OAKLAND, California — In 1973, a collector asked Roy De Forest to explain why he painted a window on the side of a horse. This is one sentence from De Forest’s answer:
If we could change our cars (metal autos) to the upholstered interior
of a giant rabbit or make a horse into an apartment house and were
able to see both inside and outside the horse or indeed the rabbit,
we might see for the first time that everything we see both inside
and out is not only part of us but part of everything all seen at once,
in rapid succession with overlapping images that become like a
clear pool as we look into them–in fact we might see finally both
life and death, and what is in between, the beginning and the end–
a tombstone for all the mislaid tigers with eyes that shine in the dark
hoping for the light, as the great William Blake indicated.
De Forest’s reply was the first thing that caught my eye as I flipped through the monograph published by the Oakland Museum on the occasion of its exhibition, Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest (April 29 – August 20, 2017). As I turned the pages, wondering how I might begin this review, it seemed almost fated that this sentence would pop out at me.
Susan Landauer, the author of the monograph, has a lot to say about this curious, idiosyncratic artist, who is well worth checking out. But a monograph is not the same as seeing the real thing, which I was luckily able to do. Once upon a time, an exhibition such as this might have traveled to New York or, at the very least, to a museum in another major city, but that does not seem to be the case these days. In fact, in 1974-75, a traveling retrospective of De Forest did make a stop at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but that was before “institutional critique” became a New York fixation, which is how the curators packaged Kerry James Marshall’s paintings.
De Forest is part of a group of artists working in Northern California in the late 1950s who rejected New York and what they regarded as mainstream art and thinking. This group included Joan Brown, Jay De Feo, Bruce Conner, William T. Wiley, Jess, Wally Hedrick, and others. They preferred the wild writings of Antonin Artaud and William Blake to the theorizing of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. While various artists associated with this group have gained attention — most notably DeFeo, Conner, and Jess — De Forest’s subject matter is too weird for many viewers. If you have seen one De Forest painting, you most likely saw at least two dogs and possibly a pony. And what are we to make of the dogs, which often have buzzed-out, loopy eyes that some critics have associated with LSD, which, by the way, De Forest never took?
As his letter suggests, De Forest had a deep interest in visionary states. If you know about dogs — which the artist surely did — you know that they have an acute sense of smell that is ten to one hundred thousand times more discerning than a human’s ability to differentiate one odor from another. Translate their olfactory abilities into sight, and the analogy would be a dog that can see three thousand miles when we see about one-third of a mile. I think this is why he painted rays coming out of their eyes, among other exaggerations. The result is comical, weird, and even disturbing. For De Forest, the dog is the “Other” he can never become, the visionary he aspires to be.
De Forest, who was born in 1930, seems to have made his decisive break with Abstract Expressionism in 1958, when an accident necessitated that he move from San Francisco to Yakima, Washington, where he grew up. “My Life and Times in Yakima” (1959) is an all-over painting teeming with small patches of saturated colors. Onto these patches De Forest squeezed paint directly from the tube, creating a dot that rises to a peak — what Landauer calls a “Hershey-kiss relief.” Clusters of these dots, often arrayed in different colors, fill the irregularly shaped patches. The painting is simultaneously a fantastical terrain, a crazy quilt made of beaded swatches, and an abstract painting.
Within a short time De Forest had pushed further. In “Tracks of the Mormons” (1960), he divides the painting up into large, amorphous areas of color. The dots vary in size. It’s as if we are looking at a topographical map full of signs that we cannot quite translate. What are we to make of the area above the middle of the painting that is pierced by straight lines, particularly since there is nothing else like it in “Tracks of the Mormons.” At a time when much of the New York art world (or mainstream art) was focused on emptying painting out, developing a trademark technique, or depicting an accessible or familiar image, De Forest was doing the opposite: he was trying to see how much he could get into a painting while embracing the world he grew up in and knew best. He even painted the thin strips of the frame with a series of evenly spaced marks.
In “A Farm Boy’s Autobiography” (1960), another painting from this period, De Forest becomes more cartographic — creating a furrowed field and garden plots out of the artist’s signature dots, squiggles, and patterns. In this work, the painted frame plays a more prominent part. Although his signature dots seem to have come from Australian Aboriginal painting, it is more likely that De Forest took some of his cues from the works of the Dynaton group: Lee Mullican, Wolfgang Paalen, and Gordon Onslow-Ford.
Alongside these early breakthrough paintings, De Forest made wall assemblages from wood scraps, which he painted. Titles such as “Drifting Down the Mississippi” (1959), with its reference to Mark Twain, one of the artist’s favorite authors, speaks to a yearning that seems central to the American psyche in general and to De Forest, in particular. He was interested in envisioning another world, and much of his work is devoted to a pursuit of the marvelous and visionary.
When the dogs first show up in De Forest’s paintings in the late 1960s, they are as strange and mysterious as the other elements in his work. Later, however, they become more charming. It seems to me that when De Forest became what his fans like about him — amiable, kooky, and funny — he became less interesting and even predictable. And yet, even after this change, he makes work such as “Dog in the Night” (1976) that is wonderfully strange.
I think a leaner show would have been better. With an artist who makes works as busy and frenetic as De Forest does, having less would have encouraged viewers to look longer at what was there. I also kept getting the feeling that the museum — with its large interactive room at the center of exhibition, where you can affix felt horses and dogs and abstract shapes to the wall — wanted to dumb down the show and make it kid friendly. Meanwhile, the accompanying catalog is as thorough a job as we are likely to have. Landauer packs her essay with information and it is never too much.
Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest continues at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak Street, Oakland, California) through August 20.