Now through February 3, 2013 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is an in-depth retrospective of work by Jay DeFeo (1929-1989), one of the most important, innovative, and diversified artists from of her generation.
A quintessential San Francisco artist who rose to national prominence, DeFeo was at the center of a vibrant community of Bay Area artists, poets, and musicians in the 1950s. Although she is best known for her massive, visionary masterpiece The Rose (1958-66), DeFeo created an astoundingly diverse range of works; her unconventional approach to materials and her intensive, physical process make her a unique figure in postwar American art. Presenting close to 130 works, including collages, drawings, paintings, photographs, small sculptures, and jewelry, this definitive exhibition traces DeFeo’s distinctive vision across more than four decades of art making.
I have to admit that before visiting this exhibition, I was not very familiar with DeFeo’s work. It was, not to say the least, a pleasant surprise to see to what extent she worked with various mediums, beyond what was her most famous work, The Rose. DeFeo spent almost 10 years creating this large iconic piece, building up so many applications of paint, weighing 2300 lbs., one can’t ignore her persistence in rigorously working to achieve her creative goals.
DeFeo’s work is not easily definable, but I found many of her smaller works, drawings, collages and photographs beautifully executed and ethereal. Her experimentation with materials, the minimal palette, and her rendering skills in drawing are almost mesmerizing.
The work sways between being narrative, abstract and representational, graphic and organic, heavy and light. The drawing above, Crescent Bridge II, is actually a dental bridge and one of many representations after she underwent a major dental procedure. Other drawings are organic studies that sometimes interact with the surface of the paper, subtle and intimate.
In the 1950’s DeFeo spent some time in Europe, including Florence, where she may have been influenced by Renaissance art as well as more historic non-western art and archetypal forms. In her jewelry as tiny metal sculptures, she began experimenting with forms made from simple tools and scraps found around her home and studio. Evident are spirals and delicate wire constructions with non-precious elements.
Left: Jay DeFeo, Untitled (c. 1953–55) Wire, pearl, and seed hung with thread, 2 1/2 x 1 ½ x 1/4 in. © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society, NY; photo by George Hixson, images courtesy SFMOMA. Untitled (c. 1954) Steel, steel wire, glass beads, plastic bead, 2 3/8 x 1 5/8 x 3/4 in., ©Estate of Jay DeFeo/Artist Rights Society, NY, Photo: Ben Blackwell.