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Jess: To and From the Printed Page

August 4, 2007 – September 23, 2007


A major exhibition exploring work by the artist known simply as “Jess” (1923–2004) will be on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from August 4 to September 23, 2007. Jess: To and From the Printed Page, which is organized by iCI (Independent Curators International), will be accompanied by California Context. This complementary exhibition, drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, demonstrates some of the dominant artistic trends in Jess’s home state during the last half century.

Jess was an influential artist who emerged in the 1950s from within the literary context of Beat culture in San Francisco. Focusing on his intimate ties to poetry, books, and printed matter, Jess: To and From the Printed Page features examples of his celebrated impastos, collages, and designs, as well as the books and magazines in which they were reproduced.

Concentrating on art created especially for publication and reproduction, this exhibition is built on the idea that Jess’s imagery is a form of dialogue with the written word. Jess collaborated extensively with poets and other writers, and worked with small presses and limited-edition publications throughout his life. During the early 1950s, he and his life partner, poet Robert Duncan, ran the Ubu Gallery, named after the anti-hero created by French avant-garde writer Alfred Jarry more than a century ago. One of Jess’s own heroes was Max Ernst, the Surrealist artist who made entire books of collage narratives. Among Jess’s first collages, which he called “paste-ups,” are the Tricky Cad casebooks of Dick Tracy cartoons, cut up and scrambled on page after page of deliberately disordered sequences. These are among the works that led Jess to be considered a progenitor of Pop art and an early exponent of appropriation art.

Jess ultimately stands apart from any contemporary art movement, though, and is perhaps best seen as a late practitioner of Surrealism, a radical movement of literary origin championed by poets and artists in 1920s Paris. Besides Ernst, two other key references for Jess are writers Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, whose use of words as found objects, broken rules of syntax, and penchant for puns are all translated by Jess into his collage constructions. Something of a cult artist, Jess may not be widely known, but his art is deeply revered. The diverse, intricate works presented in this exhibition reward close and sustained viewing, and provide a sense of the intensely fertile literary and art-world environment in which he thrived.

Exhibition Support

Jess: To and From the Printed Page is a traveling exhibition organized and circulated by iCI (Independent Curators International), New York. The exhibition is curated by Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. It is accompanied by a 128-page illustrated catalogue with a prologue by John Ashbery and texts by Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jarnot. The exhibition, tour, and catalogue are made possible, in part, by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support provided by the iCI Exhibition Partners.

The Wisconsin presentation of Jess: To and From the Printed Page has been made possible by the Terry Family Foundation; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The First Fridays opening of the exhibition has been generously supported by Newcomb Construction Company; M&I Bank; and J.P. Cullen & Sons, Inc.