Monday, March 25, 2013

A Retrospective Of Beat Artist Jay DeFeo At The Whitney.

I recently went to the Jay DeFeo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.  After the hyper-commercialism of the Armory show, it was quite a change to see a retrospective of an artist who spent eight years obsessively working on a single painting----The Rose.  Apparently without concern for her longterm commercial prospects.  Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with making money from art; heck, I wish I could make more from mine!  But, it's depressing when the emphasis seems to be on dollars and cents more than aesthetics. However, The Rose appears to have been something of a professional setback for DeFeo:  She didn't produce any other art during those eight years; and after finishing it, she took a four year hiatus from painting.  Perhaps that makes DeFeo's story something of a cautionary tale about the dangers of becoming too obsessed with a project.  According to the show's catalog, work stopped on The Rose only when DeFeo was evicted from her studio.  It is the centerpiece of the show though.  Indeed, for better or worse, it defines DeFeo's career.

The Rose, 1958-66.

The Rose (1958-66) has an intensely mystical aura about it; partially because of its installation in a small, dimly lit rectangular area separate from the rest of the gallery.  The space has a cathedral-chapel feel to it.  The curator, Dana Miller, also recreated the lighting conditions that existed in DeFeo's studio when she worked on the piece, installing side lights.  Apparently, the 11'x8' painting blocked a large central window in her studio----so that the work, which is more relief sculpture than painting----was lit by two side windows.  According to the show's catalog, DeFeo considered the oblique light in her studio to be an integral part of The Rose.  And when you see it, it is obvious why.  The light glances off the relief creating sharply contrasting values that both reveal and obscure its surface.  The effect is truly transformative:  The lighting makes The Rose look as if it were an ancient artifact from some long ago civilization carved in stone, rather than the twentieth century oil paint and wood artwork that it is.

DeFeo reportedly made The Rose through an arduous process of addition and subtraction.  According to the show's wall text, she piled layer upon layer of white and grey paint on her canvas and then scraped off many layers, in the process creating a relief of sharply angled radii that expand outward like a starburst.  The work's title seems to refer to a cathedral rose window though.  Given that rose windows traditionally are a source of natural light, it is interesting that DeFeo's artwork blocked more light than it let into her studio, obscuring it in semi-darkness.  Perhaps the darkness is meant to be a statement about the nature of faith?

The show's catalog identifies DeFeo with the Beat Generation.  She came into her own professionally during the '50s and, according to the exhibition catalog, hung out with a crowd that included Beat luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg.   I suppose the mysticism in her early work is a reflection of the Beat sensibility.  I have to admit, though, before this show I wasn't aware that Beat literature had a visual corollary.

According to the museum's wall text,  DeFeo was awarded a traveling fellowship from the University of California, Berkeley enabling her to go to Europe and North Africa were she was exposed to pre-historic and nonwestern art----both in museums and archeological sites.  Perhaps that too was part of the inspiration for the mystical motifs in her work:  Cruciforms, roses, starbursts and other forms suggestive of spiritual or cosmic symbols recur in DeFeo's early work.  (I've never studied religious symbols, but my guess is that the rose, with its spiraling concentric circles, represents a labyrinth-like journey of self-discovery, or something like that.  While the starburst, with its radiating rays, is suggestive of infinite expansion----infinity.)

I took one of the museum's free daily tours of the retrospective; according to our tour guide, Helena Sokoloff, Defeo was taught abstract expressionist painting at Berkeley, which surprised me because I have always thought of it as an exclusively New York art movement.  But that influence is particularly obvious.  Most of all in her earlier work, where there is no attempt to define objects,----at least not on canvas---DeFeo tends to use titles to define her art instead.  Examples include The Annunciation and The Veronica.  Both paintings are strictly gestural, with no recognizable forms.  It is left to the titles to create their respective subject matter:  According to the show's wall text, The Veronica refers to the positioning of a matador's cape; additionally The Annunciation looks as much like a bird carcass as an angel.  Only the title tells us it is meant to be the latter.
Origin, 1956.

What most distinguishes DeFeo's  early work though is her limited palette----mainly greys---and the thick impasto texture of her paintings.  In fact, when it comes to much of her early work (not just The Rose), "painting" seems like something of a misnomer, relief sculpture might be more accurate.  My personal favorite was Origin.  Created in greys, with only a hint of color, the composition is delineated by the texture as well as a subtle variation in value.  While the title certainly is evocative, the work itself is enigmatic; the viewer can only speculate what DeFeo meant by "Origin."  Despite the heavy layering of paint, her work has an ethereal quality.  In pieces such as The Annunciation, that is partly because the texture DeFeo achieved with her palette-knife just looks like feathers.  Also though, the impasto texture plus  the glossy paint create luminous, light refracting surfaces.  It isn't as obvious as it is with The Rose, but lighting is a configuring element in all of DeFeo's highly textured canvases:  The cast light emphasizes compositional forms and, to some extent, creates them too.

There is a sharp stylistic break between  DeFeo's early work and what she created after a four year hiatus.  The thick layering of paint is gone; and abstraction is replaced with visually identifiable objects:  And very personal ones at that.  But the portrayals are unexpected in ways that obscure their utility.  My favorites are Crescent Bridge I, 1972 and Crescent Bridge II, 1972----which, side-by-side, look  a bit like a photographic positive and negative.  Although, there are compositional differences, making it clear that these are separate paintings, not a diptych.
Crescent Bridge I, 1972.

Both paintings play with the viewer's conceptions of scale, using an image of a dental bridge of DeFeo's:  A very small object, but that she depicts on a grand scale, as if it were monumental.  She does the same thing in drawings of earrings.  Taking minuscule objects and enlarging them so that they become almost unrecognizable.

According to the show's catalog and wall text DeFeo became interested in photography in the early '70s while teaching an undergraduate art class, which perhaps accounts for her interest in working figuratively during the period:  In addition to the dental bridges and earrings, the show includes representational drawings and paintings of other personal belongings such as water goggles and a tripod.  According to Ms. Sokoloff, DeFeo wanted to portray manufactured objects organically and in some of her drawings (such as some from her series of water-goggles and tripods) that takes the form of anthropomorphism.  There is one particularly amusing drawing in which water-goggle lenses are bent so that each one seems to be looking at the other.  There are also a number of collages in the show made of photos.  Some of these are quite beautiful but the passion that is evident in DeFeo's early work is missing.  Instead they seem overly cautious to me, as if DeFeo were afraid to become too emotionally invested.  After the debacle of The Rose it is understandable if she was gun-shy.

It isn't until paintings of the late '70s/early '80s such as Hawk Moon No. 2, (1983-85) that DeFeo's earlier interest in abstraction returns and with it something approaching the boldness (although not the abandon) of those earlier works.
Hawk Moon No. 2, 1983-85.

 Stylistically the paintings of this phase are quite different though.  The Abstract Expressionist influenced amorphousness of the earlier canvases is gone.  Instead these have sharply delineated shapes even if the objects themselves are not identifiable.  The same emphatic rendering that can be seen in DeFeo's figurative works, such as Crescent Bridge I, has been merged with abstraction to create a new style.  Interestingly, during the late phase in her career, DeFeo often portrayed organic subjects as machine-like----the inverse of what she did in her figurative work. And the mystical spiritual quality that pervaded her early abstract work has been replaced with fiercer motifs.  There are birds of prey, images meant to convey sonic booms and samurai.  It isn't until the very end of her life, when she knew she was dying, that DeFeo returned to a softer more amorphous style as can be seen in Dove One, 1989 and Last Valentine,1989.  Both of which are reminiscent stylistically of The Annunciation and The Veronica, amongst other early pieces.
Last Valentine.

The DeFeo retrospective is not likely to inspire imitation; however, there is something undeniably special about the singularity of her body of work.  I think one comes away from the show with a heightened sense of the importance of being true to one's own aesthetic vision.  And the sense that an artist's career is sometimes a journey of self-discovery, as much as anything.  One senses it was for DeFeo.

The DeFeo retrospective is curated by Dana Miller.  The show runs until June 2 at the Whitney Museum.

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