Suzanne Hudson is an art historian and critic based in Los Angeles, where she teaches at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book is Mary Weatherford (Lund Humphries, 2019); Contemporary Painting is forthcoming from Thames and Hudson in 2020.
Leah Levy has been the executive director and a trustee of the Jay DeFeo Foundation in Berkeley, California, since its formation in 1991. She worked directly with Jay DeFeo as a curatorial consultant from 1985 until the artist’s death in 1989. Levy is the author of numerous articles and several books on art.
Suzanne Hudson Let’s start with the painting Incision [1958–60], as I just saw it yesterday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. When you walk into the gallery, you come across it obliquely at first; it’s hanging on the wall immediately to the left. What struck me was its physical presence. It’s wall-bound, but it’s really a spatial object; it protrudes into the room. It made me think of Albert Pinkham Ryder, of the accumulation of paint and process that’s so visibly manifest in his work. But in Ryder’s paintings, quite unwittingly, the outer coating seems almost like a balloon holding all the interior contents, as if they’d slid down the surface over the years. Incision seems much more tensile, and impervious to time, even though it seems to register the accumulation of time through its evident and labor-intensive process. The gallery is dotted with freestanding sculpture, which underscores how sculptural the work is.
So perhaps we can begin with how Jay DeFeo thought about mediums and the sanctity of their conventions, and how much she cared about those categories at different points in her career.
Leah Levy From the beginning, DeFeo defied the notion of a hierarchy of mediums, even as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1940s. In addition to general college-curriculum and art and history classes, she took courses in sculpture, at that time given through the architecture department. She was very unhappy with what she called “that terrible Plasticine,” the only material that was offered, so she brought in rags, plaster, and sticks to work with, creating freestanding works or large shaped forms adhered to the wall, innovations that she worked with for the next decade and beyond. In the late 1950s, when she was gaining recognition for works like Incision, she referred to her work as “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”
Her studio process included sometimes reaching for what was available. She was often attracted to materials and objects outside the tradition of art making, although she was highly influenced by her deep knowledge of art history as well.
SH It’s interesting that she was thinking about this—about a cross-media approach to making, and the pragmatism of taking what’s at hand and making something out of it—in the late 1950s. It seems so distinct from what was happening in New York at that moment, with the consolidation of Clement Greenberg’s theories about medium specificity and formalism. Her work offers a totally other world of possibility to that; it feels less oppositional and more about the possibilities within materials and seeing a longer history of art. Maybe she comes closer to Robert Rauschenberg and his Combines [1954–64], though his concerns were quite different from hers.
LL Certainly she was free of the burden of Greenbergian dogma. But her work was really a mix. There are relationships between it and that of other artists in the San Francisco Bay Area, but her art didn’t fit with California found art or Funk, or with the assemblage movement. Creating work based on the dictates of materials and her response to them was part of the process that inspired and drove her: a powerful mingling of intent and discovery.
SH To go back a little, would you talk about how she got to Berkeley?
LL She was from the Bay Area. When she graduated from high school, she wanted to go to art school but her father insisted on a university. So she went to Berkeley and got a BA and MA in art there, taking a full range of courses, especially in art and art history. She sought out whatever non-Western history courses were available. And she was a voracious reader throughout her life.
While she was at Berkeley, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still were teaching at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, but she never studied there. She saw black-and-white pictures of Abstract Expressionist work, read about it and heard the talk, but she didn’t see the actual work or know the people—she was in a different milieu. The teaching at Berkeley was still focused on Cézanne and Cubism.
SH And Hans Hofmann had taught at Berkeley in the early 1930s.
LL Yes, Hofmann had a huge influence at the school, even though he was only there for two summers. He taught some of DeFeo’s professors and influenced that program profoundly by instilling a spirit of experimentation. More directly, DeFeo was supported and inspired by Margaret Peterson, whose interest in cave paintings and other prehistoric work had a lifelong impact on DeFeo’s art.
SH What did she do after graduating?
LL She won a postgrad scholarship for travel. She spent three months each in Paris and London, tracing images of cave paintings from the libraries, and soaking up the “old crumbly walls,” which looked to her like ready-made Abstract Expressionist paintings. The general atmosphere and grayness of postwar Europe impressed her a great deal.
After traveling through Spain and Morocco, DeFeo settled in Florence, where she found a wonderful place to live and work and made hundreds of works. These are recognized as her first mature artworks and her most clearly defined Abstract Expressionist period. She made her own egg tempera in rich colors and developed a vocabulary of shapes and forms that she continued to build on. There are quite a few crosses in these works, but she said they were not religious; rather, they were inspired by church architecture and other structures she saw as she rode through Florence on her bicycle. There’s a sense of her finally being in a situation where she could paint uninterrupted for the first time, and she worked at a feverish pace.
On the way back to California, she stopped in New York for three weeks, in January 1953. She saw a lot of art and also created sculpture while she was there, the Unflyable Kites—objects that hung from the ceiling and were based on architectural forms. She also made a series of beautiful drawings on stationery. Then she returned to Berkeley, and soon moved from a large studio to a small apartment and started making tiny sculptures. When she needed income, the tiny sculptures morphed into what became accomplished jewelry objects, which she sold.
This play of setting objects in space was fascinating to DeFeo, blurring the definitions of landscape, portraiture, and still life.Leah Levy
SH It strikes me that with the Unflyable Kites, something capable of movement is arrested in its location. Meanwhile the jewelry is composed of small components that move with the body; it’s flexible and allows for motion.
LL Right. Even with the jewelry there was a tethering, as it was attached to the body. We have a note from her about one of the earrings that says, “Sprays of wire are movable and have the effect of shooting stars when worn.” She imagined them flying through space as they moved.
Twenty years later, in the late 1970s, some of the jewelry became models for an extraordinary series of drawings that capture the sense of a portrait of an object in motion. This play of setting objects in space was fascinating to DeFeo, blurring the definitions of landscape, portraiture, and still life. At the same time, she was putting her attention on other objects in her life as models. There were swimming goggles, because she was learning to swim. There were shoe trees, which she drew in great detail, examining them from every angle and imbuing them with anthropomorphic character. She composed portraits of her compasses and her tripod.
Some of these drawings are masterful in their delicacy, and others, of the same objects, are so abstracted, so layered, that they’re sculptural. She tore the paper, cut holes in it, layering materials in very unlikely ways. Her interest in investing these everyday objects with enlivened attributes led to a series of interrelated, almost kinetic drawings. She was especially happy when an artwork transcended the object model and created a new, not quite recognizable image. She was after the mystery of evolving shape and form.
SH So both the jewelry and the everyday items and personal attributes contributed to the change of scale in the 1970s, with the works being extrapolated from what almost become maquettes, but not only for sculptures. The translation into the image field of something with volume that takes up real space and has many facets also seems so important to her. How do you think the move from Berkeley to San Francisco in the 1950s contributed to the work she did in the intervening years?
LL By that time she had met Wally Hedrick, who was studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts. In 1955 they rented a studio together on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, in what would become a kind of “grand hotel” of artists, musicians, and poets, famous as the center of great artmaking and of great parties. Joan Brown, Sonia Gechtoff, Ed Moses—an array of artists lived there at different times. Poets Joanna McClure and Michael McClure were residents, Dave Getz from Big Brother and the Holding Company lived there for a while, and many others. Through the McClures, DeFeo met Bruce Conner, and they became lifelong friends.
The scale of her work grew in the Fillmore studio. In 1957 and 1958, she started working on twelve-foot-high sheets of heavy paper. She also cobbled together really large canvases and started to develop an incredibly poetic, painterly style, using a palette knife to apply the paint and create texture. The Verónica  is actually painted on paper mounted on canvas, as some of her paintings are into the late 1980s. She liked the feeling of working on paper but wanted the stability of the canvas.
Some of these drawings are masterful in their delicacy, and others, of the same objects, are so abstracted, so layered, that they’re sculptural.Leah Levy
SH Right. She was prominent within this community, but how early did her work find audiences beyond her immediate peers, and even beyond the broader San Francisco context?
LL She received recognition very early on. Walter Hopps became interested in her work as he was developing Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s; he included her work in many exhibitions there over the years. Then in the summer of 1959 Dorothy Miller, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, came to San Francisco to visit artists’ studios as she was preparing the exhibition Sixteen Americans, which opened in December of that year. She visited DeFeo and decided to include works by both DeFeo and Hedrick in that groundbreaking show.
Fascinatingly, though DeFeo was still working on The Rose [1958–66] and therefore could not exhibit it in Sixteen Americans, an image of it in its unfinished state was reproduced by Miller in the catalogue. So there was an intense draw to The Rose—now of course her best-known work—even early in the process of its making. Sixteen Americans opened and within a month or two, after working on the painting for a year, DeFeo adhered the original canvas to a larger one in order to “center the center,” as she said. She worked on it until early 1966. The Rose is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and is currently on view there through 2021.
When DeFeo and Hedrick had to leave their apartment in 1965, Hopps—who had been watching the making of The Rose over the years—arranged for the painting to be removed from her studio and transported to the Pasadena Art Museum, where he was director. This was accomplished by cutting out a section under a second-story window of the studio building’s front wall, a process Conner captured in his beautiful film The White Rose . After The Rose went to Pasadena, DeFeo followed and for three months did the final work on the painting.
SH It brings to mind Marcel Duchamp and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (aka The Large Glass) [1915–23], the work he called “definitively unfinished” until it shattered in transit after it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum. Only then did he decide it was done.
LL And both were created over a span of eight years. We have photographs in the Foundation archive showing a portrait of Duchamp in DeFeo’s studio.
SH Coming back to the question of the institutionalization of DeFeo’s art, what happened after Pasadena?
LL For close to a decade she lived essentially in obscurity. She and Hedrick split and she moved to Marin County, north of San Francisco. In 1969 she moved to a house with a tiny porch, where she was able to create a studio, and she started to make art again. This began a new decade of fresh sources and materials. The first major work she did was After Image , now at the Menil. It’s an exquisite, small drawing of a shell form bursting out from an overlay of tracing paper, like a chick from its shell—a rebirth, in a way.
She didn’t use oil paint during the 1970s, and she didn’t work on canvas, for various reasons: acrylics became more available to her in the early 1970s, and they were cheaper and dried more quickly than oil. Masonite and plywood were also accessible and much more stable supports than canvas, which was the issue that had overwhelmed the stability of The Rose. The works she was making were still very textured. In the 1950s and 1960s, she had made oil behave like a sculptural material, and in the 1970s she made acrylic imitate oil in some ways, adding textured media to the paint. At one point she added Bisquick for additional texture. She was also collaging paper and plastic sheeting and even some objects in her paintings.
This was also the decade in which DeFeo was absorbed with photography, making many hundreds of photographs, photocollages, and photocopies that only came to be understood and exhibited after her death.
With DeFeo’s work there’s development and experimentation, but there’s also consistent commitment, irrespective of who was watching.Suzanne Hudson
SH And the transition to Oakland, and back to oil paint? Will you say more about her last decade?
LL In 1981 DeFeo moved to Oakland, California, and was hired to teach painting at Mills College, a position she held until the end of her life. She built the largest studio she had ever had, enjoyed her community at Mills, and had money to buy supplies and more. Good gallery representation in San Francisco and Los Angeles generated public exposure to her art. She started to work in oil on canvas again with both trepidation and relish.
DeFeo was photographing what she was doing in the studio, surrounding herself with her early work and adding images of works by other artists. She was opening up to a new level of abstraction based on her own eccentric models—torn and cut photocopies, images of Japanese prints hung upside down, a realm of “models” that intrigued her. She also made large paintings with colors she hadn’t used as extensively since the 1950s—the 1970s works were almost exclusively black and white.
And she began to travel—to Japan and to Europe, and in 1987 to Africa, where she climbed Mount Kenya. When she came back, she did an extraordinary series of works titled Reflections of Africa. Not long after that, she developed a cough, which she soon learned was lung cancer. In the last year and a half of her life, with her uncompromising hand and eye, she made an extensive body of works that all but vibrate with spiritual energy.
SH With DeFeo’s work there’s development and experimentation, but there’s also consistent commitment, irrespective of who was watching. And now, because of the halting moments of reception during her lifetime, it’s as though the work were being delivered to us all at once, in a way that doesn’t often happen. The framing of her work, and not only of The Rose, now seems to relate less to 1958 or 1968 than to 2020. Do you have any thoughts on that?
LL What I see is that artists internationally are drawn to her work in a profound way, for a number of reasons. One is the fearlessness of her experimentation—an openness to new ideas that created their own internal frameworks, and therefore not like anything else. Her work can be positioned art historically, but it’s an uneasy categorizing; the work makes its own place. Her exceptional relationship with materials—following their unlikely directions and communing with their sensations and possibilities—is revelatory. There’s an enormous pull to her work because of that inventiveness. Her works also resist traditional definitions, predating the opening up of medium and genre that is blossoming now.
SH It’s work that’s so true to itself at every stage, but it never occupies a head-in-the-sand kind of position, and I think that’s really rare. A lot of the language of AbEx had an almost onanistic singularity; somehow being self-expressive necessarily meant that although you were in proximity with others, you paid no attention to them—you wouldn’t admit that you had any relation to anything and had to negate it if you did. But her language has a sense of erudition—the voracious reading that you mentioned, the imbibing of the history of art and architecture, you feel that in the work, even though you don’t see didactic pretensions or clear references. It’s as though she were acknowledging that she wasn’t alone in the world, even when she was actually working much more on her own than a lot of others were. I feel like her work is very human in that it is about proximity, maybe to people and ideas, art, the stuff close at hand. And the fact that she didn’t sell a lot of work during her lifetime meant that she lived with it in a different way than if she had sold more of it off throughout.
LL It was alive for her. In every period of her life, she reviewed and surrounded herself with early work, pairing it with what she was doing in the studio, historicizing it all for herself—and now, as it turns out, for us.
SH Did she destroy any work?
LL She told her students never to throw anything away, but we know she did destroy work over the years. Her process of surrounding herself with her own work and images from art history is documented by hundreds of photographs of works in progress in her studio. These photographs sometimes record works that her journals say she later destroyed.
SH Increasingly over time, her own work became a source she was looking at alongside works by other artists.
LL Exactly. Those connections drove and refreshed her imagination and inventiveness.
Artwork © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York