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
Through Jay DeFeo’s Lens
Wednesday, August 19, 2020, 7pm EDT
Join Leah Levy, executive director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, and Natalie Dupêcher, assistant curator of modern art at the Menil Collection in Houston, for a conversation about the photo-based work of Jay DeFeo. The pair will discuss the works on view in the Menil’s exhibition Photography and the Surreal Imagination and those in the Menil’s permanent collection, and will consider how the artist adopted and transformed Surrealist strategies throughout her boldly imaginative career. To watch the live conversation, visit the Menil’s YouTube channel.
Jay DeFeo, Self-Portrait with Camera, Larkspur Studio, CA, 1972 © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Discussing Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting The Rose (1958–66), now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, are Dana Miller, curator of the Whitney’s permanent collection, David A. Ross, former director, and Lisa Phillips, former curator, with Leah Levy, director of the Jay DeFeo Trust (now the Jay DeFeo Foundation). They describe the significance of this pivotal work and detail the Whitney’s efforts to conserve it.
Still from “Jay DeFeo's The Rose”
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
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.
Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Tripod series), c. 1976, Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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
The Ripple Effect
June 29–October 28, 2018
Aspen Art Museum, Colorado
This exhibition examines integral themes within the practice of Jay DeFeo, from her use of unconventional materials and blurring of abstraction and representation to her devotion to chance and experimentation. The title of the exhibition, The Ripple Effect, refers to DeFeo’s lasting influence on contemporary artists working today. Presenting a core selection of the artist’s work in drawing, painting, collage, and photography, the show examines her legacy through the work of eleven contemporary artists, all of whom were influenced by her delicate, deliberate approach and intimate vision. This exhibition has traveled from Le Consortium in Dijon, France.
Installation view, Jay DeFeo: The Ripple Effect, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado, June 29–October 28, 2018. Artwork © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York