The artist known as Jess stopped using his last name, Collins, when he became estranged from his family in the late 1940s. He was born in 1923 and raised in Long Beach, California. He attended California Institute of Technology, was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers in 1943, and worked during the war as a chemist for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After the war, he returned to Cal Tech and graduated with honors in 1948. He worked briefly at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Hanford, Washington, but became disillusioned with his career in science for military uses and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), studying with Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, and David Park.
Jess began making collages in the early fifties, but called them instead “paste-ups,” using images in magazines, old engravings, illustrations, and jigsaw puzzles. While similar in process to works by Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell, Jess’ paste-ups tended to be much larger in scale, as much as six feet wide and high. His paintings could be abstract, figurative, narrative, and romantic. Best known may be his series of paintings called “Translations,” done between 1959 and 1976. These pictures, painted in thick layers, were composed from various sources. One copied a photograph of the Beatles at the seashore from a bubble-gum trading card.
Though he was reclusive and saw only a few close friends, Jess was revered for his enigmatic art by the cultural community ofSan Francisco, and his reputation grew in the 1970s. A major retrospective, “Jess: A Grand Collage”, was mounted at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, in 1993, and traveled to New York, Washington, and San Francisco. An exhibition, “Jess: To and From the Printed Page”, organized by Independent Curators International, opened at the San Jose Museum of Art in March 2007 and is scheduled for six more venues around the country into 2009.