"I regard myself as an expressionist as well as a symbolist. If expressionism implies emotional impact, I can realize it only by restraint and ultimate refinement.” *
When Jay DeFeo died in 1989, at age sixty, she was at the height of her creative powers. Despite her iconic status as the creator of the monumental painting “The Rose,” DeFeo’s whole body of work has remained largely unknown.
SFMOMA’s major retrospective, coming years after her death in 1989 at the age of 60, remedies that lack. In presenting the entire career, this retrospective will demonstrate the captivating sweep of DeFeo's heterogeneous work and illuminate her groundbreaking experimentation and extraordinary vision," explains Dana Miller, the curator of the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum.
Comprising more than 130 works, “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective" brings together the artist's paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, small sculptures, and jewelry designs—most of which have not been seen in decades or have never been exhibited before
She was almost a hometown girl, born in New Hampshire but moving here at the age of 3. She found a mentor in her high school art teacher, and in 1946 enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. She resisted what she called 'the hierarchy of materials', using plaster and mixing media to experiment with effects, a thread one can see running through the art of that time, especially on the West Coast.
DeFeo had been exposed to North American native art in her Berkeley studies, thanks to Margaret Peterson O'Hagan; while in England she studied African and prehistoric art in London libraries. She spent a brief time working in Paris, traveling in Europe and North Africa, and for 6 months working in Florence, where she started to find her own kind of imagery.
The Crescent Bridge I, 1970-72. Synthetic Polymer and Mixed Media on plywood, 48 x 66 inches. Whitney Museum of Amrican Art, N.Y. Purchase. Two large paintings that form a diptych in which the images float like some kind of space ship moons against a dark (night) background on the right and a light (day) background on the left. Their powerful astral presence is possible because these images have their origin in something that is already a functional integer of life (DeFeo's life). The object becomes another object (the painting) which in turn reflects back on the original object the aura that has evolved.
Upon her return, DeFeo settled in San Francisco and soon became a major force in the lively Beat scene. She and her husband and fellow-artist, Wally Hedrick, turned their large Victorian flat at 2322 Fillmore Street into one of the major hot spots for bohemian creativity in the City.
Hawk Moon, #1
"The Rose," the monumental work that the Whitney Museum helped save and now owns, consumed her life for almost 7 years.
At first it was called Deathrose ("Death Throes", as Lucy Lippard noticed, "Death Rows," or "Death Rays"), with a burst of rays focused off-center. The painting at that point had an asymmetrical focal point into which everything vanished. But gradually, as DeFeo chipped away at it and added to it, the painting took on life.
In his brilliant essay (Jay DeFeo and The Rose, Jane Green and Leah Levy, eds., University of California Press, 2003), Richard Cándida Smith writes, "She aimed for a revelation of the emergence of order, establishing its inescapable mystery by placing the source of the emergence in a physically impossible space on the other side of the canvas." The painting, in all its changes and thicknesses, is between two places, the universe outside the window and the one inside Jay DeFeo.
When completed “The Rose” was 11 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 8 inches thick. It weighed twenty-three hundred pounds and went through various stages, including names, before DeFeo settled on the final version. Almost more sculpture than painting, it is a huge, crusted mandala in white and grey, with waves of volcanic paint radiating out from the center in sculptural folds.
''A marriage of painting and sculpture,'' she called the work, describing precisely what we see. She added that she had had in mind at the start only ''an idea that had a center to it.''
Thomas Hoving, the late director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, included “The Rose” in his book on the greatest works of art of Western Civilization. “The Rose” is certainly one of the most dense and massive paintings ever made yet it radiates a profound sense of spaciousness and light. It is installed within an open alcove so as not to overwhelm the other pieces in the gallery yet it anchors and informs the rest of her oeuvre.
Across from it is her equally iconic “The Eyes,” a huge drawing of her own eyes, both surrealistic and gothic. The eyes in question are laced with vertical lines that heighten its mystical intensity.
For several years after she finished “The Rose” DeFeo was not able to work. In 1971, just after returning to drawing, she took up photography, discovering a new medium for exploring her sensitive blend of abstraction and figuration.
All her work shows her attraction to and her struggle with opposites – light and dark, geometry and gesture, representation and abstraction. She could become obsessed with ordinary objects - a compass, a tape dispenser, a ruler, triangles - and work and rework these images, moving between the realistic to the mystical all largely within a modulated palate of black, grey and white.
The circle, along with the triangle, the cross, the square, the spiral, and the oval, became the basis of her symbolism.
In the eighties, she combined gestural mark making with non-organic structure, gradually returning from the use of black, white, and gray to a full-color palette.
The Samurai series (1987) combines rigid, thrusting geometric forms against a riotous background of black-on-white gestural painting.
The series “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” made a few months before her death in 1989, began with a different source, a ceramic cup, a gift from the sculptor Ron Nagle. DeFeo drew and photocopied the pink cup repeatedly. The form evolved into a column, curved at the bottom, sharp at the top, floating in space.
For much of her career DeFeo was haunted by a William Blake poem, which seems a fitting touchstone for viewers of this exhibition as well: "If you have formed a Circle to go into, go into it yourself & see how you would do." (quote from I Should Go to the Very Center by Dana Miller, Catalogue for the exhibition Jay DeFeo: No End : Works on Paper from the 1980s, Botanicals: Photographs from the 1970s, August-September 2006)
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective. Opens Saturday, November 3 through February 2012