If The Rose were all the world ever knew of DeFeo it would probably be enough. This seven-year (1958-66) labor of love, measuring 11 by 8 feet and weighing more than a ton, with its radiant scallop-shaped form, became iconic the instant it was hauled by forklift from the artist’s Fillmore Street studio. It continues to inspire awe, and not just because no one has created an equivalent. DeFeo, who died in 1989 at age 60, was a master of material invention.
DeFeo, a show of 40 works – culled from the last two decades of the artist’s life — is a prelude to a retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art that will hit SFMOMA next fall. With a few exceptions, it consists mostly of small drawings and photographs. But it is not small-bore. What it lacks in bravado and scale, it more than makes up for in insight into the artist’s mind. It shows DeFeo moving freely and fluidly between painting, drawing, photography and other forms of mechanical reproduction to get at the essence of objects. Such tactics, considered wildly experimental at the time, were common among her contemporaries. Bruce Connor, Wallace Berman and Wally Hedrick, were pioneers in the art of flipping back and forth between traditional and unconventional media to get innovative results, and DeFeo fit right in. Her transformations, like theirs, were wholly unique.
An excellent example is a sextet of photocopies — of draftsman’s compasses – displayed in a grid formation. Each is radically different in composition, tonality, texture and modeling, as if in DeFeo’s hands the copy machine had become both a darkroom and a drafting table. From the photocopies, which recall photograms, DeFeo created a series of mixed media drawings in which the “legs” and “eyes” of the tools became biomorphic shapes, resembling birds’ beaks or mammalian proboscises.
Such references, however, are appended to others that are more open-ended. Allusions to architecture and landscape underpin these drawings, indicating a willingness to disassemble, rearrange, break apart and interrogate objects from multiple viewpoints. In doing so she created her own vocabulary and she recycled it, peppering her oeuvre with spiky blade-like forms that reoccur like haunting refrains. It didn’t matter where an idea originated. Sooner or later, it would turn up someplace else, never mind in what medium it appeared first. To wit: Nine years after she finished The Rose, she rediscovered its scalloped-shape in a 1975 photograph of cabbage leaves. It’s on view here. Likewise, the fractured geometric shapes that appear in her photograph of a paper assemblage, Untitled (White Spica) from 1973, show up continuously in paintings and drawings right up to the end of the artist’s life.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this show is how great a photographer DeFeo really was. She created a surrealist-tinged universe from the detritus lying around her studio. She loved nothing better than mystifying the commonplace, and with a camera in hand, she discovered how easily she could present the ordinary as otherworldly. Crumpled pieces of paper in one untitled photo from 1973 could easily be taken for a straight photo of Zabriskie Point, an area of hills and dunes in Death Valley. Her set up, of a violin headstock resting atop its case with torn-out bow strings, qualifies as a deeply lyrical musical statement. A small sphere-shaped object, inlaid with mosaic tile, appears in two photographs, once in deep shadows, and again in harsh light, becoming at once a mystical object and a caricature of itself: a miniature sombrero. Or so we think. DeFeo understood just how well the camera lies and she used it to tell her own pictorial truth, which was always highly malleable.
Though the show is dominated by small drawings and even smaller photographs, several medium and large-scale paintings – on paper, canvas and panel — show off DeFeo’s bravura technique. The pictures are composed of bold, assertive strokes of white, black and gray, and feature ambiguous figure-ground relationships that resist easy reading. Those from the Samurai series, with their abstract blade forms, give off the crackling energy of action paintings. So does Bride, the largest picture in the show. In it, a “river” flows implausibly out of an Ionic column, while around it other architectural elements lay flat against the picture plane, as if they, too, were organic parts of the landscape.
In her too-short life, DeFeo wasn’t much concerned with consensus reality. She was too busy creating her own.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Jay DeFeo” @ Hosfelt Gallery through October 22, 2011.
Learn more about Jay DeFeo.
All images: ©2011 The Jay DeFeo Trust/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.