Posted on 05 October 2015.
Hawk Moon No. 1, 1983-85, oil on canvas, 84 x 60"; Hawk Moon No. 2, 1983-85, oil on canvas 96 x 60"
If Jay DeFeo (1929-89) were working today I imagine she’d be deep into technology. A pioneer of hybridity long before it became a buzzword, DeFeo was, and still is, one of the art world's greatest shape shifters. She used old-school tools (cameras, scissors, photocopiers) and everyday materials (pens, pencils, graphite, brushes, tape, paper and canvas) to turn photos of natural forms and mundane objects into beguiling abstractions. Bicycle seats, seashells, plants, clothing, dentures, crumpled pieces of paper, hand tools and all manner of household goods and studio detritus became, in DeFeo’s hands, something other: moonscapes, totems, fetish objects and mash-ups of architectural, geometric and mechanical shapes. She made them by slicing up and endlessly recombining photographed, photocopied and hand-drawn forms.
Untitled, 1976, gelatin silver print, black paper, pin and tape on paper, 11 x 8 1/2"
Artists today achieve this kind of otherness by different means: Photoshop, 3-D printers, animation, augmented reality and, I suspect, even more exotic apps that have yet to go mainstream. The effects generated are markedly different than DeFeo’s owing to the technologies involved. But the links, at least conceptually, between DeFeo’s methods and those of pioneering digital painters like Amy Ellingson are clear. She, like DeFeo, tears apart and reassembles preexisting forms to create category-defying hybrids that seem capable of endless permutation. At a technologically less sophisticated level, it’s tempting to draw analogies between DeFeo and William Burroughs, the Beat-era author who constructed his most famous books with a cut-and-paste process similar to DeFeo's, recycling themes and entire tracts of previously published verbiage in new editions of his books. And while there’s no evidence that she read or was influenced by Burroughs, we know for certain that he was a towering influence on many of DeFeo’s Beat-era cohorts. Which is to say, there’s a strong likelihood that talk of his methods ran as thick as wine at the soirees she and her husband, the painter Wally Hedrick, held at their Fillmore Street apartment.
In hindsight we can also see that DeFeo’s combination of manual and photomechanical methods marked both a connecting point to the early history of abstract photography (László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray) and a turning away from the emotive, psychologically freighted realm of Abstract Expressionism, which dominated DeFeo’s formative years and which brought her lasting fame in the form of one truly epic painting: The Rose, a piece that consumed eight years (1958-66) of her life, nearly 3,000 pounds of paint, and left her exhausted, searching for a new beginning.
Untitled, 1976, gelatin silver print, 8 7/16 x 8"
Alter Ego, a stunning museum-quality show of DeFeo’s photos and photo-derived works at the Hosfelt Gallery, picks up at the start of that journey. It begins in the early 1970s and follows DeFeo to the end of her life, which ended in 1989 at age 60. It’s the third such show mounted by the gallery since 2011, and like its predecessors (including career retrospective organized by the Whitney that touched down at SFMOMA in 2012), it illuminates the fluid relationship she maintained between different media. That relationship was fueled by a continuous, syncretic tug-o-war between representation and abstraction. Fifty-five examples are on view, 49 of which have never been seen publicly. They come from the Jay DeFeo Trust, and seeing them in this enormous light-suffused space is an exceptional viewing experience. I doubt that it will change anyone’s estimation of this remarkable piece of DeFeo’s career, but it will certainly enhance it by delving ever further into what appears to be very deep trove.
Todd Hosfelt, the show’s curator, previously considered the iterative aspect of DeFeo’s oeuvre to be paramount. “But in working on this exhibition,” he writes in the exhibition catalog, “I’ve realized it’s more complicated and interesting than that. What this exhibition does is examine similarities and differences between related works to discover what Jay realized in her practice – that opposition is interconnection.” A dazzling example is a trio of collages whose component parts form a wing shape. Cut-up graphite drawings
Untitled (Compass Series), 1979, charcoal and oil pastel on paper 14 x 11"
appear to be the source for these collages, and in each, the pieces are arrayed differently and reproduced by different means: camera, photocopier and by hand. The most powerful of the three is a gelatin silver print. It’s sliced away from its background and mounted on black paper. The collage itself — a mélange of anthropomorphic features (kicking legs, wings, a body and a bird beak) connect via a network of nooks and crannies resembling a wind-carved rock. The feel is Dadaesque; the range of tonal values, set off by the contrasting background, makes it hard to know whether you’re looking at a straight photo or a relief sculpture.
Yet even when the sources of DeFeo’s transformations are clear, the impact can be unsettling. A photo of a tripod, “dressed” as a hooded swordsman, from the much-vaunted Tripod Series, is a prime example. It makes the subject look like Hugo Ball, founder of Swiss Dada, in his costume at the Cabaret Voltaire circa 1916. Two related drawings, built around the circular shape of tripod “heads” accompany it. They’re framed by wing forms, which could have come from any number of series undertaken by the artist during this period. Neither, in a room filled with stellar images, is particularly noteworthy. Their presence is evidentiary: proof of how she enriched her library of images through photomechanical manipulation.
Her extraction of a detail from a generously framed photo of a cow skull to which she’d affixed oyster shells demonstrates. The original is matter-of-fact, deadpan; whereas the close-cropped version presents an otherworldly landscape, one of many examples in Alter Ego that show how deeply the natural world influenced her art.
Sophie's Dream No. 1 E1290, 1989 oil on linen 24 x 20 inches
The photocopier helped in other ways. The best-known examples involve compasses placed on the machine’s platen. The resulting shadows emphasized the dimensionally of the objects and made the prints appear almost sculptural. More importantly, this mode of reproduction enabled DeFeo see the object anew and to, in turn, draw it as a bulbous shape resembling the head a pelican seen in profile. Variations of it show up across a variety of media, including painting. Sophie’s Dream No. 1 and Sophie’s Dream No. 2 (both 1989) are fine examples. In these, the form is truncated and bisected and set against a thinly painted blackbackground and filled with thick, strong paint strokes. They're lit as if struck by a moonbeam, which makes the central form look like a fetus floating in space. The two largest paintings in the show, Hawk Moon No. 1 and Hawk Moon No 2 (both 1983-85) are paired just as powerfully. What makes them iconic are the polarities cited by Hosfelt: “a struggle for balance between light and dark, purpose and accident, the instantaneous and labored, the enormous and minute, the rational and intuitive, application and obliteration, the physical and spiritual.”
The unexpected treasure for me (and for perhaps Hosfelt, too, since it’s the cover image of the exhibition catalog) is a piece of exposed photo paper, glossy black, mounted on white board. It’s small (10 x 8 inches, and at the center there's razor-cut incision shaped like a branch. Reflected light seeps out of it, creating a stark, electric interplay between surface and background. Comparisons to Lucio Fontana arise and then fade, as so do many such comparisons.
When it came to transformation, the turning of one thing into another, DeFeo, in the last two decades of her life, became a Protean figure, a giant whose achievements continue to cast long shadows.
–DAVID M. ROTH
To learn more about Jay DeFeo and her late work, read the transcript of a discussion
held September 26 at the gallery with Julian Cox
, founding curator of photography and chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Veronica Roberts
, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum, the University of Texas, Austin; and gallerist Todd Hosfelt