Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Jay DeFeo

In the last year or so I’ve read about a painting by West Coast artist, Jay DeFeo, The Rose. It must have been almost two years ago when it showed at the Whitney ( It’s a massive work, composed by building up oil paint in a thick impasto so it becomes sculptural. I haven’t seen this, but last week in San Francisco I got to see another work by DeFeo, along the same lines. Called “Incision,” it’s 10 feet tall, with a vertical orientation, filled with a mass of black and grey paint that seems as heavy and solid as stone ($88176). A few pieces of string stuck in the paint dangle down. It’s a monumental work, taking patterns of abstract expressionist painting and giving them a sculptural presence that is implied in the thick surfaces of many of the painters but never fully realized when taken into stone or bronze. DeFeo’s work gave the colors a body to live in, and the colors, even if they are just blacks and greys, put Abstract Expressionist painting into motion.

Rather than referring to the color as living in this encrusted paint, maybe it’s better to say it was encased in it. The work feels like an ancient gravesite excavated from its location and displayed in a museum. You expect to see the bones of an ancient human embedded in the hardened stuff that used to be porous, shiftable, or liquid.

DeFeo was born on the east coast but lived and made art in the Bay Area, part of the Beat scene there in the 50s and 60s (“Incision” is dated 1958-61). She died in 1989 at 60.

SF MOMA’s collection is smaller than MOMA in NY, but covers a lot of the same bases, maybe going a little further back into Impressionism. It does however, have emphasis shifts, definitely including more West Coast artists, like DeFeo. There always seems to be this alternate history for the West Coast, whether it’s hip-hop or jazz, or painting. You could argue that DeFeo was stuck in an Abstract Expressionist vocabulary well after pop art was starting to dominate in New York, and therefore is more marginal to cultural history than someone working with image-based art at the same time. The massive power of a piece like “Incision” is hard to dismiss, and if she needs the proper historical context, the literary-artistic milieu she was a member of has huge importance. But no one museum can tell every story, and a good art museum has to have a story line. A West Coast institution has to take responsibility for telling a West Coast story.


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