San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opens Jay DeFeo. A Retrospective

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opens Jay DeFeo. A Retrospective, on view November 03, 2012 – February 03, 2013, the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo (1929–1989). Although best known for her landmark painting The Rose (1958–66)—a near two-thousand-pound masterpiece—DeFeo created an astoundingly diverse range of work. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the retrospective places The Rose in the context of her larger body of work, tracing DeFeo’s visual concerns and motifs across more than four decades of art making. Following its premiere at SFMOMA, the exhibition will be shown at the Whitney from February 28 through June 2, 2013.

Jay DeFeo, Traveling Portrait (Chance Landscape), 1973; photo collage with synthetic polymer and glue on paperboard; 14 1/2 x 19 in. (36.8 x 48.3 cm); The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Ben Blackwell.

The retrospective draws from more than 35 private and public collections, including those of the Whitney and SFMOMA, as well as the Jay DeFeo Trust, which provided unprecedented access to works and archives for the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated 320 page catalogue with new scholarship on all aspects of DeFeo’s work and career, including essays by Dana Miller; Corey Keller; Michael Duncan, independent scholar; Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, associate director of conservation and research, Whitney Museum; and Greil Marcus, independent scholar. The most accurate biographical chronology of DeFeo to date will round out this volume.

Born in 1929 in Hanover, New Hampshire, Jay DeFeo was one of the few women of her generation to rise to artistic prominence but one who has still not been given her due. Her unconventional approach to materials and intensive, physical process make DeFeo a unique figure in postwar American art and she defies easy categorization.

DeFeo made her first mature body of work while traveling through Europe on a fellowship, shortly after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951. Not long after her return in 1953, she settled among the San Francisco community of artists, poets, and musicians later labeled the Beat generation. Her larger circle of friends and peers included Wallace Berman, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Sonia Gechtoff, Ed Kienholz, and the artist Wally Hedrick, whom she married in 1954. The legendary curator Walter Hopps was an early champion and he placed DeFeo’s work in several gallery and museum exhibitions in the 1950s and 60s, among them the inaugural show of the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957, which was followed by several other group shows and a solo presentation there in 1960. Dorothy Miller included DeFeo’s work in the seminal 1959 Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibition Sixteen Americans, alongside Frank Stella’s black striped paintings and Jasper Johns’s flags. At that moment DeFeo was among the most prominent women artists of her generation.

From 1958 to 1966, DeFeo worked almost exclusively on The Rose, and when she finished, the work consisted of so many layers of paint that it weighed close to one ton. Exhausted, both physically and mentally, DeFeo then took a three-year hiatus from making art and largely faded from the public’s consciousness. It was only after The Rose was finally given a museum exhibition in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum, which then traveled to SFMOMA (then the San Francisco Museum of Art) the same year, that she began painting again.

During the 1970s, DeFeo lived in Larkspur, California, and taught at several Bay Area schools and, for a time, at SFMOMA. She resumed making art and worked prolifically, exploring photography in depth and incorporating it into her practice in innovative ways. A 1973 National Endowment for the Arts grant allowed her to further pursue her photographic experiments and she created a highly inventive body of hybrid works on paper. Although DeFeo worked spontaneously, her paintings, drawings, and photo-collages evolved through a slow technique of building up an image and then reworking it, or erasing it and starting all over again. This open-ended process, which the artist described as a “cliff-hanging experience,” allowed for highly expressionistic forms and an astonishing range of surface modulation. Yet DeFeo’s intuitive and expansive method of working was tempered by her sense of compositional order and an often restrained grisaille palette. It is this state of balance, between carefully composed images and lush surfaces, expressive forms and subtle coloring, that intensifies her unique and utterly compelling body of work. In 1978 she had a one-person exhibition in the MATRIX program at the Berkeley Art Museum, organized by then Director of SFMOMA Henry Hopkins.

In 1981 DeFeo moved to Oakland and joined the faculty of Mills College, where she was awarded tenure in 1986. She continued to produce art and was the subject of several significant shows including a 1984 solo presentation at the San Francisco Art Institute as the recipient of the Adaline Kent Award and a 1989 exhibition, Jay DeFeo: Works on Paper, at the Berkeley Art Museum. DeFeo taught at Mills until her death from lung cancer on November 11, 1989, and had a profound impact on a generation of students who passed through the school.

DeFeo’s work can be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and SFMOMA, as well in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives, Oakland Museum of California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Menil Collection, Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103