Jay DeFeo, “Untitled (Human Interest Photo)” (1973), gelatin silver print, 
sheet: 7 15/16 x 7 15/16 inches

In the 1950s and ‘60s, while living in San Francisco, Jay DeFeo ran in a circle that included Bruce and Jean Conner, Joan and Bill Brown, Deborah Remington, Sonia Gechtoff and James Kelly, Robert Duncan and Jess, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Wallace Berman. Her husband Wally Hedrick cofounded the Six Gallery with poets and artists. Previously, the gallery had been known as King Ubu Gallery, which was founded by Jess. Before that, it was an auto repair shop.

What many of these figures shared was an interest in Surrealism, especially Max Ernst’s collages and Man Ray’s rayographs (photographs taken without a camera). They were not interested in formalism, Pop Art, Minimalism, or any narrative that touted progress in art. The anarchic spirit of Dada and Surrealism, with its belief in the irrational, in dreams and occult signs; its use of inexpensive, preexisting materials that had little to do with art; and its sense of play and community, exerted a great appeal for the San Francisco circle of artists and poets. This was DIY long before that term became popular.

Jay DeFeo, “Untitled” (c.1975-76), collage of photomechanical reproduction, gelatin silver print, and transparent pressure-sensitive tape, 8 13/16 x 4 inches

In the exhibition Outrageous Fortune: Jay DeFeo and Surrealism at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (which closes today), the viewer gets to see how DeFeo made use of various aspects of surrealism and arrived at something all her own, particularly in her photographs, photo collages, and what she called “chemigrams.” The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog with an essay by Dana Miller, who, with the assistance of Diana Kamin, curated Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective (2013) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which I reviewed in its iteration at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In her essay, Miller calls attention to DeFeo’s large pencil drawing, “The Eyes” (1958, not in the exhibition) which “is the closest she ever got to a mimetic self-portrait.” Miller goes on to say, “More than once DeFeo described the drawing as having suffered ‘The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune,” quoting Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy from Hamlet,” where this exhibition gets its title. Miller makes two more points that should be mentioned. First, “DeFeo said she needed to make ‘The Eyes’ in order to envision the works that were to follow, most especially ‘The Rose’ (1958-66).” Second, “DeFeo refused to sell “The Eyes” and it hung for some period of time in her studio, acting as a companion and witness […]”

Given the importance that Miller assigns to this drawing, I wonder why she decided to not mention that DeFeo inscribed the last stanza of a poem by Philip Lamantia, which he had published in a little magazine, on the back:

Tell Him I have eyes only for Heaven
as I look to you
Queen mirror
of the heavenly court

Lamantia (1927-2005), who had a brief role in Maya Deren’s film At Land (1944), was a legendary figure by the time DeFeo met him in the mid-1950s. They were only two years apart but he had already experienced so much. At 17, the same age he was when he appeared in Deren’s film, he became the only American poet to be accepted by Andre Breton into the Surrealist group. In the early 1950s, he lived in Mexico (where he was friends with Leonora Carrington and Ernesto Cardenal) and Morocco (where he renewed his friendship with Paul Bowles). More importantly, in terms of this drawing, Lamantia began taking peyote regularly in 1952 and became a serious student of alchemy and other branches of esoterica and little known texts, such as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

As indicated by this drawing and her attachment to it, the kind of seeing DeFeo pursued was exalted and hallucinatory. The likely reason she made this self-portrait close to mimetic was because she knew the journey that she was undertaking began with her body. It did not have to do with taking hallucinogens, but it required that she be receptive to visions and out-of-body experiences.

Jay DeFeo, “Untitled” (1974), gelatin silver print, 2 15/16 x 5 1/8 inches

When Lamantia turned him on to peyote, Jack Kerouac fell asleep and did not dream. Kerouac was not interested in the arcane and he was not a visionary writer, but Lamantia was. This is important to remember when it comes to looking at and thinking about DeFeo’s work. DeFeo was after something other than a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella. For her, surrealism was not a technique, but a state of seeing and experiencing everyday life.

One of the ways that she negotiated the relationship between what she saw and what she dreamed was with the camera. A relentless experimenter, she used the camera to record things she saw, such as a car wreck next to a phone booth, and made collages out of cut-up photographs and photocopies. She also made photograms and chemigrams, in which she applied different chemicals and processes to photo-sensitive paper, often achieving a liquid-like form that shares something with Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. The chemigram in this exhibition is titled “Untitled (Salvador Dali’s Birthday Party)” (1973). I think DeFeo deserves a large survey retrospective that looks solely at her work in photography.

Jay DeFeo, “Untitled (Salvador Dali’s Birthday Party)” (1973), gelatin silver print chemigram,
 9 15/16 x 7 15/16 inches

In the late 1960s, she and Hedrick separated, and she left San Francisco. Feeling cut off from her friends, she and Conner talked so often that she nicknamed him “telephone.” These conversations inspired a number of DeFeo’s works, some of which incorporate an announcement for a 1975 Conner show, Angels, which reproduces a life-size photogram of his body.

The body is a material form that enables the envisioning of immaterial states. This is one possible reason why a body or a part of a body keeps recurring in DeFeo’s work. Suffering from serious periodontal issues, she repeatedly made close-up photographs of her extracted teeth and false teeth in ways that suggested mountain ridges. It is also why she was interested in chiaroscuro, many examples of which she is likely to have seen while living in Florence, Italy, for three months in 1951. The dramatic light, and its evocation of something emerging from the darkness, suggests both night and the world of dreams and visions.

Jay DeFeo, “Untitled” (1973), gelatin silver print, 4 x 4 inches

DeFeo’s interest in the figurative aspect of a machine, such as a telephone, can be traced back to Antonin Artaud’s essay Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara (1937), which had to do with the author’s experience with peyote as a way of kicking his heroin addiction. Artaud’s essay inspired Lamantia to travel to Mexico for similar reasons. As Artaud travels toward the Tarahumara, he sees “burnt trees in the form of a cross or being.” The world is full of metaphysical signs. You have to be open to them. Otherwise, you have only the technique, and not the vision. This is what marks DeFeo’s engagement with Surrealism, why her work attains its own visionary state.

Outrageous Fortune: Jay DeFeo and Surrealism continues at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (534 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through today.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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