Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective

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This audio guide features commentary by artist Jay DeFeo, Dana Miller, curator of the permanent collection, Whitney Museum of American Art, Leah Levy, Director, The Jay DeFeo Trust, Corey Keller, associate curator of photography, San Francisco  Museum of Modern Art, Greil Marcus, writer and critic, Ursula Cipa, and Fred Martin, friends of DeFeo.

Jay DeFeo (1929–1989), _White Water_, 1989. Oil on linen, 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm). The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley, CA, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich. © 2013 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley, CA. Photograph by Ben Blackwell

DANA MILLER: As DeFeo was struggling with cancer, she continued to work and many of the paintings that she made at that time were on a relatively small scale. She primarily went back to a low-key palette, the low-key palette that she had used in the 1950s. She said that she really felt that all of those changes had to be made wholesale, that to think about size and color and texture needed to be done in one breath.

She used the idea of man's battles against nature in the way that she had initially with the notion of mountain climbing, I think, as a metaphor for her struggles with cancer. Many of the works from this period have references to forces of nature, such as whitewater and mountain climbing. On the eve of her surgery in 1988, she watched a televised climb of Mount Everest.  She would use the idea of mountain climbing again as a metaphor for her struggle.

This incredibly dynamic composition of White Water, I think, can be seen in those terms as well.

NARRATOR: DeFeo’s struggle came to an end on November 11, 1989. She died not having seen The Rose—which was languishing behind what was initially meant to be a temporary wall at the San Francisco Art Institute—since 1974. That work, she told an interviewer about a year before her death, had been like a novel. Afterwards she’d gone on to make works that by comparison might seem more like haiku—smaller, but no less serious. And in fact, she described all of her work as being part of one evolving, multi-faceted effort which was best understood as a whole. She moved between small scale and large, a low-key palette and intense color, and abstraction and figuration. Her work never settled into a signature style, yet retained a powerfully distinct voice. The traditional narratives of twentieth-century art have tended to focus on artists associated with identifiable movements. This comprehensive examination of Jay DeFeo’s career allows us the opportunity to assess a powerful artist entirely on her own terms.

This is the last stop on our tour. Thank you for joining us today for Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.