Thursday, December 8, 2016

1929-1989: Jay DeFeo, American

Jay DeFeo was a visual artist who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1950-1989. Her unconventional approach to materials and intensive, physical process make her a unique figure.

At the outset of her career in the 1950s, Jay was at the center of a vibrant community of Beat artists, poets, and musicians in San Francisco.

Her masterpiece, and her most famous work, called The Rose, was created between 1958 and 1964, but Jay created an astoundingly diverse range of works.

Background: Jay DeFeo was born in 1929 in Hanover, New Hampshire. Her mother was a nurse from an Austrian immigrant family, and her father was an Italian-American medical student. In 1932, the family moved to the Bay Area, and her father enrolled in medical school. The marriage was troubled, and Jay was bounced between her parents and grandparents—and even institutional care— during her early childhood. After Jay's parents divorced in 1939—she was 10—she lived with her mother in San Jose, CA.

Training: She received a bachelor’s degree in 1950 and a master’s in 1951, both in studio art, from the University of California, Berkeley. Upon graduation, she was awarded a fellowship and traveled to Europe and North Africa for a year and a half, settling in Florence for six months.

Private life: In 1954, Jay married an art student named Wally Hedrick. They shared a building on Fillmore Street with other artists that became a hangout for writers and jazz musicians.

She was 29 years old in 1958 when she started The Rose. It is reported that for the next eight years, she did little else but sit on a stool in her studio, smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy while she painted and scraped away at her vision. She didn't stop working on it until 1966 when she was evicted from the building on Fillmore. By then her health was depleted and her marriage was on the rocks.  Jay and Wally divorced in 1969, and Jay moved to Marin County. There she began a 13-year relationship with a younger man.

In 1981 she moved from Marin to Oakland, after accepting a position at Mills College.

She died on November 11, 1989, at the age of 60.

Career: Jay created her first significant body of work in Florence: over 200 small paintings. She returned to Berkeley in 1952. She was strongly influenced by Abstract Expressionism.

In the 1950s, Jay was at the center of a vibrant community of Beat artists, poets, and musicians in San Francisco. She supported herself by making and selling jewelry. 

Between 1956 and 1960, Jay made several large paintings, most exceeding 10 feet in height. She liked to apply the paint thickly with a palette knife. Her paint was like thick wet dirt; she said it resembled "mud pies."

In 1958, Jay began work on “an idea that had a center to it." Roughly 11-by-8 feet, it covered a bay window. Since she eventually called the painting The Rose, Jay’s placement of it was likely inspired by the rose windows in Gothic churches, such as the Notre Dame in Paris. Working with palette knives and masonry trowels, she slathered thick layers of mostly white and dark gray paint onto her canvas. She used the same tools to carve away at the growing relief as it dried, building the paint into canyon-like formations arranged around a center point, like a starburst. She added mica chips to the paint, giving it an interior light. When Jay finally gave it up, 8 years later, the work was 8-11 inches thick in some places, and it weighed 1800 pounds. The paradoxical impact of the painting: an immaterial and evanescent starburst seems to be embedded in a massive slab of stone—a recent critic called it a "fossil of light."

Its existence quickly became a local legend.

The Rose was first exhibited in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum and San Francisco. It then languished unseen behind a protective wall at the San Francisco Art Institue for 25 years. In 1994 The Whitney Museum of American Art brought it out of storage and restored it. The Whitney has since featured it in several exhibits.

While she was working on The Rose, Jay essentially withdrew from the art world, turning down offers of new gallery affiliations and solo exhibitions. When she finished it, she took a break from the art world for a few years in order to recover her mental and physical health.

In the 1970s, Jay investigated new materials, invented applications, and became deeply involved with photography. She began to focus on weird subjects, such as her dental bridge and her swim goggles. Her work from this period is rarely seen.

In 1981 Jay accepted a position teaching painting at Mills College, where she became a tenured professor five years later.


Mountain No. 2, 1955
De Young / Jan's photo

Untitled (Mountain Series—Everest), 1955
Oakland / Jan's photo

The Verónica, 1957
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

The Rose, 1958-1966
Whitney / Jan's photo

Crescent Bridge II, 1970-72

Water Goggles, 1977