Born Burgess Collins in Long Beach, California.
Studies chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. He is drafted into the army in 1943 and works on the Manhattan Project. Paints and draws during his free time.
Receives his B.S. degree in chemistry. Experiences “the dream” (his word), an intense vision of the earth being destroyed by nuclear weapons in the year 1975. Six months later, quits his job in plutonium production and moves to San Francisco to practice art full-time.
Studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) under Clyfford Still, Edward Corbett, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, and Hassel Smith. Paints abstractions that include semi-recognizable forms such as landscapes and portraits. Meets poet Robert Duncan and begins a lifelong relationship that results in an artistic/poetic symbiosis. Over time, Jess illustrates many of Duncan’s poems.
First solo exhibition at the Helvie Makela Gallery, San Francisco.
Receives Max Ernst’s surrealist collage book Une semaine de bonté (1934), a gift from Duncan that greatly influences Jess’s work and methods. Begins producing “Paste-Ups” (a term he coins for its childlike connotation), which consist of fragments of magazine illustrations, engravings, comic strips, and jigsaw puzzles.
Travels in Europe and visits Black Mountain College, North Carolina.
Begins illustrating publications by White Rabbit Press, including books of poetry by Steve Jonas, Jack Spicer, Denise Levertov, Joe Dunn, and Charles Olson.
Pauline Kael commissions Jess to do a series o?f murals in her home at 2419 Oregon Street in Berkeley, CA. Jess virtually transforms the second floor bedrooms and hallway into a dazzling display of images from the Celtic to the modern. Twelve of the painted tableaux still exist.
Begins the Translations as “a self-initiatory quest.” The original series consists of twenty-six paintings that use enlarged reproductions of photographs, engravings, and portions of literary texts.
Included in a number of important solo and group exhibitions, including “Pop Art U.S.A.” at the Oakland Art Museum in 1963, which features the Dick Tracy Tricky Cad series, “The Art of Assemblage” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, 1961, and “Paste-Ups by Jess” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1968.
In 1971, all twenty-six Translations paintings are shown at Odyssia Gallery, New York. Exhibits Translations at MoMA in 1974. Also begins the Salvages, a series of oil paintings that combine collage and romantic themes atop previously abandoned or found canvases.
Completes The Four Seasons and other large and dense color Paste-Ups.
In 1984, Robert Duncan is diagnosed with severe kidney dysfunction and Jess devotes all of his energy to his care. Robert Duncan dies in 1988. Creates 14 Emblems for Robert Duncan, paste-up ovals for the dust jackets of The Complete Writings of Robert Duncan (U.C. Press).
Completes the Narkissos drawing, his last translation, but abandons the idea of a Narkissos painting.
“Jess: A Grand Collage 1951–1993” opens at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, and travels to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Dies January 1 at age 80 in San Francisco, California.
His Trust establishes an archive for Jess’s papers and writings in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. “Jess: Paintings and Paste-Ups” is presented at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York. Tibor de Nagy becomes Jess’s new gallery, representing his estate. The Trust continues its relationship with the Paule Anglim Gallery in San Francisco.
“HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” opens at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and travels to the Brooklyn Museum. His Narkissos drawing is included in “Narcissus Reflected: The Myth of Narcissus in Surrealist and Contemporary Art,” Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.
“An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” opens at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California, and travels to the Grey Art Gallery, New York, the Katzen Art Center, Washington D.C., and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. More than 50 of Jess’s paintings, collages, and drawings are shown.
“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957” opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. In 2016 it will travel to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.