by Sura Wood
Jay DeFeo's art is a perfect balance of the heart and the mind, a sublime integration that gives her work its power and that's on voluptuous display in the first major career retrospective of this beloved Bay Area artist. Fleshing out her personal and artistic biography, the strong suit of the new exhibition, which opened last week at SFMOMA, is its fresh consideration of DeFeo's sensual repertoire, dating from the 1950s through the final group of small, square, oil-on-linen paintings she completed in 1989, shortly before her death at age 60 from lung cancer. Even though DeFeo was an established, highly regarded figure in the art world, and had enjoyed commercial success since the 1980s, she was a woman, a biological fact that helps explain but doesn't justify why a much-deserved overview like this current one has been so long in coming. Well, it was worth the wait.
The 130 works on view range from sculptural paper collages, jewelry pieces and her experiments in photography to awe-inducing, gigantic canvases that marry sculpture and painting. Many of the latter read as three-dimensional with their molded, copious layers of paint – as much as a foot thick in some areas on a given canvas – that she would scrape with a palette knife and reapply in a labor-intensive process of building up and breaking down her materials, often while she was perched on a ladder. Charting her own course, she went full-in for the long haul on single projects that could take years – it appears the world went away for DeFeo when she was in her studio. Partial to oils, she temporarily switched to acrylic for health reasons; it was an allegiance that didn't last.
Making subtle connections between seemingly disparate mediums and an unrepentant dynamism may describe her approach, but even in the relatively two-dimensional realm of photography, the operative word is texture, and then some. "Incision" (1958-60), for example, is a primal eruption of grays and swirling dense mounds of lava-like blacks that resemble fired ceramics and are anchored by strings underneath the paint; the effect induces an uncanny sensation of disembarking on a planet in the throes of evolution, perhaps our own in a prehistoric era.
DeFeo, who was Catholic, was clearly transported by Renaissance art, and her exposure to the ubiquitous depictions of angels she saw in Florence during the early 1950s informed many works, including "The Annunciation" (1957/59), a 10' x 6' oil of angel's wings whose delicate feathers coalesce in an aura of celestial beauty. Star shapes, wings and cruciform motifs surface throughout her four-decade career. Her soaring, tactile paintings from the 1950s and 60s are filled with religious fervor, a reverence for the divine and proportion. Their inspirational iconography is abstract and impressionistic, as opposed to figurative and literal.
"The Rose" (1958-66), DeFeo's most storied work, will be the reason many will make a pilgrimage to the museum, and it's worth the price of admission. For some, the experience is akin to going to Lourdes, and could prove more salutary. A towering, immense, textural painting as imposing as a religious relic, its forms, rippling out from a central starburst, emerge from the canvas in a bas-relief like an excavated archaeological find or a cryptic message from a distant civilization. It's a stunner. Not surprisingly, a legend grew up around the painting. Though it's revealing to see it in the context of a comprehensive exhibition, it's in a class by itself, and handsomely installed accordingly, flanked by slate-gray platforms and lit from the sides. Weighing in at almost two tons and morphing through several different titles over the eight years it took DeFeo to finish it, "The Rose" nearly obscured the entire frame of a bay window in the spacious Fillmore Street apartment and studio where she painted it. When she was forced to leave in 1965, a hole had to be punched in the wall and a forklift used to extract it.
Before leaving, she removed the torn pieces of painted paper she had stored under her bed for many years. She sprayed the salvaged fragments with fixative to seal in the dust and dirt, singeing the matted papers, and then pressed them onto a trio of panels for "Tuxedo Junction" (1965-74), a piece named after a Glenn Miller composition. They recall the infamous burned-paper series John Cage produced a decade later.
In the 1970s, encouraged to make photo-collages by assemblage wizard Bruce Conner, she began photographing items close to home such as vacuum cleaners, dismembered mannequins, an obsolete telephone, and her dental bridge. My favorite is "R. Mutt," a pair of images she shot of the crumbling plaster cast removed from her dog's leg, elevating its stature to that of a lost relic.
Despite deteriorating health in the last year of her life, DeFeo made modestly scaled, poignant paintings whose subjects merge with their backgrounds: a dying bird yielding to mortality, mountain peaks obscured by fog and darkness. Her final work, "Last Valentine," a butterfly wing receding into the creamy ether, is a postcard from the edge. Fade Out. Farewell.
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, at SFMOMA through Feb. 3.