Narkissos, 1976-1991

Narkissos is the most significant work in the oeuvre of Jess, the collagist and painter who lived and worked in San Francisco for over 50 years. An ambitious engagement with the myth of Narcissus (the title takes the Greek spelling, reflecting the origins of the myth), this piece was conceived by Jess in 1959 as a large-scale, highly detailed painting in homage to the symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. Recognizing the difficult task that lay ahead of him, he eventually decided to focus on a monumental drawing of the work, composed of hand-drawn fragments and "paste-ups," the artist’s term for collage.

The classical myth’s basic coordinates are in place in the picture: Narcissus is entranced by his own reflection as Eros watches nearby, and Echo, whose unrequited love for the young Narcissus led to her death, dives in anguish in the upper-right corner. But the image, made entirely from found sources, contains a profusion of other references to the myth and its many retellings, including commentaries, rhymes, and puns. Jess scrupulously noted the source of each image in an accompanying logbook, which also documents every mention of the Narcissus myth the artist encountered during more than three decades of research on the subject, from the standard telling provided by Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to a publicity shot of a young, grinning Ronald Reagan posing in a life preserver upon which the word "Narcissus" has been stenciled.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Artist name
Date created
graphite and gouache on cut and pasted paper in found artist's frame
70 in. × 60 in. (177.8 cm × 152.4 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis, Elaine McKeon, Judy and John Webb, Bobbie and Michael Wilsey, Jean and Jim Douglas, Susan and Robert Green, Pat and Bill Wilson, and the Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Frances and John Bowes, Shawn and Brook Byers, Emily L. Carroll and Thomas W. Weisel, Doris and Donald Fisher, Diane and Scott Heldfond, Maria Monet Markowitz and Jerome Markowitz, and the Modern Art Council
© JESS -The Jess Collins Trust
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

Other Works by Jess

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