OAKLAND — Of Dogs and Other People, the first major exhibition since 1974 to examine the work of painter and sculptor Roy De Forest (1930–2007), is a boon to those who count themselves among the De Forest faithful. Four decades of stagnant assessment have left just enough time for misinformation to infest common perception of the artist. While there are good sources for biographical information readily available (an expansive oral history from the Smithsonian and a series of clips on YouTube from the di Rosa Preserve among them), the usual line about De Forest’s aesthetic boils down to: His art is humorous and he loved dogs. This is not exactly untrue, but it certainly lacks context. The apotheosis of this was a casually lobbed phrase in a New York Times review by Hilton Kramer, who enigmatically described De Forest as “Marx Brothers Fauve.”
The curatorial team behind Of Dogs and Other People have reversed this dearth of good scholarship and, in the process, forged a spellbinding journey for their exhibition. The show is fun, innovative, and ambitious, but its most impressive coup lies in the way that the art is grouped together in themes. Chronology is thrown out in favor of displaying paintings and sculptures, separated by decades, side by side. Because of this, motifs become immediately apparent, as if the whole thing were being viewed on a live feed of De Forest’s creative consciousness.
At the tail end of the exhibition, for instance, in the section “All Aboard Down the River,” two paintings in particular seem to benefit from this approach: “Steamer to the Interior” (1969) and “A Coasting Horse” (1976). “Steamer” is basically a “greatest hits” of the ideas that unfolded across the second half of De Forest’s career. The center of the action is occupied by a dog whose mouth extrudes a speech bubble containing the image of a steamship afloat. Several characters witness the dog’s story or, perhaps, see the ship itself — a person made of bricks presenting as male, someone watching from the window of a distant home constructed of atrament flowing out of the brick person’s mouth, a face that doubles as a landscape feature, and a busty woman with a ponytail. That final figure is an homage to a lover who left De Forest for a husband her parents deemed more appropriate. In this piece, we find De Forest deftly blending autobiography (although, perhaps, he is nonobjective) with a personal mythology rendered such that it feels universal. Anyone is welcome to stop and stare and supply their own baggage to this seafaring yarn. As the figure in the window looks at the ship from a distance, we look on this scene and know instinctively that this is just one small part of some larger world.
“A Coasting Horse” plays on the same idea as “Steamer” but remixes the composition. The prone dog–slash–storyteller is replaced with a mute pooch sitting up for an undiscernible master while watching a ship sale within/on a horse. The horse’s face occupies the brick person’s position and stares in the opposite direction. A new brick person, who presents as feminine, makes up the horse’s hindquarters. The steamship itself sails on a river flowing across the horse and onto the rest of the canvas, freed from the confines of a thought bubble and moving the locus of acting from the past to the present. If “Steamer” is about the stories we hear and take with us, stories that have implied conclusions, then “A Coasting Horse” acts as a sequel that plays with the composition of its forebear to describe journeys into the unknowable.
On the opposite side of the exhibition, in the section “A Walking I Will Go,” is “Wise Horse’s Dream” (1972), on loan from the Whitney Museum in New York. This piece utilizes an important motif common in De Forest paintings, where eyes are augmented with beams to convey a sense of magic and power and gravity. De Forest made these beams with daubs of acrylic paint up to the size of a Hershey’s Kiss. These daubs essentially serve as structural elements, anchoring the painting in the world of the viewer. Their subtle shadows give a “jumping off the canvas” effect that is wholly lost when viewing a digital facsimile of the art, providing an added value to viewing the paintings in person.
The exhibition is as successful as might be hoped — even dreamed. Fans and the uninitiated alike will find something to appreciate in their journey to discover the Easter eggs scattered about De Forest’s idiosyncratic oeuvre, particularly the dogs promised in the show’s title. Conceptually, his use of dogs was a way for De Forest to challenge expectations about what is and can be considered “fine art.” He so anchored his craft to dogs that he even created the persona Doggy Dinsmore during his Nut Art years. The artist also always kept a pup around for companionship. One of the more famous of these was Ratu, a Queensland Heeler who accompanied the artist everywhere, including the studio. One day (according to legend), Ratu urinated on a painting by another artist. De Forest’s only response was to coolly say, “Ratu knows,” leaving everyone to guess whether his critique of the painting was praise or condescension.
Of Dogs and Other People continues at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak Street, Oakland) through August 20.