Roy De Forest is one of the signature Bay Area artists of the mid – late 20th C. His brightly colored and elaborately painted canvases, depicting unspoiled landscapes are what he is best known for. The current show at Brian Gross Fine Art is a revelation because on view are a number of works that predate his mature style.
Roy De Forest 'I Cannot Tell a Lie', 1962; oil, cotton canvas, string, wood (27.5 x 19.5 x 2.5 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
For any artist, there is a period of growth during which they work out their artistic style and develop the ideas they want to explore. Currently being shown at the gallery are works by De Forest dating from 1960 to the early 2000’s, some of which might be mistaken for the work of others if the viewer didn’t know they were his. There are early constructions and abstract works which show his exploration of both modes of expression.
Roy De Forest 'Concerning White Elephants', 1960; oil, acrylic, PVA, wood (47.5 x 26 x 5.25 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
‘Concerning White Elephants’, 1960 and ‘I Cannot Tell a Lie, 1962 are both works from the very early period of his development. ‘Concerning White Elephants’ is an elaborately constructed wall relief made up of a shallow box with various wooden elements added to it, all covered in a polychrome confusion of paint. The two compositional elements present in this early work that have carried forward into later works are the round dots of paint that spike out from the surface, and the attachment of elements around the edges of the work. Both of these would gain their place in his mature style by the end of that decade.
The oddest piece in the show, ‘I Cannot Tell a Lie’, 1962 is the second earliest work on view. Instead of a heavy painted construction, here De Forest has pulled back to create a very minimal piece that is reminiscent of works by Joan Miró. Present here, though, is a hand painted frame which is another key ingredient of his later works.
Roy De Forest 'Drawing', 1972; pastel and pencil on paper (23.5 x 31 inches) (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
Two small ‘Untitled’ drawings and the large painting ‘A figure of our Times’ from 1972 reveal the emergence of the artist’s mature style. Here, the previously mentioned attributes are joined by the inclusion of animals and human figures in harmonious relationships depicted in a cartoon like manner, all rendered in bright, polychromed hues.
Roy De Forest 'Drawing', 1972; pastel on paper (23.5 x 31 inches) (Image Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
There are two works in the show that display the hand carved sculptural elements that were added to many of his mature paintings. In ‘Untitled (Dogs and Horses)’, 1977 a hand carved dog and horse attached to the top edge of the frame echo their presence in the drawing to which they are attached. The other work with carved elements is the hexagonally shaped painting ‘Texas’, from 2002. Here there is a long-horned bull staring out at the viewer from the upper edge of the frame. There are also various other forms, one of which looks like a plunger, and an intricately composed fence that delicately wraps itself around the perimeter of the painting. There are also newer elements, such as the inclusion of broom heads, including one attached only by a metal hook protruding from another sculptural element. This attachment adds an element of delicacy, whimsy, and potential movement that was not present in the early frames.
Roy De Forest 'A Figure of Our Times', 1972; polymer on cotton canvas (65 x 65 x 2 inches) (Image Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
The technical elements of painting were also of paramount importance to De Forest. This concern is easily seen in his mature works. While many reviewers have commented on his use of bold colors, a regional trait that defines many Bay Area artists, the superior sophistication with which De Forest and others use color to create their compositions often goes unnoted. While at times potentially overwhelming, the color in the artist’s paintings and drawings, is always balanced out through compositional arrangement, making the works very approachable and engrossing. His use of patterning and thick applications of paint adds texture to the canvas, and serves to tone down the boldness in the color that would otherwise push viewers away. The unity and complexity of his color arrangements and compositions are at a level unmatched by many other artists of the modern and post-modern eras.
Roy De Forest 'Untitled (dogs and horses)', 1977; pastel and graphite on paper, artist designed frame with sculpture (33.5 x 33.5 x 2.25 inches) (Image Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
Roy De Forest’s mature paintings are the embodiment of his imagination put onto canvas. His internal world, what some have referred to as his ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, is one of a harmonious existence between humans and animals living in a natural setting. There is also the feeling in the work of the Wild West, with men in cowboy hats riding on horses with plenty of dogs running alongside. These figures and animals are all depicted in an imagined land where few, if any, have tread before. This idea of an unspoiled land of endless possibilities is a deep part of the California myth that infused all of De Forest’s works.
Roy De Forest 'Texas', 2002; acrylic and mixed media on board, wood (48 x 42 x 12 inches) (Image Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)
Along with many others from the Bay Area, Roy De Forest has for a long time been both recognized and ignored by the larger art world, and relegated to a regional status that is only now beginning to be re-evaluated as scholars rewrite modern art history to reflect the diversity of what was happening during the post-war era. Hopefully, this renewed scholarship will reveal that the regional ties that gave birth to De Forest’s paintings should not hinder his finding a place of importance alongside other major artists from the modern era.