Jay Defeo at SFMOMA

When I set out to see Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective at SFMOMA, I wasn’t terribly familiar with the Bay Area artist’s work. As I descended into 24th Street BART station, the chunky, graying concrete wall reliefs reminded me that I’d soon be seeing The Rose, DeFeo’s most famous work, in person. Towering and bulging, The Rose is a painting that nearly morphed into a sculpture over the nine years DeFeo spent working and reworking it. I wondered what else I’d find from an artist who could spend so long on a single image, and image worked so heavily that it became as dense and intimidating as a monument.

Burt Glinn, Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, 1960; © 2012 Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

The show begins on a scale that is, as it turns out, far from monumental.  DeFeo shifted easily between media from the very beginning of her career, and the first gallery of the show contains rangy, scratchy drawings, small, expressionist canvases and a completely delightful vitrine full wire and mixed-media objects, some of it jewelry, all of it inventive, funny and graceful. They recall the work of Lee Bontecou and Alexander Calder, and foreshadow the way DeFeo will return again and again to familiar, mundane objects as jumping off points for imagery.

Jay DeFeo, Landscape with Figure, 1955; oil on canvas; 18 x 14 in. (45.7 x 35.6 cm); Private collection; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Ben Blackwell

Jay DeFeo, Incision, 1958-61; oil and string on canvas mounted on board; 118 in. x 55 5/8 in. x 9 3/8 in. (299.72 cm x 141.29 cm x 23.81 cm); Collection SFMOMA, purchase with the aid of funds from the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

From there, the show moves mostly into two dimensional work, paintings, drawings, photocollages, but the lines always blur.  Again and again, process comes to the fore. The physical processes of markmaking are everywhere, evident in giant raking sweeps of the palette knife, careful gradations of pencil and gloppy applications of glue. But the evolulion DeFeo’s of images and motifs is equally powerful.  DeFeo was a powerful observer of both mundane objects and abstract symbols, and she was adept at collapsing them into one another.  Her paintings, especially The Rose and the works immediately preceding it, explore iconic forms, the cross, the star, in such a way that she doesn’t seem to reference archetypes so much as assert why these formats became so meaningful and ubiquitous in the first place.

Jay DeFeo, Origin, 1956; oil on canvas; 92 x 79 3/4 in. (233.7 x 202.6 cm); University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Hilson; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Sibila Savage

The Rose itself deserves its heavy reputation.  Tall, solid and lit by raking light intended to echo the atmosphere of DeFeo’s Fillmore Street studio, seeing the work feels like approaching a giant’s navel.  Around the center indent, the work bulges slightly more below than above, with rays radiating outward.  Its muted color is served well by a gray wall treatment behind, and the dramatic sightline to the painting is worth the too-earnest, chapel-like effect of its placement against the rest of the show.

Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66; oil with wood and mica on canvas; 128 7/8 x 92 1/4 x 11 in. (327.3 x 234.3 x 27.9 cm); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley, CA, and purchase with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation 95.170; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Ben Blackwell

DeFeo’s work grew both smaller and less colorful in the years after The Rose, as an interest in black and white photography, and concerns about the health hazards of oil paint, led the changes in her methods.  The best work from this time includes inventive and, seen after her larger paintings, startlingly meticulous pencil drawings of objects like her tripod sand her swim goggles. The show concludes with work from 1989, paintings from the last year of Defeo’s life.  Modestly sized, they are a return to oil painting and to color.  Lush, delicate and more airy than all of her preceding work, they are a fitting end that leaves you wanting more, and wondering what could have been next.

Jay DeFeo, Blue One, 1989; oil on linen; 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm); The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Ben Blackwell

Curated by Dan Miller of the Whitney Museum, where the show will travel next, the exhibition runs November 3 through February 3 at SFMOMA.

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