Spirituality is tricky when used to define artwork. And, to make it more difficult, as a culture we continue to move towards a substandard relationship towards valuing artistic process and embrace the soulless media driven art market economy. Historically artists were integral in the dispersion of religion—with painted icons and gilded tomes, missionaries were sent out to preach morals and successfully converted the uneducated masses—completely transfixing entire communities. As culture has developed, rearrangements of basic formal elements began to communicate new divinities.
Jay DeFeo’s retrospective arrives at the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 28, and with it will be The Rose, her roughly 2,300-pound painting completed in 1966. Throughout the eight years The Rose took to become realized, the composition grew—the work, already too heavy for her to handle on her own, was repositioned and affixed on a larger piece of canvas with the help of a couple artist friends. Repositioned to decentralize the figurative element—a crucifix-like intersection, it morphed into strong dimensional bands with linear scaring, and then softened to something lotus-like, and so on. The physicality of the successive paint applications reverberates like a lunar-halo. A core sample, if taken, would reveal a pilgrimage to an idea and a dedication much like a penitent parishioner.
DeFeo was born in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1929, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area as the country grappled with the Great Depression. Her mother, a nurse, supported the family as her father finished medical school at Stamford. Soon after her father finished school and established his practice, DeFeo’s parents divorced and she became a child of two distinct environments—shifting between her parents and their families in San Francisco and rural Colorado—which is amplified in her use of line and structural geometry in her work
In 1951, upon graduating from at the University of California, Berkley, she won what she calls her “get-out-of-town traveling fellowship” and jetted over to Europe to absorb the land, architecture and the collections throughout Florence, Paris, London, and Northern Africa. Her palette became an interpretation of the story-worn terrains. After stretching out her stay, she returned to San Francisco in 1953 and began a search for employment. She took any job—childcare, in a soda shop as a “soda-jerk”, and even tried her luck at the five-finger discount for a couple cans of paint, which landed her in jail for a night and stripped her of her teaching certificate. Her cellmates jokingly referred to her brush with the law as a “colorful crime.”
Around this time too, she married Wally Hendrick—a Bay area artist born in Pasadena who, during his twenties made music in the Studio Thirteen Jazz Band with artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff. She became embedded in the Beat scene where artists dealt in funk and improvised relationships to multiple forms of poetry, music, installation, and performance. Funk defined the trance like control of materials over artists, and as Hendrick recalls, DeFeo attracted the attention of Walter Hopps and Irving Blum “because her stuff was really more definitive of that era, it’s funkier and she was somewhere between abstract expressionism and funk. They liked it because they’d never seen anything like that.”
Her inclusion in the definitive 16 Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959 was followed in 1960 by a solo exhibition at Hopps’s and Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Even with the strong outside interest she remained fully committed to her practice and shrugged off the spotlight. This isn’t by any means significant to mention except that DeFeo’s objectives are counter to the intense production needs placed on contemporary artists. Its important to point out the eight years that DeFeo committed to the evolution of a painting although it can be misconstrued as a romantic notion. It does signify a dynamic shift to our capabilities to engage with time. Investigations, on any level, involve concentrated efforts and, usually, a bit of reclusion. Are we out of range for this type of investigation?
In preparation for the exhibition, check out Bruce Conner’s film The White Rose. It’s a short film documenting the de-installation of The Rose from DeFeo’s apartment, as it is hoisted down to the ground by a team of art handlers. It’ll give you a sense of the weight of her search in stark contrast to the shallow nowness-ness of our full-throttle, multi-platform media “needs” and reliance on press releases and public relations agencies to determine artistic worth.
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective runs through June 2.