This artist does not have an image.

Print This Page

Jay DeFeo

(Hanover, New Hampshire, 1929 - 1989, Oakland, California)

View the objects by this artist.


Jay DeFeo has been categorized as “an abstract expressionist, a Beat painter, a funk artist, an eccentric, and a romantic,” and indeed she was all these things.1 She began her career by painting abstractions ripe with expressive brushstroke. She was among the charismatic members of a group of artists and poets who became known as the Beats, and became associated with the Bay Area funk artists working in collage and assemblage. Her eccentric self remained resistant to art-market commercialism and she painted only what pleased her. Yet she is perhaps best known for her romantic devotion to a single vision that became the monumental painting The Rose.

DeFeo was deeply rooted to the San Francisco Bay Area. She spent her adolescence in San Jose. She studied painting at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Although a fellowship took her to New York and then to Europe for two years, she returned to San Francisco, where she married fellow artist Wally Hedrick in 1954. Together, DeFeo and Hedrick developed a circle of friends that included artists Wallace Berman, Joan Brown, Jess Collins, Bruce Conner, George Herms, Sonia Gechtoff, James Kelly, Ed Kienholz, and writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They all shared a love of jazz and a penchant for artistic experimentation in a great variety of forms.

A crucial moment came for DeFeo and Hedrick in 1959, when their paintings were selected for the Sixteen Americans exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The import of this exhibition is clear in retrospect—it introduced such luminaries as Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella. But together they rejected the attention of the New York art world and remained in San Francisco—a move that could be characterized as either noble or irresponsible, depending on one’s point of view. Years later Carter Ratcliff concluded the former: “Her choice made her an exemplary figure: the artist who resists the temptations of the New York art market.”2

DeFeo continued to choose her own path. She painted for herself, not the art market, and exhibited sporadically and then only at marginal galleries. She supported herself by teaching at the region’s most highly regarded art schools—the San Francisco Art Institute; the California College of Arts; the University of California, Berkeley; and finally at Mills College in Oakland, where she settled into a tenured position in the 1980s.

DeFeo is best known for her monumental painting-cum-sculpture The Rose, an enormous canvas measuring nearly 11 by 8 feet, which she began in 1958. A pleated mandala form with a sculptural depth of eight inches in places, this painting would be her obsession for the next eight years. It remains legendary for its size and scope, as well as for the story of its creation and removal from her Fillmore Street studio when she and Hedrick were evicted in 1965.3 A testament to her commitment to an ideal at all costs, the completion of The Rose left her exhausted, ill, and homeless.
DeFeo retreated to Marin County, where she taught, but did not create art for nearly four years. The draining experience of painting The Rose led her to explore new media in the 1970s as a way of breaking with the past. She bought a camera and documented her surroundings with the same abstract approach as she used in her paintings.

The mixed-media drawing Untitled (from the Shoe Tree series) is one of the seemingly banal objects—shoe trees, swimming goggles, erasers, and her dental bridge—that originated in these photographic explorations. The Shoe Tree series reveals DeFeo as a highly skilled draftsperson. One reviewer noted her graphic virtuosity, paying particular attention to the “abbreviated wisps of graphite that twist and whip around the page.”4 A sustained focus on the forms of familiar objects, coupled with elegant draftsmanship, give these images of simple objects an iconic presence.

By the 1980s DeFeo was ready to take on large-scale painting once again. Firesign exhibits many of the artist’s signature angular forms and spare color palette. The painting is completely abstract with no recognizable subject matter, yet the title Firesign evokes fire, heat, and charred remains, possibly expressing an astrological essence referring to the fire signs of the zodiac. A loosely painted rusty red, orange, and black abstract expressionist moment occurs at the center of this otherwise sharp-edged graphic work.

DeFeo’s work often exhibits a heightened interest in definitive edges, and Firesign is no exception. A deep black triangle is made more decisive by the white edge that lines up against it. A succession of diagonal shaded edges suggests sharp folds. The sculptural pleats of The Rose reappear, this time in two-dimensional illusion.

Although the enduring myth of Jay DeFeo is directly related to one monumental painting, these two works, Untitled (from the Shoe Tree series) and Firesign, reflect the breadth of her artistic production. They illustrate DeFeo’s continuing dedication to a particularly independent and personal definition of aesthetics that guided the entirety of her work both before The Rose and afterward. —M.H.S.

1. Berkeley Museum of Art exhibition announcement, “Jay DeFeo: Selected Works 1952–1989, March 19–May 25, 1996.”
2. Carter Ratcliff, Jay DeFeo: Selfhood Self-Defined, exh. cat. (New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2002), n.p.
3. This feat was captured on film by artist friend Bruce Connor.
4. John Bowles, “Jay DeFeo at Michael Rosenfeld,” Art in America, November 2002, 157.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Born in 1929 in Hanover, New Hampshire, Jay DeFeo studied at the University of California, Berkeley (B.F.A., 1950 and M.F.A., 1951) and received an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute (1982). DeFeo received two Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1973 and 1984, and the Adaline Kent Award from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in such notable public collections as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; The British Museum, London; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Menil Collection, Houston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Oakland Museum of California; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San Jose Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. (SJMA Collections Committee, 2012)

Born in Hanover, New Hampshire; died in Oakland, CA.

Your current search criteria is: Artist is "Jay DeFeo".