Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 14, 2013
Dana Miller, ed. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective Exh. cat. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012. 320 pp.; 267 color ills.; 36 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (97803000182651)
Exhibition schedule: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, November 3, 2012–February 3, 2013; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 29–June 2, 2013
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Burt Glinn. Jay DeFeo working on The Rose (1960). © 2012 Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos.

It is tempting to consider this expansive and stunning retrospective as a two-artist exhibition. The first major examination of Jay DeFeo’s career since Constance Lewallen organized an extensive survey of the artist’s work for the Moore College of Art in 1996, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective contains over 170 paintings, drawings, collages, photographs, and examples of jewelry and sculpture, all made by the artist over the span of almost four decades. But the DeFeo of 1952 to 1966 was one person and one kind of artist, and the DeFeo from 1970 to the time of her death at the age of sixty in 1989 was quite another. The five years of artistic inactivity that separated the two periods can be taken as a period of psychic death and subsequent artistic rebirth, which is understandable if you know the story of a painting that at various times was called The Death Rose, The White Rose, and, finally, just The Rose. In fits, starts, and prolonged moments of ecstatic reverie, DeFeo worked on it from 1958 to 1966, and during that time it slowly grew into a physical monstrosity of some 2,300 pounds of thickly layered oil paint, matched only by the equally monstrous collection of lore that came to be attached to the work during and after the time of its completion and subsequent exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1969. Indeed, by some lights, The Rose is less a painting than it is the holy grail of West Coast hipsterism, a symbolist object that represents the distilled iconographic intersection of all of the world’s spiritual traditions rolled into a single mandala of cascading oil-saturated mud and internally radiant light. After giving artistic birth to such a thing, there is little wonder why DeFeo needed to take a break.

Organized by Dana Miller, the current retrospective gives pride of place to The Rose, ensconcing it in a small, dark-gray room in the way that it was initially exhibited in 1969, only now it is recast as the show’s holy-of-holies. Just outside, there are six other stunning paintings that DeFeo executed just prior to, or even concurrent with, the earliest of The Rose’s many iterations. Like The Rose, they too draw an analogy between frothy slabs of thick and lustrous oil paint and the primordial power of geological operations, rewriting the ideology of the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke in the direction of impersonal natural forces of the type associated with volcanic and/or glacial processes. Four of these works—Origin (1956), The Verónica (1957), Daphne (1958), and Death Wish (1958)—were included in Dorothy Miller’s 16 Americans exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art at the end of 1959, which also included Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella. That fact should give us some pause if we imagine what it must have been like for a thirty-year-old female San Francisco painter to receive that kind of attention at that time. It gives further pause when we realize that after that auspicious moment DeFeo threw opportunity and cautious careerism to the wind (she and her husband Wally Hedrick, who was also in the exhibition, did not even use the air tickets sent them to attend the opening), so that she could ride the obsessive dragon that The Rose had become. Divorce, eviction, and health problems told part of the story of where the dragon ride ended, as did the ensuring five-year cessation of DeFeo’s studio practice. But like a rising phoenix, DeFeo gradually returned to her art in 1970, working with the modest materials of acrylic wash, paper, and graphite to create a series of intimately scaled works earmarked by a delicate lyricism, stunningly represented by a small work titled After Image (1970). If the earlier works culminating in The Rose evoked a sublime geomancy, then many of the post-1970s works sought something very different—a kind of transcendent vulnerability that spoke in thin-skinned whispers rather than heavily slathered roars of cascading pigment.

This point is supported by the fact that, around 1971, DeFeo became very interested in photography, initially as a method for creating studies for paintings, later as way of making components for mixed-media collage works, and finally as a stand-alone medium. This aspect of DeFeo’s practice is given a very special and unprecedented focus in the retrospective, which takes pains to show how DeFeo’s work in other media was informed by photographic studies, even as it also reveals many of the photographs to be oblique translations of the formal priorities of her paintings and drawings into the light-fixing medium. If some of the photographs appear to be influenced by the work of Group f/64 photographers such as Edward Weston or Imogen Cunningham (for example, the Untitled foliage images from 1972), still others hark back to Surrealist photographic practices, with a duo of solarized images titled Salvador Dali’s Birthday Party (both 1973) warranting praise, as does another group of slightly later Untitled collages and photograms dedicated to her friend, the artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner.

Near the end of the 1970s, DeFeo started to synthesize her diversifications of materials into a series of mixed-media works that placed a delicate and precise graphite drawing in the foreground while also making judicious use of ink and acrylic washes. In works such as Big Bang and Reverse (both 1977), DeFeo began to take an interest in the precision of mechanical forms set against looping, evanescent picture spaces, setting the stage for a renewed focus on oil painting that started in about 1979. These later works in oil are sophisticated, smart, and austere, especially in their reliance on a tonal palate that made only the most sparing use of chromatics; and they were and still are pitch-perfect in their calibrations of the distinctions between hard and soft edge as well as thick and thin surface. This is particularly evident in relatively late paintings such as Rear Window (1982) and Geisha (1984–87), where tightly controlled choreographies of painterly passages are set against tight quasi-geometric structures that balance centripetal and centrifugal pictorial energies. These are works that bespeak an artistic maturity that runs counter to the over-circulated legends of excess affixed to the period of The Rose, which is one reason why DeFeo’s late works have proven to be so frustrating to commentators more interested in human interest stories rather than art stories.

The sobriety of spirit that earmarks the later works, combined with their distance from the then-fashionable Neo-Expressionist trend in painting, set them up as the products of an artist who has gained knowledge of her inner adult by way of a prolonged critical examination of the full history of painting. If there is any irony in the timing of DeFeo’s turn toward a sober and sophisticated aesthetic during the 1980s, then surely it has to do with the rest of the contemporary art world’s shift toward styles that might seem to have been hatched in Northern California during the 1960s. Here, I am not only thinking of European Neo-Expressionism but also East Village pop surrealism and various forms of media-conscious photography, all of which retreated from the pretenses of high art. It was DeFeo’s part to advance in that very direction, but not in any pretentious way. On the contrary, it was born of a confident sincerity that always sought to find ways to particularize and generalize at the same moment of grace.

In a final interview that DeFeo did in 1989 with her colleague Moira Roth, she is quoted as saying: “I have this fixation that every painting has to be fairly heavily painted somewhere. . . . I like contrasts, not only between paintings but within a painting” (Moira Roth, “An Interview with Jay DeFeo,” Artweek 21 [February 8, 1990]: 1). Indeed, this interest in contrasts plays itself out in two series of works from the end of DeFeo’s life. One of these returns to the use of lush oil paint and also to the freewheeling use of color that DeFeo abandoned in 1954. Called The Internal Landscapes, these are smallish paintings on linen that DeFeo executed in 1988, following a trip that she took to Africa in 1987 and her diagnosis of lung cancer soon thereafter. Despite their small size, these are the most forthcoming and generous works that the artist had painted since the completion of The Rose. The other final series reflects the silhouetted shapes of one of Ron Nagle’s ceramic cups that had been given to DeFeo on her birthday in 1989, seen from a variety of oblique angles. In this series, the shapes are crisp and ominous, and for the most part devoid of all but the most subtle color and texture. Thus, even in her final year, viewers can observe DeFeo jumping from thick to thin, and from reverie to crystalline fact.

Mark Van Proyen
Associate Professor of Painting and Art History, San Francisco Art Institute

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