Jay DeFeo and Jasper Johns: Rarely Seen Work at SFMOMA

It's Nov. 9, 1965, and Jay DeFeo is smoking a cigarette as she sits on the ledge of her San Francisco apartment. Her feet dangle over the side, two stories above Fillmore Street, and she's puffing her smoke high into the air. DeFeo looks forlorn and nervous, like she hasn't slept in days, and you can't blame her: She is being evicted from her residence, and a team of movers has just removed the art piece she's been working on for seven years — a near-2,000-pound behemoth of volcanic paint that she originally titled Deathrose. DeFeo's eviction — captured on film by a good friend, the artist Bruce Conner — was a seminal moment in her life, and the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit, "Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective," includes Conner's film in the panorama of work that sums up DeFeo's career. Of course, The Rose (née: Deathrose) is at SFMOMA, forming the centerpiece of this posthumous tribute to an artist whose work still astounds.

In the 1950s and '60s, DeFeo made a series of 10-foot-tall paintings that are fantastical explosions of form and feeling. Like The Rose, The Jewel is built up with so many paint layers that it bulges into spheres that resemble sculptured formations. The two works, though, are counterpoints to each other. The Jewel is convex at the center, and pulsates with inviting burgundies, tans, and creams that suggests the birth of a galaxy, while The Rose has muted colors and a calloused, concave surface that connotes an imperfect roughness, or perhaps a demise.

For the first time, the two pieces are being exhibited simultaneously. In fact, "Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective" is really the first time that DeFeo's complete range of work is being shown in public — a bittersweet triumph for an artist who, in her lifetime, never reached the level of recognition that her work is now garnering. DeFeo died in 1989, at age 60, from lung cancer. Even The Rose, her acknowledged masterpiece, was irregularly displayed before her passing; between 1969 and 1995, it was held by the San Francisco Art Institute, which put it in storage for many of those years.

Jay DeFeo at work on her massive piece, The Rose.
©Burt Glinn / Magnum Photos
Jay DeFeo at work on her massive piece, The Rose.

"From our point of view, this is a historic event," says Leah Levy, a co-trustee of The Jay DeFeo Trust, about the SFMOMA exhibit, which was organized by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. "I can name two people who have previously seen every work in the retrospective."

While DeFeo is best known for her oil paintings, she worked in many mediums, including charcoal, collage, photography, plaster, and tempera. She frequently incorporated personal objects from her life into her art, drawing everything from water goggles to kitchen cups, and she reached an apotheosis in the early '70s with her Crescent Bridge paintings, which depict the dental bridge from her own mouth. At age 40, she suffered from gum disease, which she attributed to lead in the oil paint she used in the '50s and '60s. Art-goers without knowledge of DeFeo's dental history might see her large Crescent Bridge paintings (done in acrylic paint) as stylish silhouettes of rock formations, but SFMOMA has wall text that explains the story of DeFeo's teeth, and the retrospective highlights a stark photo that she took of her false molars. For DeFeo, her body's breakdown was an artistic opportunity.

After her 1965 eviction, which coincided with the dissolution of her marriage to artist Wally Hedrick, she didn't make new art for almost four years. Her career wasn't linear, which is one reason DeFeo slipped in and out of the public eye. SFMOMA labeled this exhibit a "retrospective," but it's really a reintroduction of a Bay Area artist who had an intricate vision of the world around her.

At age 82, Jasper Johns remains an iconic figure in art. Among his feats: in the 1950s and '60s, elevating American flags and Arabic numerals into thought-stirring emblems that took on new meaning in Johns' lithographs and oil paintings. Using "things the mind already knows," as Johns once described it, his work was both familiar and subversive, and foreshadowed the Pop Art movement that led to Andy Warhol's ascent.

"Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye" — an SFMOMA exhibit that parallels DeFeo's retrospective — fleshes out the artistic transitions that Johns has made over his lifetime, and continues to make. Among the works is Bushbaby, a 2005 piece — displayed in public for the first time — that features Harlequin diamonds (a recurring Johns motif), a central swath of gray, colorful circles, and a black totemic figure that looks out from high above. The forms all connect delicately at the edges. Simplicity and subtlety. That's what Johns returns to, again and again.

 
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