SFMOMA shows diverse work of UC Berkeley alum Jay DeFeo

Jay DeFeo, After Image, 1970, graphite, gouache, and transparent synthetic polymer on paper with cut-and-torn tracing paper; The Menil Collection, Houston; gift of Glenn Fukushima; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: by Paul Hester
The DeFeo Trust/Courtesy
Jay DeFeo, After Image, 1970, graphite, gouache, and transparent synthetic polymer on paper with cut-and-torn tracing paper; The Menil Collection, Houston; gift of Glenn Fukushima; © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: by Paul Hester

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The tall canvas of “The Rose” is smothered in thick, textured oil paint that crafts a mesmerizing 3-D effect while employing rich black and white color tones that depict the spreading petals of a rose and signify the thematic balance between darkness and light. One of the largest-scale paintings present in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective,” it draws all nearby eyes to it and easily distinguishes itself as one of DeFeo’s most accomplished works. The painting took DeFeo several years to create, with its title changing multiple times in the process.

The evolutionary process undergone by “The Rose” seems to be aptly symbolic of DeFeo’s career as an artist altogether. The exhibit attempts to encompass the majority of the famous Bay Area artist’s work in one comprehensive stroke and consequently offers a buffet of mixed media that intrigues, inspires and educates attendees on the artistic evolution experienced by the creator over the course of a lifetime.

Offering almost 130 different pieces from the UC Berkeley alumnus, the gallery-style walkthrough is broken up by decade. Periodic text provides insightful context and useful biographical info, helping guide the way to the next step in the artist’s career.

Displayed in her early work is her series “The Mountains,” where DeFeo translates the concrete physical qualities of famous mountain peaks into vivid, abstract expressionism. An example that stands out is DeFeo’s “Everest,” a smoky gray-and-black collage of heavily textured paint that prefers to capture the essence of the mountain rather than the mountain itself.

This style is contrasted against other works, such as totemic sculptures and a glass-encased collection of jewelry made by DeFeo. By using assorted supplies such as wire, copper, steel, plastic and wood to bring to life the inanimate, DeFeo reveals a crafty, industrious side that seems to be the antithesis of the sensibilities portrayed in her paintings.

Other noteworthy pieces in the exhibit include sketches that give the impression of charcoal-drawn Rorschach tests, photo collages and two complementing paintings titled “Crescent Bridge I” and “Crescent Bridge II” that depict an abstract representation of DeFeo’s own dental bridge, but it is “The Rose” that shines as the aesthetic and conceptual climax of the exhibit.

The wide variety of the exhibit illustrates the point that DeFeo was too inspired and prolific to be contained to a single medium and serves as a testimony to her creative acumen. The title of “A Retrospective” is especially appropriate. The exhibit is not merely a chronicling of DeFeo’s work but also a contemplation on what the artwork represents and the parallels between what she created and what occurred in her life. By dividing the exhibit by decade, it is easy to understand the logical progression of her ever-changing style.

DeFeo’s adventurous life included extensive traveling through North America, Europe and Africa as well as her return to Berkeley and the Bay Area, where she set up her studio. DeFeo’s involvement in the beat generation and time spent in the company of other cutting-edge artists while living on the vibrant Fillmore Street in San Francisco is another element reflected in the spontaneity of her work.

Overall, the exhibit is deeply thought-provoking, causing the viewer to consider DeFeo’s life and analyze the age-old question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life. It contains some of DeFeo’s lesser-known works that explore a wide spectrum of artistic mediums. As is the nature of most abstract ventures, the artwork and material may not be instantly accessible to the average art consumer, but if given time and attention, one can’t help but appreciate the ambition and complexity of the avant-garde visuals.

Contact Ryan at [email protected]

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