Robert Duncan and Jess
248 pp., 7 x 9 in, 44 color illus., 38 b&w illus.
- Published: September 24, 2019
How the poet Robert Duncan and the artist Jess made the household part of their separate and collaborative creative practice.
“I'm a householder,” the poet Robert Duncan once explained. “My whole idea of being able to work was to have a household.” In this book, Tara McDowell examines the household (physical and conceptual) that Duncan established with the artist Jess, beginning in 1951 when the two men exchanged marriage vows, and ending with Duncan's death in 1988. For Duncan and Jess, the household—rather than the studio, gallery, or collective—provided the support structure for their art. Indeed, McDowell argues convincingly, their work was coextensive with their household. The material surroundings of their house in San Francisco and the daily rhythms of their domestic lives became part of their creative practice.
Duncan wrote poetry that is romantic, ornate, and obscure; Jess (born Burgess Franklin Collins) created multi-imaged, complex collages and assemblages. McDowell explores their life and work—reading Duncan and Jess with and against each other, in alignment and misalignment. She examines their illustrated book Caesar's Gate, a collaborative effort that led them to reject collaboration; considers each man's lifelong preoccupation with an unfinished project, Jess's Narkissos and Duncan's The H.D. Book; and discusses their “origin myths” and self-made genealogies, describing them as a form of witness in the face of the calamities of the twentieth century.
Duncan and Jess made the household a necessary precondition for their art making. Doing so, they reclaimed and rehabilitated the domestic—from which gay couples were traditionally excluded—for their own uses. The household permitted them to reimagine the world. McDowell's portrait of a couple expands to encompass broader issues, urgent in midcentury America and still resonant today: belonging and kinship, alienation, and catastrophe.
The Householders casts a superbly illuminating light on the singular domestic life shared by Robert Duncan and Jess, that musée imaginaire so generative of their artistic accomplishments. It is a truly exemplary work of creative scholarship, at once highly insightful and deeply informed.
Michael Palmer, author of The Laughter of the Sphinx
The Householders shows Duncan and Jess striving to put back together the small corner they occupied. After all, the collage aesthetic that permeated both men's creative output only holds when it has a solid foundation. McDowell reads their domestic life together-the household-as both this base and the glue.
Tara McDowell's "The Householders" allows the reader to peek behind the proverbial curtain of the enigmatic couple's life, and to gain an understanding of how their sacred domain nurtured their creative endeavors and spirits...The book is a stark reminder that the world's ever-shapeshifting perils (be it unrestrained greed, surveillance, or rise of autocracies) must contend with the might and resolve of united communities on the margins, chosen families, and the authentic, creative self.
A rich study of the couple's life and work. McDowell enters into this household—a term for the creative, domestic space that she also uses as a byword for the couple's romantic-artistic relationship as they moved from house to house and city to city—to observe how it offered an alternative queer domestic model to the traditional one that dominated American life in the 1950s and how, in turn, it gave the couple a space and model for making their art.
McDowell's book is a quartet of essays in which she meditates on the relationship between Duncan and Jess and their art and the spaces they shared, especially the Victorian house at 3267 20th Street in San Francisco, where they moved in the late 1960s and remained until their deaths.
New York Review of Books
Her study serves as a sturdy initial take about how intertwined their relationship was, regarding both the household they shared and the creative work each pursued. For the couple, it all formed a whole, 'defined by their driven, passionate belief in the imagination's role in creativity and companionship, which they pursued over their relationship's many years of endurance.
Rain Taxi Review of Books