What are the odds of going to see an important exhibition of work by a woman with an unlikely first name (Jay) with a woman who also has that name (Jay)? What are the odds that my friend Jay Gilman had known the artist Jay DeFeo—and met her when DeFeo lived in a house across the street from where I live now?
I swear I’m not making this up. Gilman met DeFeo when she was 16 years old, living in a bourgeois corner of Marin (Kentfield) but dreaming of the life led by the artists, musicians, and hippies in nearby Madrone Canyon (Larkspur). DeFeo was living in that little hillside home after leaving San Francisco in 1966, when the rent on her upstairs flat, at 2322 Fillmore Street, quadrupled. You can see the flat in a famous seven-minute 16mm film shot by her artist friend Bruce Conner on the day DeFeo had her 2,300-pound masterwork, “The Rose,” moved—out a front window and down to a waiting Bekins van. Those guys really earned their salary that day.
The 130 pieces in Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective provide a fine look at the work of this highly original but late-in-getting-her-due artist. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings, collages, photographs, small sculpture, and jewelry. The woman really did have a singular vision, and the exhibition gives a sense of how her mind worked, especially when she was living in Marin and didn’t have the big studio space she’d had when she created “The Rose” and, of course, much other work.
DeFeo worked on “The Rose” for eight years (1958-1966), applying and carving away at layer after layer of paint until the piece was eight inches thick and weighed more than a ton. With a color palette ranging from off-white to charcoal gray, the work emanates light from a central starburst, as if a glowing sun were bursting through a dessicated landscape of earth and stone. You could think of it as a kind of spiritual sculpture. Wouldn’t you love to know what went through her consciousness as she worked on it all those years?
AT SFMOMA, “The Rose” hangs in a kind of alcove at one end of a big central room. The long walls perpendicular to it hold seven other dense, heavily layered paintings, through which you can see her working her way to the style and form of “The Rose”—most closely with “The Jewel” (1959). I particularly love the vigorous sweeps and cascades of “The Veronica” (1957), a narrow vertical piece in shades of umber and sienna with touches of blood red (appropriate for a piece evoking a move used in bullfighting). I was mesmerized by the varied textures and patterns, and the use of turquoise, white, and black, in “The Anunciation” (1959). At the far end of the gallery hangs an important large-scale drawing in graphite, “The Eyes” (1958), through which, DeFeo said, she was able to envision future works.
My friend Jay says DeFeo was an offbeat but down-to-earth woman who was kind to a would-be teenage artist and, later, was partial to the man Gilman married, DeFeo's and my newly retired postman, Dave Slopak. They last saw DeFeo a year or two before she died, far too young (60) of cancer, in 1989. By then, DeFeo was living in Oakland, where she’d been teaching at Mills College and finally got a bigger studio. They were at the wedding of the (then) young man who had introduced the two Jays in Madrone Canyon.
Through Feb. 3, SFMOMA (closed Wednesdays), 151 Third St., S.F., 415.357.4000; sfmoma.org.