Jess was born Burgess Franklin Collins in Long Beach, California. He was drafted into the military and worked on the production of plutonium for the Manhattan Project. After his discharge in 1946, Jess worked at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington, and painted in his spare time, but his dismay at the threat of atomic weapons led him to abandon his scientific career and focus on his art.
In 1949, Jess enrolled in the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and, after breaking with his family, began referring to himself simply as "Jess". He met Robert Duncan in 1951 and began a relationship with the poet that lasted until Duncan's death in 1988. In 1952, in San Francisco, Jess, with Duncan and painter Harry Jacobus, opened the King Ubu Gallery, which became an important venue for alternative art and which remained so when, in 1954, poet Jack Spicer reopened the space as the Six Gallery.
Many of Jess's paintings and collages have themes drawn from chemistry, alchemy, the occult, and male beauty, including a series called Translations (1959–1976) which is done with heavily laid-on paint in a paint-by-number style. In 1975, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art displayed six of the "Translations" paintings in their MATRIX 2 exhibition. Collins also created elaborate collages using old book illustrations and comic strips (particularly, the strip Dick Tracy, which he used to make his own strip Tricky Cad). Jess's final work, Narkissos, is a complex rendered 6'x5' drawing owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 1951 Robert Duncan met the artist Jess Collins and began a collaboration and partnership that lasted 37 years till Duncan's death. In 1952, in San Francisco, Jess, with Duncan and painter Harry Jacobus, opened the King Ubu Gallery, which became an important venue for alternative art and which remained so when, in 1954, poet Jack Spicer reopened the space as the Six Gallery. Many of Duncan's poems--such as "These Past Years: Passages 10"--celebrate his love for Jess Collins.
A Jess retrospective (Jess: A Grand Collage, 1951–1993) toured the United States in 1993–1994, accompanied by a book of the same title. The book included pictures of some of the paintings and collages from the tour. Interspersed between the pictures were essays by various contributors including poet Michael Palmer who wrote an extended piece on Jess' Narkissos.
Sections of Jess' paintings 'Arkadia Last Resort' were used by Faithless in 2004 for the front covers to their single "I Want More."
In 2008 an exhibition of Jess' drawings was held at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco.
Robert Duncan wrote a remarkable series of poems that deal directly with the love of men for other men.
While living in Philadelphia, Duncan had his first recorded homosexual relationship with an instructor he had first met in Berkeley. In 1941 he was drafted and declared his homosexuality to get discharged. In 1943, he had his first heterosexual relationship which ended in a short, disastrous marriage. In 1944 Duncan had a relationship with the abstract expressionist painter Robert De Niro, Sr., the father of famed actor Robert De Niro, Jr.
Duncan’s name figures prominently in the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture. In 1944, Duncan wrote the landmark essay The Homosexual in Society. The essay, in which Duncan compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews, was published in Dwight Macdonald's journal Politics. Duncan's essay is considered a pioneering treatise on the experience of homosexuals in American society given its appearance a full decade before any organized Gay rights movement (Mattachine Society). (Picture: Jess Collins)
In 1951 Duncan met the artist Jess Collins and began a collaboration and partnership that lasted 37 years till Duncan's death. In 1952, in San Francisco, Jess, with Duncan and painter Harry Jacobus, opened the King Ubu Gallery, which became an important venue for alternative art and which remained so when, in 1954, poet Jack Spicer reopened the space as the Six Gallery.
Duncan was born in Oakland, California, on January 7, 1919, to Edward and Marguerite Duncan. His mother died giving birth, and his father could not manage a small baby by himself while raising Robert's older brothers and sisters. At the age of seven months, Robert was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, who lived in Alameda, California, and belonged to a group called the Hermetic Brotherhood, an offshoot of Theosophy.
An accident at the age of three left him with double vision. By the time he was eighteen, attending the University of California at Berkeley, he was in a relationship with a man. Adoption, double vision, hermetic philosophy, and homosexuality: these were the early forces that shaped Duncan's poetic practice.
After college, Duncan moved to New York City to begin his career as a writer. In August 1944, he published "The Homosexual in Society" in Dwight Macdonald's magazine Politics. In this article, Duncan called for openness regarding homosexuality, criticized homosexual writers who ghettoized themselves, and acknowledged his own homosexuality.
The immediate consequence of this brave essay was that John Crowe Ransom refused to publish a previously accepted poem of Duncan's in Kenyon Review, thus initiating Duncan's exclusion from the mainstream of American poetry.
Despite this rebuff from the literary establishment, the young poet persisted in writing. He became a leader of the San Francisco Renaissance as well as of the poets associated with Black Mountain College, where he taught in the 1950s. By the time of his death in 1988, Duncan was recognized as a significant American artist.
Duncan's understanding of homosexuality changed and grew throughout his career. His earliest poems, such as the Bearskin poems and "Among My Friends Love Is a Great Sorrow" (included in Selected Poems, 1993), reject gay men who develop a separate culture and regard themselves as different from or superior to "normal" society.
At the same time, however, these poems show him longing for the companionship of gay men with values similar to his own. After 1951, when Duncan began his lifelong relationship with the artist Jess Collins, the "household" becomes a major theme in his work.
The transition between these two visions of homosexual love is well depicted in "This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom" from The Opening of the Field (1960). He first describes Sodom as "once / a city among men, a gathering together of spirit. / It was measured by the Lord and found wanting." However, by the end of the poem, he declares:
In the Lord Whom the friends have named at last LoveAlthough Duncan was always aware of the political consequences of homosexuality and relished and celebrated the domestic pleasures of living with another man, for him the significance of being gay (as with all things) did not stop with the apparent. "Within all daily love," he wrote, "is another world sleeping or an otherness awake in which I am a sleeper" ("Correspondences" in Letters, 1958).
the images and loves of the friends never die.
This place rumord to have been Sodom is blessd
In the Lord's eyes.
In Duncan's love poetry, there is a constant interplay between "He," the Lord of Love, the ideal lover, and "you," the actual lover, the domestic companion. The theme of love so interacts with his other themes that any attempt to separate gay and nongay poems is meaningless.
For example, in Duncan's last book, Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987), he does not mention homosexuality directly, but love, sexuality, and the "other," addressed as "You," circulate through these poems, bearing with them the meaning that Duncan has carefully given them throughout his career.
Duncan has, however, written a remarkable series of poems that deal directly with the love of men for other men. Many--such as "These Past Years: Passages 10"--celebrate his love for Jess Collins. "The Torso, Passages 18," on the other hand, is a more generalized love poem to all men, whereas "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" is an uncanny exploration of a delicate subject, the relationship of gay men to their mothers.
In Ground Work: Before the War (1984), he includes a cycle of lyrics inspired by fellow poet Thom Gunn, "Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly." In these poems, Duncan reviews his life as a lover of men.
Finally, the lovely "Circulations of the Song," a meditation on the poems of Rumi, the Sufi poet, sums up Duncan's lifework by exploring the role love plays as a mediation between the world we can see and the world we cannot.
Author: Johnson, Terrence
Entry Title: Duncan, Robert
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated July 19, 2005
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/duncan_r.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date February 3, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
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Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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