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Although Jess’s work encompasses painting and sculpture, he is perhaps best known for his collages or ‘paste-ups’, of which Jess’s Didactic Nickelodeon, Series Two, “The Guardian Angel’s Guidebook” from 1955 is an early and important example. The work consists of thirty-seven original collages produced for a book with an anticipated forty-two works, which was never completed after Jess failed to find a publisher for it. Based on Sir Charles Sherrington’s (1857–1952) book Man on His Nature from 1940, the series forms a segmented text in which Jess transposes a narrative of how the body draws breath into an allegory of nuclear holocaust. Sherrington’s book was published the same year he was awarded a Nobel Prize in physiology. The work therefore reflects Jess’s interest in the possibilities and dangers of the atomic era, as he had trained as an atomic chemist before abandoning this career in favour of becoming an artist. This group of collages was included in the exhibition curated by Ingrid Schaffner Jess: To and From the Printed Page, which toured the United States between 2007 and 2009.
In 1952 the poet Robert Duncan (1919–1988), Jess’s partner of almost forty years, gave him a copy of Max Ernst’s collage-based book Une semaine de bonté of 1934, which had a profound effect upon him and the work he would go on to make. The series of collages in his Guardian Angel’s Guidebook, all of which feature an annotated handwritten text copied by Jess from Sherrington’s book, begins peaceably enough: ‘Suppose we choose the hour of deep sleep’. This is followed by composite scenes of explosions, scattering nuns, a baby doll pitched into a crowd, and an overall sense of a world on the brink of destruction. The apocalyptic imagery is formed from an intricate layering and striking juxtaposition of black and white photographs of, for example, Byzantine paintings and photographs of newborn babies or strange landscapes formed by modern and urban images anachronistically juxtaposed with vintage images of gothic churches.
Jess’s Didactic Nickelodeon, Series Two, “The Guardian Angel’s Guidebook” is the second of two major series made the same year and based on the old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century nickelodeon, a coin-operated, mechanical flipbook which was an early form of animation. The first group of work – The 40 and 1 Nights, or Jess’s Didactic Nickelodeon – consisted of a short film that Jess made in collaboration with the experimental filmmaker Lawrence Jordan (born 1933), whose collage animations and films chimed with, and were inspired by, the works of Jess. The collaboration began in 1956 when Jordan filmed a (now lost) collage suite by Jess made the previous year. In The 40 and 1 Nights, forty-one images of Jess’s paste-ups appear in rapid succession, each accompanied by a corresponding snippet of music and ambient sound chosen by Jess, such as the voice of Irish novelist James Joyce, whose radically fractured textual narratives paralleled his own visual experiments.
Michael Auping, Jess: Paste-Ups (and Assemblies), exhibition catalogue, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida 1983.
Michael Auping, Jess: A Grand Collage, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo 1993.
Ingrid Schaffner, Jess: To and From the Printed Page, exhibition catalogue, Independent Curators International, New York 2007.