Short Features

Curating, Understanding Art

Fragments and Photographs: Reflections on an Unfinished Work by Jay DeFeo

Fragments of Jay DeFeo’s Untitled 1958, displayed in Holy Barbarians exhibition, 2016–17, between a drawing by Jay DeFeo and a sculpture by Bruce Conner. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

“Originally it was a huge drawing (about 10' x 6') – one of several ideas I had before The Rose which didn’t quite work. — I did like the center though & saved it until the early seventies when I saw it in isolation like this – as a new image. I named it White Spica (for a star).”

Jay DeFeo, in a letter to Thomas Albright, April 30, 1984

In 1958, the year she began working on her monumental painting/sculpture The Rose, Jay DeFeo (1929–1989) also embarked on an ambitious drawing, which I will refer to here as Untitled 1958, which survives today in four fragments. Besides DeFeo’s recollection and the remnants themselves, no other documentation nor a photograph of the work exists. Examining the remaining fragments and the ways that DeFeo returned to them later in her career shows us an artist drawing from her past to develop her practice in an ongoing process of reinvention and reiteration. In DeFeo’s hands, artworks continued to transform throughout the years, as did the artist herself.

DeFeo’s reputation, perhaps more than any other 20th-century artist, is dominated by a single, near-mythical work: The Rose, 1958–66. She famously devoted eight years of her life to the creation of the monumental painting/sculpture, skipping her prestigious New York debut—the opening of the 1959 Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art—and turning down crucial opportunities for representation at a vital point in her career. Over 11 feet tall, and weighing close to a ton, The Rose now resides in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and its size and inherent fragility prevent all but the most infrequent travel. Thus exhibiting fragmentary works like these is critical to understanding the era in which DeFeo reached her artistic maturity.

While DeFeo worked exclusively on The Rose for several years, the existence of these fragments and several other large drawings and canvases, including The Jewel, 1958–59, attest that in the early stages of The Rose’s creation DeFeo was engaged with other ambitious projects. Untitled 1958 shares The Rose’s palette of white, silver, gray, and black, and its arrangements of rugged, linear forms emanating from a central circular element. While the nearly 2,000-pound, foot-thick Rose straddles the line between painting and sculpture, these oil-paint-on-paper fragments combine elements of painting and drawing. Three of the four fragments contain passages of diagrammatic drawing that resemble the geometrical structures of crystals. Looking at these gemlike structures we can connect these fragments to The Jewel, but more importantly we observe DeFeo’s characteristic interest in combining abstraction with geometry and observation of the natural world.

At some point in the making of Untitled 1958, DeFeo became dissatisfied with the work and dismantled it. In September 1965, the artist received notice that she would be evicted from the San Francisco studio at 2322 Fillmore Street that she had occupied for ten years, and two months later she vacated the premises. It is possible that Untitled 1958 was abandoned but had remained in situ until her eviction; it is equally plausible that she took the work down at some other point in the intervening years. What we do know is that DeFeo saved pieces of the work, retaining some delicate and unwieldy fragments until the end of her life, despite the fact that she was no longer interested in completing the original composition.

In 1973 DeFeo received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that allowed her to purchase a camera and set up a darkroom in her home. The same year, a decade and a half after she first created them, DeFeo returned her attention to the pieces that she saved from Untitled 1958, recycling them to create a series of photographs. She isolated and shot them multiple times, experimenting with lighting, orientation, and cropping. In a dramatic untitled example from the early 1970s, DeFeo cropped the image nearly to the edges of the subject and heightened the contrast between dark and light passages. The three-dimensionality of the object is emphasized as are the irregularly angled, torn edges.

DeFeo mounted the central element and titled it White Spica, 1958/73, and she photographed it more than any of the others, using a variety of experimental photographic techniques. She cut and tore prints of White Spica as if to reiterate and emphasize the cut and torn materiality of the original artwork. Other prints were subjected to solarization, the process of exposing photographs to additional light prior to fixing the image, partially reversing the black and white tones within the image. A photographic still life in which DeFeo positioned White Spica behind a color wheel exercise she completed in 1944 while still in high school suggests an unending cycle of repetition and transformation that had begun decades earlier.

Two of the four fragments on display (those framed together, at right in installation view above) were not reused photographically by the artist for the simple fact that they remained not with her but rather were in the collection of curator Walter Hopps. Hopps, the cofounder of the famous Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and founding director of the Menil Collection, had met DeFeo in 1954 in San Francisco. There is no record of how or when Hopps acquired these two fragments. He might have collected them on one of the many visits that he made to the San Francisco Bay Area, or in connection with the solo exhibition of DeFeo's work that Ferus held in March–April 1960. If the unfinished drawing remained in the artist's studio until the end of 1965, Hopps may well have acquired it then; it was he who arranged for the removal of The Rose from DeFeo’s Fillmore Street studio and its transportation to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art), where DeFeo completed work on it in the first months of 1966.

It is likely that DeFeo simply gave Hopps the pieces of Untitled 1958. It is just as feasible that Hopps retrieved them from a pile of discarded material or found them in an overlooked corner of her studio. Distinguished as a curator by his close, participatory relationship with a diversity of working artists, Hopps was known to help himself to objects from artists' studios, ostensibly more as a form of recordkeeping or rescue than as collecting in a traditional sense. The artist George Herms recalled this tendency in an interview, stating, “Walter [Hopps] walked out with many of my works.… I’ve since had to pat him down whenever he leaves the studio” (Artists Documentation Program, George Herms video interview, November 19, 1993, transcript p. 14).

The cooperation of the Jay DeFeo Foundation allowed me to consider reuniting these four parts, two from the Foundation’s collection and two once owned by Hopps, into what we believe to be their original configuration. However, removing White Spica, the central part, from the artist’s mount proved prohibitively invasive, and thus the remaining three pieces were mounted in two separate frames. Bringing them together to exhibit them as a group for the first time in Holy Barbarians: Beat Culture on the West Coast was something of an experiment. It has provided a rich opportunity to reflect on the intensity that DeFeo brought to her work in this early part of her career.

Holy Barbarians was on view from November 18, 2016–March 12, 2017.

All artworks, writings, and statements by Jay DeFeo © 2017 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Related exhibitions

Nov 18, 2016 – Mar 12, 2017
Main Building
Holy Barbarians: Beat Culture on the West Coast