Shotgun Review


By Matt Stromberg September 20, 2011

Perhaps no other artist is as intimately linked with one of her works as Jay DeFeo is with The Rose (1958-1966). Taking eight years to complete and weighing more than a ton, it defines her artistic legacy and, as some believe, contributed to her death by exposing her to carcinogenic lead paint. Embarrassingly, I cannot recall having seen another work by her before last week. With an enlightening new exhibition, Hosfelt Gallery corrected this absence not only for me, but potentially for many other viewers. Instead of exploring the origins of The Rose by focusing on her early work, this show presents work produced in the more than twenty years between the completion of this painting and her death in 1989.

In addition to its long-ranging time span, the work featured in the exhibition covers a surprisingly wide range of media, including DeFeo’s photography and photocopy work, graphite and charcoal on paper, and collage. These works share the same grey, black, and white palette as The Rose, but operate on a much less monumental scale. The inspirations for many of the pieces are ordinary instruments, most notably the compass, which have been transformed through layering, painting over, and accretion.

On the surface, they bring to mind Lee Lozano's tools of the ’60s. However, whereas Lozano renders her tools with a muscular objectivity, DeFeo focuses on their transformative powers, as part of her search for the mystical in the mundane. As Todd Hosfelt notes in a catalogue essay, the compass is both a tool for drawing a perfect circle and for finding one’s way. The world’s oldest instrument, it has been associated with divine creation and “used for fortune-telling and geomancy.”1 Her choice to use an ordinary implement imbued with supernatural significance is not surprising, given DeFeo’s close association with the Beat poets and their striving for transcendence through the transitory.

Untitled (Compass series), 1979; graphite, charcoal on paper 13 1/2 x 11 1/16 in. ©2011 The Jay DeFeo Trust/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York.

In keeping with the broad spectrum of media, the works in DEFEO cover numerous representational styles, thereby contributing to a fuller picture of DeFeo’s oeuvre. This includes photographs that echo the geometric structure of The Rose; photocopies of compasses that DeFeo has messily altered through drawing, painting, or further photocopying; and clean-edged abstract drawings and paintings: mystical totems that are similar in intent to The Rose, but more modestly executed. This exhibition could be the beginning of a rediscovery of DeFeo’s rich and varied output, expanding upon the artistic and spiritual inquiries that she explored throughout her career.



DeFeo is on view at Hosfelt Gallery, in San Francisco, through October 22, 2011.



1. Hosfelt, Todd. DeFeo Exhibition Catalogue. San Francisco: Hosfelt Gallery, 2011.

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