There is some experience of the element of risk in everything I do, making each work something of a cliffhanger. Somehow I’m not satisfied unless I’ve lived a little dangerously and survived.
Jay DeFeo (1929–1989) produced a diverse body of painting, drawing, collage, and photography that presents a highly individual vision of an artist’s physical environment, personal history, and metaphysical concerns.
Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, DeFeo grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and studied at the University of California, Berkeley. After earning her master’s degree in 1951, she was awarded a fellowship and traveled in Europe and North Africa. Settling in Florence for six months, she produced her first major paintings, which reflect the influence of Abstract Expressionism and Italian architecture and borrow from the aesthetics of Asian, African, and prehistoric art. Returning to Northern California in 1953, DeFeo became a pivotal figure in San Francisco’s thriving Beat scene. Her images of this period are marked by a dynamic interplay of representational and abstract approaches. In 1959 her first major solo exhibition was held at the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco, and her work was also featured in Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
DeFeo’s masterpiece, The Rose (1958–66), a fusion of painting and sculpture eight years in the making, demonstrates the artist’s unswerving dedication to experimental forms. Quickly attaining renown, The Rose absorbed DeFeo’s attention so completely that she turned down several significant exhibition offers during the time it took to complete the work. First exhibited in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum, California, the massive impasto canvas was subsequently installed at the San Francisco Art Institute, where for many years it remained concealed behind a false wall, before being conserved and acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1995.
In 1966 DeFeo moved to Marin County, near San Francisco, and in the 1970s began to employ new methods and materials, including photography, in her art. Oil gave way to acrylic in her paintings, and canvas to Masonite or plywood panels. DeFeo often added textured media to the paint or applied collage elements such as paper, plastic, or objects to the surface. She described her works of this period, many of them marked by unexpected, often ambiguous interpretations of everyday objects, as “beings suspended in space and time” that “transcend the definition of the objects from which they are derived.” Often working in extended series, she established a complex internal network of formal and conceptual reference that spans multiple undertakings. In 1981 DeFeo moved to Oakland, California, and began to teach painting at Mills College. This coincided with a return to oil paint, in both large and smaller canvases, and works on paper, some of which revisit the imagery of her earliest works, and which retain a distinctive balance of precision and spontaneity.
DeFeo died on November 11, 1989, at the age of sixty. Since then, her work has been featured in museum and gallery exhibitions around the world. In 2012 the Whitney Museum organized Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, which traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In addition to establishing the Jay DeFeo Foundation, the artist’s will endowed the Jay DeFeo MFA Prize at Mills College.
Photo © 2020 Jim McHugh, courtesy the Jay DeFeo Foundation
Jay DeFeo’s Transcendent Objects
Alice Godwin explores the shifts in Jay DeFeo’s practice in the 1970s, considering the familiar objects that became recurrent subjects in her work during these years and their relationship to the human body.
Suzanne Hudson speaks with Leah Levy, executive director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, about the artist’s life and work.
Jay DeFeo’s Generation
Suzanne Hudson, Dana Miller, and Clifford Ross
Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 2pm EST
Join Gagosian for a conversation on Jay DeFeo with Los Angeles–based art historian and critic Suzanne Hudson, Seattle-based art historian and independent curator Dana Miller, and New York–based artist Clifford Ross. The trio will discuss the unique place DeFeo occupies in art history, shaped by a diverse body of work that defies categorization, a practice situated outside of the American art centers of New York and Los Angeles, and relationships with other artists of her generation. To join, register at zoom.us.
Jay DeFeo, Lotus Eater No. 1, 1974 © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick
Catching Ideas in Process
Jay DeFeo’s Photography
Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 8–9pm EST
The medium of photography enabled Jay DeFeo to further explore the themes and forms she continually returned to in her diverse practice, and to capture her own process, resulting in images that blur the line between documentation and art. Organized by the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, this panel discussion brings together Corey Keller, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in conversation with artists Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Rayyane Tabet to discuss this lesser-known body of DeFeo’s oeuvre and the ways in which her highly experimental practice continues to resonate with photographers working today. The conversation will be moderated by Emily Markert, a curatorial fellow at the Wattis Institute. To register for the event, visit eventbrite.com.
Jay DeFeo, Untitled, 1973 © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Gagosian will be participating in 8-bridges, a new online initiative created to highlight artists and galleries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Launching in October 2020, 8-bridges will present monthly exhibitions by Bay Area galleries, with a particular focus on artists and conversations relevant to the region. The platform will feature eight new presentations each month, and each cycle will also spotlight a local institution, starting with the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Gagosian is pleased to be a member of the 8-bridges founding committee. The gallery’s inaugural presentation will be devoted to the work of Jay DeFeo.
Jay DeFeo on Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California, 1973. Photo: John Bogdanoff
The Whitney’s Collection
Selections from 1900 to 1965
Through May 2022
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
This exhibition of more than 120 works, drawn entirely from the Whitney’s collection, is inspired by the founding history of the museum. The Whitney was established in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to champion the work of living American artists. A sculptor and a patron, Whitney recognized both the importance of contemporary American art and the need to support the artists who made it. The collection she assembled foregrounds how artists uniquely reveal the complexity and beauty of American life. Work by Jay DeFeo, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann is included.
Installation view, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 28, 2019–May 2022. Artwork, left to right: © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Norman Lewis; © 2020 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ron Amstutz
Drawing at Midcentury
October 31, 2020–June 5, 2021
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Bringing together approximately eighty works on paper from the museum’s collection, Degree Zero illuminates how artists used drawing to forge a new visual language in the aftermath of World War II. Modest, immediate, and direct, drawing was the ideal medium for this period of renewal. The exhibition looks across movements, geographies, and generations to highlight connections between artists who shared common materials and ideas between 1948 and 1961. Work by Jay DeFeo, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, and Cy Twombly is included.
Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Florence), 1952, Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape
October 21, 2019–April 12, 2020
Museum of Modern Art, New York
In The Shape of Shape, Amy Sillman—an artist who has helped redefine contemporary painting, pushing the medium into drawing, installations, video, and zines—has created a revelatory Artist’s Choice installation drawn from the museum’s collection. The exhibition features works, many rarely seen, spanning vastly different time periods, places, and mediums. Work by Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Howard Hodgkin, Henry Moore, Albert Oehlen, and Christopher Wool is included.
Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 1989, Museum of Modern Art, New York © Albert Oehlen
March 8–July 7, 2019
San José Museum of Art, San Jose, California
Undersoul: Jay DeFeo features unique photographs, photocollages, photocopies, drawings, and paintings from the 1970s and 1980s that track the artist’s visual vocabulary across mediums and subject matter. This focused exhibition highlights Jay DeFeo’s prolific use of photographic practices as an underexamined but critical facet of her transmutative process. Building upon four works in the San José Museum of Art’s permanent collection as guiding linchpins, the exhibition draws largely on previously unpublished and unexhibited works from the rich holdings of the Jay DeFeo Foundation.
Installation view, Jay DeFeo: Undersoul, San José Museum of Art, San Jose, California, March 8–July 7, 2019. Artwork © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Phil Bond