Twenty three years after her death, the Jay DeFeo retrospective has arrived. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, but mounted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art first, ‘Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective’ is an expansive look at the life and career of this immensely important Bay Area artist. Many of the works in this show have never been publicly exhibited before, and very few of those in public collections have been seen since the artist’s death in 1989. At nearly 130 works, the show covers all of her working methods and the many mediums she worked in. Usually when viewing to an exhibition there are works you like and others that you do not, but this retrospective is not the norm. Not a single work scores less than 8 on a scale of 10. In sum, it is an absolutely stunning show.
A seminal artist of her generation, Jay DeFeo began her career in art in a legendary apartment building located at 2322 Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The group of artists, poets, writers, and film makers that comprised the Fillmore Street group began gathering in this building during the late 1950’s and continued to live there, on an off in many cases, for the next decade. Among them were Wally Hedrick, Paul Beattie, the husband/wife abstract painters James Kelly and Sonia Gechtoff, poet Michael McClure, Joan Brown and her husband William H. Brown, Bruce and Jean Conner, who lived in the building briefly before moving around the corner on Jackson Street, Ed Moses, Les and Mary Kerr, Craig Kauffman, and Jim Newman, founder of the Dilexi Gallery. The group created work together and apart that was radically different from what was going on in the New York art world at that time, and Jim Newman showed it at his gallery.
While living at 2322 Fillmore, Jay DeFeo created some of the most important paintings of her career. Among them are ‘The Annunciation’; ‘The Veronica’; ‘Doctor Jazz’; ‘Incision’; and ‘The Jewel’, all of which are monumental in scale and in the visual power they exude. Also included is the singularly powerful drawing entitled ‘The Eyes’, 1958 (42 x 84 3/4 inches). ‘The Annunciation’, 1957-59 (120 3/4 x 74 1/2 inches) and ‘The Veronica’, 1957 (132 x 42 3/8 inches) both display rapid movement in the paint though the use of short strokes across the canvas. In ‘The Annunciation’, in particular, they radiate from a central focal point in the painting, making the paint seem as if it was flowing to the edges. This central focal point motif would become important in the paintings that soon followed it.
One characteristic of Jay’s painting method during this early period was to layer on oil paint in incredibly thick layers, building up the material to many inches off of the canvas. Some of the first works to display this build up are ‘The Jewel’ and ‘Incision’. In ‘The Jewel’, 1959 (120 x 55 inches) we see the central focal point being used to hold the composition in place. Emanating out from this center are geometric, crystalline shapes painted in deep red and brown tones that mirror each other vertically on the canvas. Over the red forms is a star burst of white-ish paint that highlights the focal point of the work. This white paint has been built up in thick layers, allowing it to move into the realm of the viewer and provide greater depth in the painting.
‘Incision’, 1958-1961, (118 x 55 5/8 x 9 3/8 inches) is composed in a completely different manner from ‘The Jewel’ or ‘The Veronica’. Instead of composing this work with a central focal point, DeFeo chose to orient the central axis of the painting on a diagonal stretching from the upper left corner to the lower right. Done in greys and blacks, the abstracted form in the painting resembles a steep rock face, which the verticality of the canvas serves to emphasize. Also, in this tall composition DeFeo has taken the layering of oil paint to a greater extreme. While the top of the painting is only a couple of inches thick with oil paint, the lower portions have been built up to 9 3/8 inches of thickness, giving it a lush and visceral quality.
At this point in the exhibition, visitors will come upon ‘The Rose’(128 7/8 x 92 1/4 x 11 inches). This monumental painting consumed DeFeo's life for eight years (1958 – 1966), to the point where she worked on nothing else, and marks the end of the early period of her paintings. Employing the central focal point that she used previously, ridges of grey and white paint with highlights of yellow and pink shoot out to the edge of the canvas. The ridges on the lower half of the piece travel out fully to the edge of the canvas, while those in the upper portion are broken off, as if they had been there for millennia and had been ground away by time.
‘The Rose’, while relatively new in the history of art, has a feeling of being incredibly old and feels as if it were from a primordial time. From a distance, this painting calls out to the viewer and beckons them closer. Approaching the painting, the viewer is confronted with conflicting, simultaneous reactions. The painting bulges out from the canvas, which physically pushes the viewer back. At the same time, the ridges directing us to the central focal point give us the feeling of entering into the work and moving towards the destination that is the origin. Another feeling that one gets when experiencing this work is that it is a living thing, a quality that I have never experienced with any other work of art.
The legendary story of 'The Rose' – the length of its creation, the process by which it was removed from the room it was painted in, its encasement in a plaster cast for 25 years to protect it while efforts to fund its conservation were attempted and its eventual re-emergence – has been thoroughly documented and told in numerous places. The effect 'The Rose'’s creation had on DeFeo was profound and it altered the way she made art thereafter. After she stopped working on it, DeFeo did not make any work for three years. She was both physically exhausted from making the piece and her mental state was highly fragmented. She moved to Marin County, taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, met a lot of people, and went to happenings, but did not make a single known work during this period.
Her return to art making came not through painting, but rather a small drawing entitled 'After Image', 1970. The big impetus that brought her back, however, was her exploration of photography. From 1971 through 1976 she worked prolifically in creating photographs, taking images of everyday objects in unusual ways. These images would become the inspiration for the paintings and drawings she did later in her career, many of which are included in this exhibition.
There is a related exhibition on the Fillmore community happening concurrently at The di Rosa, in Napa, California. ‘Renaissance on Fillmore, 1955 - 65’ is a group exhibition containing works from all of the residents of the Fillmore street building listed above. Among them are three pieces by DeFeo – two small drawings and a significant painting dating from 1957 entitled ‘Song of Innocence’ (40 x 40 inches). ‘Song of Innocence’ is a little more than three feet on a side and displays a vortex like void in the center of the canvas. Executed in an impressionistic/abstract manner, the swirls of paint and movement in the composition draw the viewer’s gaze into the form while denying them the ability to see into its depths. The subtlety with which this painting is executed is ravishing and the entire show is well worth the visit.
‘Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective’ is on view at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until Feb. 3, 2013. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94103; 415.357.4000; Hours: 11:00 am – 5:45 pm Mon., Tues., Fri – Sun., Thurs. 11:00 am – 8:45 pm, Closed Wednesdays.
‘Renaissance on Fillmore, 1955-65’ is on view at The di Rosa, in Napa, California. 5200 Carneros Highway (Highway 121), Napa, CA. 94559; (707) 226 – 5991. Winter Hours: Wed. through Sun. 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, Closed Monday and Tuesday.
More information about the life and art of Jay DeFeo can be found here.