From 1955 to 1966, Jay DeFeo and her painter husband, Wally Hedrick, lived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. They were at the center of a lively, politically anarchic milieu of artists and poets that included Bruce and Jean Conner, Joan and Bill Brown, Deborah Remington, Sonia Gechtoff and James Kelly, Jess, Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Jack Spicer and others. Largely centered around small galleries and presses such as the Auerhahn Press, City Lights bookstore and press, the legendary Six Gallery (which Hedrick helped start), the East & West Gallery (run by Gechtoff’s mother), Batman Gallery, and Dilexi, this loosely allied group had no counterpart in New York. For various reasons, most of the figures associated with this group would neither be integrated into, nor adequately recognized by, the East Coast art establishment.
Dorothy Miller selected work by DeFeo and Hedrick for Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 16, 1959–February 17, 1960), but this prestigious debut did not lead to subsequent exhibitions in New York. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important one is the rise of formalism and its narrow-minded agenda, which continues to cast its shadow over the art world. Motivating formalism’s agenda was a belief in progress, a utopian idea that the institutional wings of the art world have never quite rejected.
From 1958 until 1966, DeFeo worked on a large vertical painting that she would ultimately title “The Rose.” During this turbulent epoch, the critical apparatus of the art world — under the influence of Clement Greenberg’s formalism and Donald Judd’s literalism — rejected paint’s capacity for metaphor in favor of the factual and paint-as-paint, making the reading of artworks an easier domain for various art management employees to supervise. By the time she ceased working on “The Rose” — largely because of circumstances beyond her control — a rather scattered, chaotic system was well on its way to becoming a well-oiled, economic machine that didn’t know how to recognize either her work or her preoccupations, dominated as it was by formalist readings of art, the rise of an establishment that regarded metaphor as literary, humanist and something of the past, and the equation of certain kinds of production with artistic ambition.
At least in New York, the art world was enthralled with Frank Stella, who famously said, “What you see is what you see,” and Andy Warhol who said: “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” By emphasizing surface, along with rejecting interpretation, art managers began to control how works of art were read, as well as establish the standards by which they were evaluated. And if art historians disagreed with the marketplace — the rise of certain post-Warholian artists, for example — they seldom if ever pointed at their own complicity. This remains the current state of affairs. Whether the DeFeo retrospective will help change the situation or not remains to be seen.
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The retrospective of Jay DeFeo, who died in 1989 at the age of sixty, with “The Rose” as its centerpiece, attempts to chronologically trace the trajectory of a career that began in 1951 and ended with a group of small paintings done shortly before the artist’s death. If we consider that DeFeo’s career overlaps with those of such art world luminaries as Stella, Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Bechtle, Richard Diebenkorn, and Joan Brown, it soon becomes apparent how much DeFeo stands apart from both her Bay Area peers and her New York counterparts.
Her work doesn’t fit into any of the stylistic designations — such as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, Pop Art, Painterly Realism, Photorealism, Minimalism, Funk, or Bay Area Figuration — commonly used to pigeonhole postwar artists. DeFeo complicates this even further through her explorations in different mediums, including drawing, collage, photography, jewelry, and sculpture. In fact, it is the degree to which she remains unorthodox, rather than eccentric, that singles her out. Certainly, this has contributed to why it has taken so long for the art world to recognize her uneven but gripping accomplishment.
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Organized by Whitney Museum curator Dana Miller with the assistance of Diana Kamin, senior curatorial assistant, the retrospective traces the work leading up to “The Rose,” as well as what DeFeo did afterwards. For the majority of viewers, this show will be a revelatory introduction to an artist who is best known for “The Rose,” a legendary and inimitable work that is both a densely built-up painting and a wall relief, a religious icon that weighs 2300 pounds.
While “The Rose” is the most extreme instance of DeFeo’s belief that a painting is an object, a thing, it is not literal, which is how critics in New York insisted the works of Stella and Jasper Johns, particularly his “flags” and “targets,” be read.
“The Rose” challenges canonical thinking regarding what constitutes a major achievement in postwar art. That DeFeo invested so much time and material into a single work is unparalleled. It runs counter to everything the economic wing of the art world holds dear. Paradoxically, by making an unwieldy work of such bulk, she comes to resemble a poet who spends a lifetime writing poems, which are essentially worthless. It also suggests why “The Rose” would achieve a legendary status in the artist’s life, as well as become her albatross. It is a marker of her belief, a rare commodity in today’s disbelieving world.
In its current incarnation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (November 3, 2012–February 3, 2013) — the exhibition will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art February 28, 201–June 2, 2013 — “The Rose” and the drawing, “The Eyes” face each other, with the paintings “Origin” (1956), “The Veronica” (1957), “The Annunciation” (1957-59) and “Doctor Jazz” (1958) on the adjacent walls.
Dana Miller has sequestered “The Rose” in a darkened space with side lighting that mirrors the room in which it was painted on Fillmore Street. While working on “The Rose,” DeFeo installed it in a bay window so that the only light that filtered into the room came through the windows on the adjacent walls. It existed in its own sacred space. Given the painting’s ostensible subject matter, DeFeo’s placement of it was likely inspired by the rose windows in Gothic churches, such as the ones she would have seen at Notre Dame in Paris.
These two rooms, along with the collages and drawings displayed on nearby walls, seem to offer a narrative that takes unexpected twists and turns during the last two decades of the artist’s life.
“The Eyes” is a seven-foot-wide drawing of a pair of disembodied eyes in which the pupils are absent. As Dana Miller points out in her catalog essay, “Jay DeFeo: A Slow Curve”:
The vertical striations and absence of pupils add to its haunting quality and counter the uncharacteristically academic craftsmanship.
It seems to me that Miller leaves out an important feature out in her description of “The Eyes.” A network of tiny surface fissures marks the left pupil, most likely from the artist reworking the drawing. While she may not have intended for the cracks in the paper to appear, she did incorporate them into the drawing. This suggests that one eye is wounded or, at the very least, flawed; that vision will always remain broken and incomplete.
On the back of the drawing, DeFeo inscribed the last stanza of an untitled poem usually known by its first line [“Ah Blessed Virgin Mary”]. The poem, by her friend Philip Lamantia, had been published in a little magazine in San Francisco in 1958, where the artist might have read it:
Tell Him I have eyes only for Heaven
as I look to you
of the heavenly court
Did DeFeo recognize that the “mirror” was broken from the beginning? Is this why she spent a decade working on a painting, attempting to make it into a perfect embodiment of the irresolvable tension between the material world (the physical body) and light (the spiritual body)? “The Rose” had been previously titled “Deathrose.” In many strains of alchemical thought the rose represents the union of opposites, the masculine and feminine.
(Lamantia, it should be noted, dropped out of high school at sixteen and moved from San Francisco to New York, where he worked as the editorial assistant to View: A Magazine of the Arts, edited by Charles Henri Ford. At the age of 17, Lamantia became the only American poet welcomed by Andre Breton into the Surrealist group, which DeFeo surely knew. In this regard, he is comparable to Arshile Gorky in New York — someone who had received the torch. He was a link between a radical European movement and American poets and artists.)
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Beginning with her trip to Europe in 1951, where she stayed until 1953, DeFeo educated herself in ways that still need to be studied. In 1952, while she was staying in London, for example, she saw the work of Nicolas de Stael and, according to the retrospective’s catalog, was “moved by the color.” This observation needs explaining since DeFeo’s palette is largely grisaille, running from white to black. What about the slabs and blocks of paint filling de Stael’s surfaces? Didn’t they move her as well? If de Stael inspired DeFeo in the early 1950s — as I suspect he did — during the triumph of what Greenberg called “American-type painting,” here is early evidence of her independence.
While it has been advanced that DeFeo was interested in Renaissance art, particularly because of the time she spent in Florence, it seems to me that medieval art also had an influence. She wanted to marry the earthly with unearthly light. This may also explain why, in the jewelry she made at the outset of her career, there is a preponderance of spirals and other archaic forms.
At the same time, in sharp distinction to those who exploited the liquidity of paint, particularly Sam Francis, whom she saw in Paris, DeFeo’s paint resembled what she called “mud pies,” thick wet dirt. There is none of the speed that we associate with Francis or Franz Kline. She liked to apply the paint with a palette knife. “Origin” is a cascade of palette knife smears of gray and white paint. Gravity and ascension are inseparable forces.
DeFeo was a religious painter in secular clothing that wanted to integrate the sacred and the profane. Her works repeatedly suggest that one never quite escapes dirt and decay. At times, there is something grim and joyless running through her work, which is another reason why it strikes me as more medieval than anything we associate with the Renaissance. Paradoxically, in the drawings there is a lightness of touch that folds another level of feeling into them. DeFeo seems to have lived a messy life on a number of levels, often saving things most of us would throw away — the handle of a broken coffee cup, the discarded orthopedic cast worn by her dog wore when he had a broken leg, and the Christmas trees she kept while living on Fillmore. These things would become inspirations for various artworks. In them one senses DeFeo’s belief in talismans and occult power.
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Among the many revelations I experienced while viewing this exhibition, three stand out. The first is that DeFeo worked in a way that collided the abstract and representational. At times her work was more overtly representational; other times it was more abstract and elusive. She veered between the two because she was always searching for a resonant symbol, which she ultimately found in the symmetrical composition of “The Rose.” Late in her life she combined clusters of thinly applied, feathery strokes with partially defined, hard-edged, geometric forms. These combinations evoked the female body in a way that is determinedly abstract. There is a connection between Georgia O’Keeffe and Jay DeFeo, but I wouldn’t call it a kinship. O’Keeffe is repulsed by decay, while DeFeo is fascinated by it.
The second is that DeFeo’s drawings constitute a distinct and self-contained body of work within her diverse oeuvre. It would be useful to have an exhibition that gathers the different kinds of drawings she made over the course of her lifetime, from the clusters of lines suggestive of hair or cilia, to the realism of her later drawings of items such as swimming goggles and a tripod. At times, her dense clusters of lines share something with Sonia Gechtoff’s drawings, done around the same time, as well as bring to mind a most unlikely relationship — the graphic work of her contemporary, Gisele Celan-Lestrange (1927–1991). For DeFeo, things possessed magical powers, and this comes across in her drawings.
The third has to do with DeFeo’s collages, from the early ones, which hold their own with the paste-ups of Jess, to the ones dedicated to B. C. (Bruce Conner) in the early 1970s. This is another area to be more thoroughly explored. One might wish to expand an exhibition of her collages to include different examples of DeFeo’s photographs, which include photograms and straight photography.
After “The Rose,” DeFeo seldom dealt with the edges in her painting or established a convincing relationship between the figure (the dental bridge) and the ground. Partly, this had to do with her desire to bring together the abstract and the representational. She was not a New Image artist because she was interested in things and materiality, rather than images and flatness. At the end of her life DeFeo returned to the painting as an object, a thing. In paintings such as “Blue One” and “Last Valentine” (both 1989), the stippled surface, at once delicate and visceral, brings together the physical and the ephemeral.
The upshot of these thoughts is that DeFeo is a far more various and complex artist than we might have imagined. This is not to say that everything she did is equally interesting or accomplished. In fact, it occurred to me that connoisseurship might be beside the point when it comes to this artist’s work.
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After “The Rose” left 2322 Fillmore Street to be transported to the Pasadena Art Museum — an event that Bruce Conner immortalized in his film, “The White Rose” (1967) — DeFeo and Hedrick separated. Broke and in need of dental care, DeFeo didn’t start making art again until 1970, when she set up her first studio since leaving Fillmore Street, in Larkspur where she had moved. She began using acrylic, became serious about photography, and returned to drawing. In 1971, she photographed her dental bridge, which she needed to have made after five of her teeth were extracted (she was a little over forty). This led to photo collages and paintings, a body of work unlike anything I have ever seen.
The two paintings, “Crescent Bridge I” (1970-72) and “Crescent Bridge II” (1970-72), depict DeFeo’s dental bridge in a coolly photographic manner. She makes no attempt to transform or disguise the bridge other than in its scale. There is nothing charming about these paintings or the various photo collages in which the dental bridge is the primary focus of attention. In her attention to the decaying and aging body, DeFeo anticipates the photographs of John Coplans and Hannah Wilke. These works, rooted in Surrealism, are riveting and unsettling.
Shortly after she made these pieces, DeFeo completed the painting “Isis” (1972-72). According to Dana Miller, the painting “was modeled after an image of an Egyptian statue in the Louvre that DeFeo found in a book (and, conceivably, could have seen in Paris in 1951).” Ancient Egyptians worshipped Isis as the ideal mother and wife. DeFeo depicts a headless female figure whose body seems simultaneously armored and incised, encased and wounded.
Throughout her career DeFeo shifted between the eyes and the body, between the material (thick paint) and the ethereal (photograms). She wanted the body to see and the eyes to be connected to the body. This ecstatic unity is a state that only artists, poets, and the mad believe is possible.
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco) through February 3. It will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) February 28–June 2.