New York

Jay DeFeo

You won’t find Jay DeFeo, a San Francisco painter who became active in the early ’50s, included in many anthologies of feminist art—at least not yet. But her interest in painting as an extension of her body, as something both radiant and abject, as both manageable and not, situates her in a singular position within her milieu. She was included in Dorothy Miller’s influential “Sixteen Americans” of 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art, yet her relative obscurity is confirmed by the Whitney’s small, posthumous exhibition: Fifteen years after her death, this is her first New York museum show. DeFeo’s an important link to the creative gurus of the Beat generation and Bay Area painterly abstraction but deserves her niche in history for exercising the license to take art to an extreme.

One painting in particular took over DeFeo’s life. From 1958 to 1966 she worked on The Rose (initially entitled Deathrose and, for a time, The White Rose). The production of the monumental painting with a central sculptural starburst motif (measured in proportion to her own body) proceeded in stops and starts as she built up the dense, chiseled surface only to take it back down to bare canvas and begin again. Like Duchamp’s definitively incomplete Large Glass, DeFeo’s Rose was finished arbitrarily. Faced with eviction from her Fillmore Street apartment, the artist had to move her beloved behemoth. Stretching almost eleven feet high, almost a foot thick in places, and not completely dry, the nearly one-ton painting required a crew of professional movers to cut through upper-story windows and hoist it into a moving van en route to the Pasadena Art Museum, where it was installed in a small “storage gallery.” (The move was the subject of a 1967 film by Bruce Conner.) Even then, DeFeo couldn’t leave it alone—she traveled to Pasadena, where she put in another three months on the painting before calling it quits for good. By the early ’70s, the work, greatly in need of conservation, was covered with a protective coating and, in 1979, encased behind a fiberboard wall where it remained inaccessible for nearly twenty years.

DeFeo never saw the painting again but remarked that she continued to get “feedback” from it. For three years following the work’s forced exodus, the artist produced nothing. When she did commence work again, it was with a renewed interest in the strange beauty of the body as abstraction, via photocollage, drawing, and smaller-scale painting. In twenty-one sparse, elegant grotesqueries from the mid-’50s to the ’70s that accompany the presentation of the fully restored Rose (now owned by the Whitney), there’s formal evidence of DeFeo’s ability to make use of materials and experiences at hand amid borrowed bits of European Symbolism, Surrealism, and Dada. Black-and-white paintings from the early ’70s depict her own extracted teeth as fractured plateaus drifting in stark empty space. (There’s speculation that her teeth fell out because of overexposure to toxic chemicals in the studio.)

It’s not only DeFeo’s deeply gothic sensibility that qualifies her art as relevant today. Other aspects of her practice (not referenced in this exhibition) prove utterly topical—like her whimsical “jewelry sculptures.” Prior to her representation in “Sixteen Americans” with large, abstract oil paintings, DeFeo contributed tiny, delicate constructions of wire, string, rhinestones, and other materials to the Huntington Galleries’ 1955 group exhibition “American Jewelry and Related Objects.” Indeed, DeFeo regarded her jewelry pieces, including a particular circular brooch, as predecessors to The Rose. Juggling high art and craft was no easy feat in the ’50s and ’60s—and it was doubly difficult for a woman! This formal eclecticism is notable in her work from the ’70s and finds currency with the present revival of art from that decade. But it’s her determination to make art according to her own rules that leaves the most lasting impression. With DeFeo’s example, a little bit more of the unruly present makes sense with respect to the past.

Jan Avgikos