Jay DeFeo’s Retrospective at the Whitney Museum

On view at the Whitney Museum in New York are works by the late San Francisco artist Jay DeFeo. The show premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the fall, but its installation at the Whitney is slightly larger, bringing together over 150 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and drawings by the artist. The sprawling show unites many rarely seen works by DeFeo, who was little-known beyond the Bay Area art scene from the 50s until her death in 1989. However, her lack of a national reputation was not for lack of skill or production, as the retrospective demonstrates. Throughout her life DeFeo worked prolifically in a range of mediums, building a transformative artistic practice that was both visionary and inspiring. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Installation of Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art
Installation of Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art

The exhibition opens with DeFeo’s earliest works, which date from her time as an art student in Paris, in 1951-2. A single gallery combines her early paintings, two of her sculptures, and most surprisingly, a case of jewelry. When DeFeo returned to Berkeley from Europe, she was able to support herself by selling the necklaces and earrings to local shops. Each pendant is like a tiny, abstract sculpture, crafted from metals, pearls, and wire. Many of DeFeo’s larger sculptures no longer survive, but seeing the two works on view here—made from found wood wrapped in fabric and plaster—highlights their aesthetic similarities to works by Manuel Neri and Joan Brown. It is not surprising that Neri often credits DeFeo with his decision to work in the sculpture medium around the same time.

DeFeo Jewelry
Jay DeFeo | Untitled, c. 1953–55. Wire, pearl, and seed hung with thread, 2 1/2 x 1 ½ x 1/4 in. Private collection.
DeFeo sculptures
Left: Jay DeFeo | Untitled, 1953, Wood Cloth and plaster, 28 ½ x 16 ½ x 4 inches, The Menil Collection
Right: Untitled, 1953, wood cloth and plaster, 33 x 6 ½ x 6 ½ inches, Private Collection

After walking through another room of DeFeo’s early and increasingly larger paintings and works on paper, viewers come to a gallery that the show’s curator has coined ‘DeFeo Chapel’—and it’s not hard to see why. At the head of the gallery, installed in a recessed and separately-lit space, is The Rose, a colossal painting that DeFeo worked on between 1958-66, and which is said to have weighed around 1,500 pounds when it was removed from her studio in 1967. (The painting now weighs close to 3,000 pounds after conservation efforts and the addition of a steel support; you can view a slideshow of its day-long installation at the Whitney on their website.) On either side of the gallery are several large-scale, high-impasto paintings DeFeo also created in the late 1950s, which become like stained glass windows along the side aisles of a cathedral’s nave, leading to the high altar.

Jay DeFeo | The Rose, 1958–66, Oil with wood and mica on canvas, 128 7/8 × 92 1/4 × 11 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust

The show’s curator, Dana Miller, says that the layout of this gallery was strategic, and was based on a diagram DeFeo created of the relationships between her works. According to the diagram, The Rose occupied the central space, “absorbing much of what came before it and stimulating the subsequent work.” In addition, the lighting of the gallery was also carefully planned, meant to replicate the lighting conditions of DeFeo’s studio at 2322 Fillmore Street in San Francisco. While working there, DeFeo credits the raking light that came in via the bay windows on either side of the work as key to its creation and in its viewing. By installing the work in a recessed niche at the Whitney, Miller was able to light the painting from either side, a technique that highlights the scale and texture of the work’s surface.

DeFeo in Studio
Jay DeFeo in her Fillmore studio working on what was then titled Deathrose, 1960.

DeFeo herself also seems to be present in the gallery, as her 7-foot wide drawing, The Eyes, is displayed directly across from The Rose. Modeled on a photograph of her own eyes, the implied connection between the two works is intentional, as Miller writes that “this piece functioned as an aperture through which DeFeo said she was able to envision future works, specifically The Rose.”

Jay DeFeo | The Eyes, 1958, Graphite on paper, 42 × 84 3/4 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust, Photograph by Geoffrey Clements

After eight years of working on The Rose (originally titled Deathrose, then The White Rose), by repeatedly applying thick layers of paint and then chiseling down the surface, DeFeo was forced to remove the painting from her studio in 1967 when her rent increased, and she was evicted. The removal of The Rose from DeFeo’s second story window, an event fraught with emotional intensity, was captured on film by DeFeo’s friend and fellow artist Bruce Conner. His film, The White Rose, documents the event to a soundtrack of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. It will be shown at the Whitney in tandem with the exhibition, from April 25th through May 12th.

Conner_white rose
Bruce Conner (1933–2008) | still from THE WHITE ROSE, 1967. 16mm film, black-and-white, sound; 7 minutes. © Conner Famiy Trust.

Once The Rose was removed from her studio, DeFeo took a hiatus from painting for several years. When she returned to the medium she switched to acrylic paints, believing that the lead paint had contributed to the gum disease she then suffered from. The switch in medium had a profound effect on her work, as she no longer was able to build the thickly textured surfaces she had created with lead paint, and instead achieved three-dimensionality through shading techniques.

dove one
Jay DeFeo | Dove One, 1989, Oil on linen, 16 × 20 in., Collection of Dan and Claire Carlevaro

In the interim between painting DeFeo also began to experiment with photography, a medium that she worked in prolifically throughout the early 1970s. This exhibition displays many of DeFeo’s black and white photographs, and her experimental photo collages, which were inspired in part by Bruce Conner. DeFeo joked that she was attracted to the collages because they solved her problem of “what to do with bad prints.” But the works are consistent with DeFeo’s attraction to stark silhouettes and lush, textured surfaces.

DeFeo photo collage
Jay DeFeo (1929–1989) | Untitled, 1973. Collage with cut gelatin silver print, torn paper, and paint on gelatin silver print photogram, 10 × 8 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © 2013 The Jay DeFeo Trust. Photograph by Don Ross

DeFeo’s paintings from the late 1970s and through the 80s continued to display what Miller terms the artist’s “geometric vocabulary.” Throughout these last years she often took simple, geometric objects, and made countless studies of them, abstracting their forms through diverse angles and varied lighting. Objects like her swimming goggles (she began taking swimming lessons in 1977), a broken tape dispenser, camera tripod, and a ceramic cup given to her as a gift from artist Ron Nagle, all became points of scrutiny in her studio.

Jay DeFeo | Untitled, from the Water Goggles series, 1977, Synthetic polymer, charcoal, ink, grease pencil and graphite on paper, 15 × 20 in. Private collection, © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust, Photograph by Ben Blackwell

When DeFeo was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1989, she continued to work, switching to a smaller format and an easel she could set on her lap. Just two years prior, in 1987, the artist had fulfilled her dream of traveling to Africa and climbing Mount Kenya, and metaphorically aligned the battle between man and nature with her own battle against cancer in her last works.

Jay DeFeo | Reflections of Africa No. 8, 1989, Charcoal and graphite on paper, 11 5/8 × 17 1/8 in., The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley

It is rare to see such breadth and diversity in an artist’s career, a factor that makes DeFeo’s work particularly pivotal and inspiring. That this retrospective was ten years in the making is clear in its exhaustive checklist and thoughtful installation, making it a momentous show, not to be missed.


Jay DeFeo was born in Hanover, NH in 1929. She grew up in San Jose, California, and studied painting at UC Berkeley from 1946-51. Living and working in the Bay Area throughout her career, DeFeo taught at Mills College from 1981 until her death in 1989.

Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective is on view at the Whitney Museum in New York through June 2nd. 

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

Recent posts

Tuesday, August 3, 2021 - 15:19
Friday, June 26, 2020 - 13:03
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 14:02
Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 14:55
Tuesday, December 17, 2019 - 18:09