Rhapsody in Hue

Painted in the 1950s, this whimsical piano has deep connections to some of the most famous artists and writers of the 20th century.

By Holly Atkins


For nearly 50 years, this piano sat in the house of famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, pleasing eyes and ears alike. It was a gift for her daughter, Gina James, from the esteemed “cult” artist Jess Collins, who went by the single name Jess. In 2004, three years after Kael’s death, James donated the piano to the Robert Duncan Collection in the UB Libraries’ Poetry Collection, bringing the instrument full circle, in a sense: Duncan was Jess’s romantic partner from their first meeting in the early 1950s until Duncan’s death in 1988.

Jess painted the piano during the mid- to late ’50s. The front depicts a scene from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Along the sides are thick swirls and undulating lines emblematic of art nouveau, while the bottom contains large swaths of color with faint black dots forming a weblike pattern. While the piano stands out from the abstract styles of the ’50s, it represents a typical piece from an atypical artist who resisted the status quo.

A Nuclear Reaction

Jess’s artistic career began in the 1940s in adult education classes. By day he worked as a chemist for the Hanford Atomic Energy Project (an outgrowth of the Manhattan Project), but his increasing anxiety over his role in atomic energy research—culminating in a nightmare predicting the destruction of the world in 1975—led him to quit his job and pursue art full time. His eclectic projects and experimental techniques kept him out of the mainstream, but the art world ultimately embraced him; today his works can be found in major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art.

The Art of Love

Robert Duncan (left) and Jess, San Francisco, mid-1950s. Photograph by Helen Adam

From the moment they met, Jess and Robert Duncan (considered one of the most influential poets of the postwar era) shared a deep romantic bond and a rich artistic collaboration, sparked initially by the discovery that they both loved the Oz books and James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” Their Victorian home, filled with books, musical recordings, works of art and myriad found objects from Jess’s frequent salvaging missions, served as a locus for San Francisco’s creative community for many years.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Painted on thick paper and nailed over the original wood design, the piano’s main scene depicts a young Gina James playing before the Court of Oz. She performs on the very piano the scene is painted on, with several characters from Baum’s novels in attendance, including the Cowardly Lion and the Patchwork Girl. On the far left it reads, “Gina bewitches the Court of Oz with a concert meant for Ruggedo.”

Image of Jess by Helen Adam © The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. All images are of items from The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.