Monday, November 4, 2013

Peer Pleasure: Robert Duncan, Jess, and Friends

A composer I know occasionally begins to write a musical piece and later realizes that she has heard it before: someone else has already written it. On the opposite creative end, I met a woman who had seen expensive pottery she liked and she found a way to copy it exactly and sell it more cheaply (and I wonder how the original artist felt about this). As we create works we are all influenced in some way. We may subconsciously make similar work, we may respond to a feeling, concept or specific material in the work, or we may intentionally choose to use what we see.  

After seeing the exhibit "An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle" at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA last August, I thought I was going to be writing about how groups of artists and writers end up creating similar works in similar media: copies or derivatives. But after reading the catalogue for the show, also called, An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, (based on the title of Duncan's "first major book of poetry" called The Opening of the Field) I realized it was more complicated than that: circles of peers do influence and inspire one another, but if s/he is truly striving to do individual work each artist remains an individual: a strong voice shines through.

These and other artists range on the spectrum from inspiring others to create their own works to inspiring others to try to replicate the work. For the purposes of this essay, I'm working with these definitions.
  • Inspired—getting a spark or feeling from another work that sets off something in you to make your own work that comes from inside yourself
  • Interpreted—something specific and tangible kickstarts your work: technique, size, materials, topic, etc. You may see traces or shadows of that first work in your piece, but you have changed it to reflect your own interests, your own concepts, or what the first piece reminds you of.
  • Derived—intentionally working with both a concept and a form found in another work. It still may change in your hands, out of its original context.
  • Duplicated—deliberately trying to make a copy of another work
Most work does not spring fully formed from our heads and hands. You can often trace influences, even when an artist does not acknowledge them. In some of Jess's paintings, for example, you can see the colorful, jagged shapes of his teacher Clyfford Still. Jess's interpretation included figures in his paintings and Still's were color fields. Jess's collages (he called them "paste-ups") were originally inspired by the collages Max Ernst made from black and white Victorian engravings. Jess's paste-ups, which he began making in 1951, were often done in black and white, but he used material found in current magazines and his scenes were more painterly in their composition. Ernst, on the other hand, made his creations into deliberately seamless dreamlike pictures so you could not see that the work had been pasted together from different sources. 

Jess, in turn, inspired some of his friends to make their own collages.

Patricia Jordan, for example, made a collage scroll (my favorite piece in the exhibit), and the product was purely her own. "Golden Damsels Descending from the Clouds" created in 1960-61, with embroidery, feathers, ink, and photographs. The linen has yellowed; and it hangs at least five feet long from a stick flanked by two long hanging tassels. Images of women from different time periods and women Jordan has photographed herself are collaged in the center. Text is handwritten along the edges. There are photos of it on page 241 in the catalogue. 

The catalogue entry by Michael Duncan also lists the poet Helen Adam (and a student of Robert Duncan's) as having "made about seventy-five surreal collages, many featuring glamorous women juxtaposed with insects or reptiles. Clearly inspired by the humor and audacity of Jess's early collages…" (151). These have a similar aesthetic to Jess's: use of a full background with images collaged in the foreground, and the woman with a bat clinging to her bosom ("Perhaps no One Will Notice Them") is no doubt humorous. This work feels somewhere between being inspired by the concept and interpreting the materials.

Ernesto Edwards, another artist mentioned in the exhibit and catalogue, began making collages after he saw Jess's work at SFMOMA. You can see traces of Jess's process in Edwards's work, primarily the "Jess-like" density as Christopher Wagstaff notes in his essay. Eloise Mixon, also mentioned, incorporates this density of imagery in her works, one cut from childrens' yellow, white, and black picture books in 1970 ("The Beanstalk"), the other ("The Phoenix") from colored magazines in 1959.

I was only able to take one photograph at the exhibit before the guard informed me it was not allowed. It was my second favorite work in the show, some collaged mail art sent to Robert Duncan and Jess by Wallace Berman. In one example Berman cut out Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein to make his own postcard (center, bottom). These collages are small, so I think of them as independent from Jess's work. The materials are, of course, derived from the culture and are not significantly altered, but they are taken out of their original context and are visually pleasing in their new form.


Robert Duncan, Jess's longtime mate, was both inspired by and inspired other writers. In the introduction to Selected Poems (New Directions Paperbook), Editor Robert J. Bertholf wrote, "He wrote in many forms—songs, meditations, ballads, sonnets, prose poems (like the imitations of Gertrude Stein in Writing Writing), and a variety of stanzas" (p. x). Were Duncan's "imitations" from 1952-53 like copies? Did they sound like her? Or were they interpretations or works that played off of her forms? I had to check this out. The most Steinlike I found was on page 30 from "Imagining in Writing:"
This is a description of sometimes a painful existing.
This is a description of sometimes self betraying which is revealing. 
While I do not claim to be a Stein scholar, I have read enough Stein to hear her voice in my head. The first line could be hers. The second line's use of the words "self betraying" rings Duncan. The word choices in the rest of the poem (not shown here) are clearly his. The cadences go in and out of Stein's, but are mostly Duncan's. Are these imitations? Duplications? No. Homages? Yes. Although you can see the traces of Stein in it, his own voice and subject matter unmistakeably shine through. But I do not find it as musical. I have to say, though, that his work makes more sense than hers, or, rather, is easier to understand.

Sometimes we make choices to copy intentionally, other times not. Does it matter? The artists included in this exhibit who made collages generally acknowledged Jess as their inspiration; if the technique seems new or distinctive, it is good form to give credit. It also depends what you are trying to do. Taking pleasure in what you do is important. Copying can help you learn a technique, but it shouldn't be passed off for something original. Being inspired and interpreting what you see are the ways to develop as an artist. Significantly altering your or the viewers perception is an admirable goal. Even when you work alongside others, you can make original work.

The catalogue gives a more complete view of the interconnectedness of Jess, Robert Duncan, their teachers, their students, people they went to school with, friends, influences, and their works. Sometimes the works are strong and speak clearly, other times they are not as compelling. Even so, if you look closely, you can see the threads. If you look closely, you can see the individual personalities. The catalogue is absolutely a pleasure.

To view many of Jess's paste-ups and his redo of Dick Tracy, you might like Jess: O! Tricky Cad and Other Jessoterica, which is what prompted me to make the excursion North to see the exhibit in the first place.

And you can read an interview with Alastair Johnston about publishing Jess's writing here.

4 comments:

Kelly Kilmer said...

Thank you, Alisa. This is fabulous. Truly the way art should be. We all learn from and inspire each other. We all encourage each other (even if we aren't aware of it.) Thank you for posting this.

Alisa said...

Kelly, you're welcome, and thanks for your kind mention! Good to hear from you!

Velma Bolyard said...

alisa, i too, really enjoyed this piece, in fact i've been pondering it a quite a bit. thanks!

Monica said...

A very scholarly article about an interesting topic. I am a mere creative person who creates for my own entertainment and who discovered that plagiarism was not a skill she possessed. Indeed, after attending a quilt show with a fine exhibition of art to wear I rushed around buying material to copy something in the show. Months later I happened on photos taken at the show and looked in horror at my finished pieces. How had I thought my work was anything like what i had seen. It was a scenario repeated several times over the years and finally I accepted that inspired self interpretation was more what happened. The pleasure deprived from making possibly far exceeded my skills and continues to do so.
Thanks I always look forward to reading your blog.