Jess Collins -- S.F. painter, collage artist
Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer Wednesday, January 7, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
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Painter and collage artist Jess Collins died Friday of natural causes at his home in San Francisco. He was 80.
Calling himself simply Jess after a break with his family in the late 1940s, Mr. Collins played an important, even defining role in the late 20th century Bay Area art scene.
"He was the essential San Francisco artist," said Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who knew Mr. Collins well. "His political views and his quirky artistic style, his association with the poetry scene, his advocacy of gay rights -- all the issues that came into his work were so representative of the San Francisco perspective. Only here could you imagine work like his being made."
The Fine Arts Museums own a number of important paintings and graphic works by Jess.
Born Burgess Collins in Long Beach, he studied chemistry at Long Beach Junior College and the California Institute of Technology before being drafted into the military. As a radio-chemist with the Army Corps of Engineers, he had a small part in the Manhattan Project to develop the first atom bomb. After his discharge in 1946, Mr. Collins completed his degree and worked at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Wash., all the while painting in his spare time.
In 1948, a gruesome nightmare of the world destroying itself led Mr. Collins to renounce science for what he saw as more constructive pursuits. A year later, he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (as the San Francisco Art Institute was known then).
While there, Mr. Collins studied with some of the most eminent teachers in the school's history: Clyfford Still, David Park, Hassel Smith and William Corbett.
Despite these powerful influences, Mr. Collins gradually evolved his own style of enigmatic figurative painting. He made what he called "translations," lushly painted recomposed images borrowed from children's books and old science texts. Their meaning remains tantalizingly obscure.
Mr. Collins lived with the admired poet Robert Duncan from 1951 until Duncan's death in 1988. Together they made a force in the bohemian San Francisco art circles of the 1950s. With painter Harry Jacobus, they opened the King Ubu Gallery on Fillmore Street in 1953, showing art work, including Mr. Collins' own, that downtown galleries thought too raw to handle at the time.
By the early 1960s, Mr. Collins had become known for very elaborate collages, which he called "paste-ups," composed of old book illustrations and photographs from magazines. In their puzzling density and apparent seamlessness, the "paste-ups" recall the surrealist collages of Max Ernst, but Mr. Collins' stir feelings of childlike awe and wistful eroticism far from the violence of Ernst's vision.
Working outside the contemporary art mainstream throughout his career, Mr. Collins gradually won national critical esteem. It culminated in a 1993-94 museum retrospective seen in Buffalo, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Mr. Collins was represented exclusively by New York's Odyssia Gallery for more than 30 years but also worked closely with Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco.
His work appears in major museum collections around the country including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
A memorial is planned, but no date or venue has been set.
Contributions in Mr. Collins' memory may be made to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco or to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.