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.

Audio Stories

Artist Colter Jacobsen on Narkissos

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I’m drawn to the eroticism immediately — it’s very sexy. My name is Colter Jacobsen, I’m an artist and we’re looking at one of my favorite pieces by Jess, Narkissos. 

I read somewhere that he was trying to bring kind of a homoeroticness back to art, that it had been lost. And you can just feel that that’s what he’s trying to translate in that main figure. I mean he loves that figure. There is a love in those marks that are weird and beautiful and not even representational – they’re abstract. 

I love it for all its fragments of like, the discolored paper.  

And I think it’s so interesting to see how he’ll be using kind of high-brow, low-brow source materials from like Sphinxes to pinups of men, to Greek statues, like antiquity. And then a Crazy Cats comic. I mean I’ve heard he has these scrapbooks that go on and on. There’s just clippings and there’s texts and this is all totally alive in his head.  

You know, Jess wasn’t always an artist. He was a scientist and I think he was actually working on the Manhattan Project? And after some of the repercussions he quit and turned his life around completely and focused on art. And I think you can see that in a lot of his work that he brings this almost scientific kind of physicists’ sort of mind to art.  

He really does make work like a writer or a poet. This model in the middle, he’s sort of leading the way to his own reflection, which you don’t even see there. The question is where is it? And it’s possible that you’re the reflection, and you’re looking at yourself, because what you take away from the piece is, is you.  

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Audio Description

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This is Narkissos, made by Jess between 1976 and 1991.  Almost six feet high and five feet wide, this densely detailed collage is made from cut-and-pasted paper and drawings done in graphite pencil and gouache paint. The overall tint is the yellow of old, faded newspapers. Every inch of the surface is filled with images, many quite small. In the middle, just to the left of center, is the largest figure in the collage, a naked male youth, kneeling and gazing downward. This is Narcissus. He is lean and muscular with a head of pale hair. He has been drawn in graphite in a realistic style, except for his left hand, which looks cartoonish and holds a backscratcher. Just to the left of his head, the words “is love enough” are drawn in large, decorative capital letters. From his right hand, he dangles a 1950s Krazy Kat comic strip. Above Narcissus, to the right, a second naked, muscular male, slightly smaller in scale, stands atop a mound of rock holding a bow and arrow. His eyes have been cut out, leaving only eerie black holes. The artist has placed him against a backdrop of a large urban building marked by dozens of windows. To the right of the building—filling the right-center of the canvas to the frame—is a Western landscape, a river cutting through a rocky canyon. Moving clockwise from here to the lower right corner, we find a pot of long-stemmed irises. Continuing clockwise, the bottom of the canvas shows a black body of water laden with lily pads, flowers, an image of the Grim Reaper with two skeletons, a small Star of David, and a larger pentagram. Continuing up the left side of the painting, the canvas is dense with various small, grotesque figures, skulls, and a bird in flight. Continuing to the upper left corner of the collage, we see a spider-web shape, in which every triangle of the web features a singe human eye with a startled expression. Moving across the top of the painting, rightward, we find a Sphinx, a honeycomb and bees, a Japanese print of a flock of birds, and a female diver in an old-fashioned swimsuit, twisting in midair near the upper right corner of the painting. These are only some of the most prominent images in this collage. 

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Other Works by Jess

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