At the outset of her career in the 1950s, DeFeo was at the center of a vibrant community of Beat artists, poets, and musicians in San Francisco. Although she is best known for her monumental paintingThe Rose (1958–66, now in the Whitney’s collection), which she spent eight years making and which later languished hidden behind a wall for two decades, DeFeo created an astoundingly diverse range of works spanning four decades. Her unconventional approach to materials and intensive, physical process make DeFeo a unique figure in postwar American art who defies easy categorization. The full breadth of her work will be presented for the first time in this exhibition of more than 130 objects. This astonishing array of collages, drawings, paintings, photographs, small sculptures, and jewelry will illuminate DeFeo’s courageous experimentation and extraordinary vision.
Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958-1966
oil with wood and mica on canvas,
1287/8 x 921/4 x 11 in. Frame: 1311/16 x 943/8 x 5 in.;
Collection Whitney Museum of American Art,
Gift of the Estate of Jay DeFeo and purchase with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation.
Begun in 1958, The Rose was DeFeo’s almost exclusive obsession for seven years. Composed of one ton of mostly white and gray paint that reaches depths of up to eight inches,The Rose is certainly one of the most dense and massive paintings ever made. Nevertheless, the work’s sublimity lies precisely in the fact that, despite this sheer accumulation of matter, it exudes a profound sense of spaciousness and light.
Even before it was finished, The Rose had acquired legendary status: Dorothy Miller, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, desperately wanted the work for her landmark exhibition Sixteen Americans (an exhibition which helped to launch the careers of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, and Frank Stella), and Bruce Conner made a film, The White Rose, about the painting’s removal- by forklift- from the artist’s studio in 1965.
Bill Berkson has written eloquently of The Rose:
“…what distinguishes The Rose from other, kindred mandalalike images is its paradoxical palpitating meatiness. Taken at face value, the thing is imposing. At a glance, the sheer mass kicks into visibility of the kind to induce gulps in the unwary viewer, and its staying power- both as you look at it and as you call it to mind days afterward- is equally immense. It’s that sort of head-on collision with ineffability locked into earthy stuff that had the intimates of DeFeo’s process recalling the work, as George Herms did last year, as “the ultimate living being.”
The story starts in the early 1950s, when DeFeo, fresh from art school at the University of California, Berkeley, was in Europe on a grant. Fully up-to-date on trends at home, namely Abstract Expressionism, she was making the trip to see art from the past, and she pursued it avidly before hunkering down for a studio summer in Florence, Italy.
There she turned out some 200 paintings on paper in three months. A few examples open the show, serving as modest signposts for directions she would take. Abstract Expressionist moves are there, but so are images, half-abstract, psycho-symbolic: flowers, bodies, eyes, wings, hearts and crosses that turn into floor plans and kites. An appetite for texture is clear in pictures that are basically about the thickness and thinness of paint.
There’s color, but not for long. DeFeo later said that texture was for her what color was for other artists: the main, eye-holding, expressive element. That sounds right, as her surfaces percolate, and her palette leans toward grisaille.
Jay DeFeo, The Eyes, 1958
Graphite on paper, 42 × 84 3/4 in. (106.7 × 215.3 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the Lannan Foundation 96.242.3 © 2009 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jay DeFeo, Crescent Bridge I, 1972
Synthetic polymer and mixed media on plywood, 48 × 66 1/2 in. (121.9 × 168.9 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Daniel C. Benton 2002.279. © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson
Jay DeFeo, Crescent Bridge II, 1970–72
Synthetic polymer and mixed media on plywood, 48 × 96 in. (121.9 × 243.8 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 2002.329. © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins
Galerie frank elbaz is proud to announce the first Paris solo exhibit of the mythic American artist Jay DeFeo. The exhibit offers a unique selection of artworks spanning DeFeo’s career in the media of collage, photography, drawing and painting. Each work is a vivid example of DeFeo’s fascination with the magic in everyday objects, the fragmented, the disguised, and the mysterious. Placing itself in the context of a “Beat Summer”, the exhibit will find echoes in the Centre Pompidou’s exhibition Beat Generation (June 21 – October 3, 2016) as well as in galerie frank elbaz’s curated boothCollaborative Mysticism: Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner & Jay DeFeo at Art Basel Feature (June 16-19, 2016).
DeFeo was a central figure of San Francisco’s vibrant community of Beat artists, poets, and musicians. Best known for her monumental painting The Rose (1958–66, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art ), DeFeo created an astoundingly diverse range of works in painting, collage, works on paper, sculpture, photography and even jewelry in her four decades of making art. The selection of works at galerie frank elbaz aims to show the relationship among her works and the various iterations of a subject and image. One example, Tuxedo Junction (1965/1974), to be shown at the Centre Pompidou, was made of fragments of a 1965 work called The Estocada that was abandoned when she left her Fillmore Street studio in 1965. Before turning these fragments into a new work, she photographed them repeatedly in 1973 producing texture studies represented by three photographs in the galerie frank elbaz exhibition.
“With Jay, everything was material. I mean, the way she saw the world, everything was a possible material used for her process. That was always exciting to be around. I remember her walls were covered with images that she turned upside down, looked at, reused. If she broke a glass she would keep the shape around, because it just suggested something else to her. Everything was material for her. She was constantly looking all of the time.”
Ursula Cipa, artist and friend
An interview of Jay DeFeo conducted 1975 June 3-1976 January 23, by Paul Karlstrom, for the Archives of American Art.