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‘Jay DeFeo’ review: Fearless art

Written by Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle

Kenneth BakerUpdated 4:15 p.m., Friday, November 2, 2012Even the earliest and slightest works in “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective,” which opens today at the San Francisco Museum of ModernArt, exude a fearlessness characteristic of her sensibility.Before and since her death at 60 in 1989, DeFeo’s reputation has hinged on one colossal work: “The Rose” (1958-66), which nowbelongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art, co-organizer of the retrospective. This belated career survey corrects thatoveremphasis but, more important, it introduces DeFeo to a broad public as an artist of wide and diverse accomplishment.”The Rose” inevitably and aptly forms the core of “Jay DeFeo.” Installed in a deep alcove with gray walls, it confronts – even from agood 40 feet away – a visitor rounding the corner from the first gallery of early, mostly small works, including a Calder-like menagerieof jewelry. As much a carved relief as a painting, its surface a hardened lava field of faintly tinted gray pigment, “The Rose” up closelooks like a freak by-product of natural forces.From a distance, the central starburst form that DeFeo grooved deeply into its surface appears to radiate a light that levitates thework’s prodigious mass.This demonstration of the power of effort and focus to transcend matter – and by implication the materialism of the age – is the truereason why “The Rose” belongs at the center of “Jay DeFeo.”The work instructs us to look everywhere in DeFeo’s art for transfiguration.Sometimes it takes the form of straightforward but inspired observation, as in 1970s photographs such as the untitled picture of a fanon a windowsill or two views of “R. Mutt’s cast,” a remnant of DeFeo’s pet’s accident, that recall Irving Penn’s contemporaneous closeups of cigarette butts.Early paintings such as “Origin” (1956) and “The Annunciation” (1957/59) seem to record urgent probings for the kind of magicaltransubstantiation that “The Rose” finally achieved.Elsewhere DeFeo’s transfigurative impulse expresses itself through a deft withholding or reshuffling of visual information, as in manyof her photo collages, or even the big paintings that scale up views of DeFeo’s dental bridge to the proportions of small boulders. Intheir cool surrealism, those paintings can bring to mind the fate of William Golding’s “Pincher Martin,” who finds himself marooned onrocks in whose shapes he eventually recognizes those of his own teeth.”Jay DeFeo” seems like an odd pairing with “Jasper Johns: Seeing With the Mind’s Eye.” The two shows share SFMOMA’s fourth floor.But the same subtitle might fit both. The weird elisions, occlusions and shifts in scale in DeFeo’s art evoke a predisposition to lookbeyond the obvious: a sort of X-ray vision given only – if at all – to the mind’s eye.As it happens, Johns and DeFeo also showed together early in their careers in the temperature-taking 1959 exhibition “SixteenAmericans” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective: Paintings, sculpture, photographs and collage. Through Feb. 3. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,151 Third St., S.F. (415) 357-4000. Baker is The San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic. E-mail:

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