The late Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo is best known for a painting that took nearly eight years to finish. Now her admirers have a chance to see works from the rest of her career, thanks to a superb exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective” is on view through Feb. 3. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the exhibition brings together more than 130 paintings, photographs and other work.
“DeFeo is well known for her magnum opus, ‘The Rose,’ but her full and complex oeuvre has not yet been given the serious consideration that it merits,” says Corey Keller, curator of photography as SFMOMA. “This exhibition will be a revelation.”
DeFeo worked on “The Rose” almost exclusively from 1958 to 1966. Using a trowel or palette knife, she built up layers of paint and then chiseled parts away. It is a massive piece that stands nearly 11 feet high and weighs more than 1,500 pounds. The museum has done it justice, displaying it alone in an alcove.
What is most impressive about the exhibition is the range of work. DeFeo’s jewelry designs feel as contemporary as if they were done yesterday. Along with large oil paintings like "The Jewel," there are smaller tempera paintings, done in Florence, and sculptures called “unflyable kites.”
In the 1970s, DeFeo often drew ordinary objects such as a camera tripod or swimming goggles, transforming them into works of depth and beauty. She also turned to photography, taking pictures of a dental bridge she wore due to gum disease.
Her paintings “Crescent Bridge – and “Crescent Bridge II” – were also based on the object, made from her own teeth and some false ones. With her skillful brush, the teeth become massive forms that bring to mind rocks at the edge of a tide.
DeFeo’s Bay Area roots ran deep. She went to high school in San Jose and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. The apartment she shared on Fillmore Street in San Francisco with her then husband, artist Wally Hendrick, became a center for weekend artists’ parties in the late 1950s. During the 1970s she lived in Larkspur; by the 1980s she was living in Oakland and teaching at Mills College.
The last gallery features works done by DeFeo as she struggled with lung cancer. “Dove One” and “Last Valentine” are especially poignant.
DeFeo died in 1989 at the age of 60.