearrangements of Dick Tracy and other comics as well as his collages. www.sigliopress.com.

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Cameron, Song for the Witch Woman, 1955.
Ink on paper, 10 x 8 inches.
Courtesy of the O.T.O., New York.
Photo credit: Alan Schaffer

Of course, another key figure among the Beats was Cameron, (who jettisoned her first name Marjorie) the woman best known for two events: Being married to Jack Parsons, the rocket scientist who co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory yet was obsessed with the occult theories of Aleister Crowley, and for her peyote-inspired erotic drawing that Wallace Berman included in the notorious first show at Ferus, causing it to be shut down by the police.

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Cameron, Holy Guardian Angel according to Aleister Crowley, 1966.
Casein and gold lacquer on board, 29 ½ x 19 ½ inches.
Courtesy of the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Santa Monica.
Photo Credit: Alan Shaffer

Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman, the first exhibition devoted to her art, was organized by Yael Lipshutz with Moca curator Alma Ruiz. It is on view at Moca PDC through Jan. 11, 2015.

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Cameron, Black Egg, n.d.,
Paint on cardboard, 11 x 8 inches.
Courtesy of the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Santa Monica.

This is a laudable attempt at bringing attention to her art though it cannot truly separate it from her legend since the two were completely entwined. Her personal history as free spirit, muse to Kenneth Anger, woman before her time, may have obscured her identity as an artist but the drawings in the exhibition reveal a light and accurate touch working in pen and ink. But what is she drawing? Angels, witches, visions, astrological and mythical subjects. A good looking woman, she was the star of Anger’s remarkable 1956 Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. A surreal ten minutes of documentary footage by avant garde filmmaker Curtis Harrington is screened in the entrance gallery and is not to be missed. The show includes tantalizing artifacts such as the crematory package once containing the ashes of Parsons, who also went by the identity of Marvel Whiteside Parsons and the knife that he used in occult rituals. The show is a welcome portal into Southern California’s eccentric history and comes with a catalogue, and a new lavish book published by the Cameron Parsons Foundation. More drawings are on view at Marc Selwyn Fine Arts in Beverly Hills along with paintings by Lee Mullican. For more information go to moca.org and marcselwynfineart.com.

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