For a few years now, SFMoMA has been trending toward presenting locally-important work as being also nationally (or internationally) important.* SFMoMA’s Jay DeFeo exhibition is another great step in this direction. DeFeo is an important local artist who is woefully under-appreciated. Yes, The Rose is famous, but it overshadows the rest of her work and she’s anything but a one-trick pony.
As I wandered through the exhibition, I found myself coming back to two main thoughts. One was how much of her work took standard art studio classroom prompts—in particular, design prompts—and ran with them far beyond what any student could do. The other was recognizing elements which appealed to me in other artists’ work and seeing how DeFeo used and combined all of them together—oftentimes decades before the other artists went down those paths to begin with.
DeFeo’s work is all over the place. In the best way possible. She plays different media off each other—photos of paintings, paintings of sculpture, collages of photos, old works repurposed into new ones, etc.—to the point where distinguishing between what’s process and what’s product is impossible. It’s all process. And it’s all product. More than any other artist I can think of, the medium rarely matters—and when it does, it’s only because it’s being pushed to its breaking point. I have a hard time calling her paintings paintings, her drawings drawings, or her photographs photographs. They’re all just part of her explorations.
Each of her explorations feels like it has the single-minded clarity of the project prompts I remember from my design classes.* Those projects were simple and intended to guide students into learning how to use specific tools or play with specific concepts.** DeFeo’s work has the same sense of fleshing out her toolkit but she takes things to a completely different level. Her oil paintings push the medium to the point where they feel more like oil sculptures. Her drawings of various textured items and her exploration into those textures transcends just reproducing what they look like.
*Cranbrook-inspired. Though I saw similar prompts in Ruth Asawa’s Black Mountain College student work.
**Using color, evoke an emotion. Provoke the natural properties of a material beyond its standard use. Draw a natural form larger than life with explicit attention to the texture. Using a simple shape and no color, create delight, anger, and fear. Place three forms on a plane. Etc. Etc.
At the same time, I see in her explorations things which remind me of other artists. Again, this is in the best way possible. What I liked about the other artists work are the same things that I recognize DeFeo’s work.
While I was being reminded of other artists, I was also reminding myself that DeFeo’s work often came first. I’m not making any influence claims, I’m just appreciating finding new depth to certain concepts I’ve enjoyed. And it’s very nice to see work which is as relevant today as it was then. There’s always a danger for retrospectives like these to be time capsules of what was once cutting edge. This is not such a retrospective.
Chief among the explorations is the way DeFeo uses lines. The museum texts mention Seurat but the way she uses lines to build up forms, shapes, and edges reminds me more of Richard Serra’s or Il Lee’s drawings. Especially Il Lee’s. The biggest distinction between the two is that Lee’s work results in forms which have mass but not much structure while DeFeo’s forms have structure but little mass. Instead of the outside edges and the relationship between forms being the most important features, DeFeo’s built up lines tend to converge inside the form and suggest an internal order to the piece. I like both approaches and it was great fun to see more stuff like this.
Unlike Lee or Serra, DeFeo’s line explorations go beyond just one medium. You can see the explorations in paint, graphite, you name it. That she changes media so often really shows how much can be done with the simple technique.
I also saw a lot of similarities with Mark Bradford. DeFeo’s large canvases have the same sense of layers upon layers, highly tactile, highly textured compositions which are called “paintings” but really aren’t. Both artists appear to spend their time layering, masking, and erasing as they work through their compositions. DeFeo’s Incision even appears to use embedded strings which have been removed in a similar fashion to what Bradford did decades later. They also evoke a sense of history and experience but where Bradford’s works feel urban, DeFeo’s are almost spiritual.
These works form the centerpiece of the exhibition. Which is wholly appropriate both in terms of being the works which are most famous as well as the ones which cost her the most. They aren’t just referencing her life, they were her life. Seeing all of them together really brings this home. The works are huge and impressive yet at the same time look amazingly fragile and vulnerable. You can see the amount of energy which they required of her and, unlike Bradford with his power sander, you can’t quite work out how she stuck with it to create these enormous oil paint sculptures.
It’s no wonder that her later, small-canvas paintings make the same transition of forcing painting to be seen as a three-dimensional object rather than a two-dimensionsal surface through much less physically costly method of extending the painting around the edges of the canvas. I really like the self-containment and sense of solid-object which those pieces have. But they also feel like they were made by someone working smarter, not harder.
It wasn’t just newer artists who DeFeo reminded me of though. I also saw a lot of Weston in her explorations of texture. Given how much I treat Weston as still cutting-edge, this is a great thing. The ability to see forms and texture the way Weston did is rare. DeFeo’s drawings of her environment show a similar uncanny ability to see things for the forms and textures they contain rather than what they are.
The way DeFeo uses her environment is also inspiring for any aspiring artists who sit around moaning the fact that there’s nothing to interesting “around here” instead of going out and making art.* Anything around her is fair game. Old art pieces are torn up and repurposed. Everything is photographed. Her dental bridge is inspires a number of pieces. As does her dog’s** cast. And her camera tripod, her mugs (broken or whole), her fan, her swim goggles, etc. Inspiration is everywhere.
*Most applicable to photographers.
**The fantastically-named R.Mutt.
In particular, I really love her drawings of objects where, in addition to the textures, she’s exploring the character of the objects in her environment. They look, superficially, like product renderings or mechanical drafts, but instead of representing what the product looks like, they give it personality. Pixar would be proud.
Her jewelry is similarly observant. I really like it. Many of the pieces echo her explorations of lines only in 3D. Others consist of metal or beadwork which is evocative of watchsprings or circuitboards.* Most though present a small (stone, wood, bone, pearl, plastic, whatever) bead, not as a pure pendant or setting but instead both presented and enveloped in wire where the bead is simultaneously the focal point and the underlying structure of the piece. There’s a sense that the beads are found objects being presented for observation the same way everything else around DeFeo is being observed.
*Steampunk before steampunk. Cyberpunk before cyberpunk.
All in all, a very good show for anyone looking for inspiration to make art. Despite the highlights of the show being huge, no-way-can-I-do-that types of pieces, the process and curiosity on view is an extremely inspiring and appropriate lesson for any aspiring artist:
Art is around you, waiting to be seen. Go see it.