Feature

Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective

DeFeo's 11-foot-tall masterpiece, The Rose, has so many layers of paint that it weighs nearly 2,000 pounds.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Through Feb. 3

“Before and since her death, in 1989, Jay DeFeo’s reputation has hinged on one colossal work,” said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. For eight years, from 1958 to 1966, the Bay Area artist worked almost exclusively on The Rose, an 11-foot-tall canvas that accumulated so many layers of paint that it now weighs nearly 2,000 pounds. The finished product is an awesome sight—“as much a carved relief as a painting.” Step back from it and its central starburst image seems to radiate a holy light. But while The Rose serves as the inevitable centerpiece of SFMOMA’s new DeFeo retrospective, it also “instructs us to look everywhere in DeFeo’s art for transfiguration.” You sense that she spent her entire career seeking to “transcend matter” and achieve some spiritual truth.

Yet the show is also our chance to see DeFeo as more than “a Beat Generation Joan of Arc,” said Kendall George in the San Francisco Arts Quarterly. Yes, it’s sublime to encounter The Rose here—tucked in a niche “and illuminated like it’s the Pietà,” but “divine possession” wasn’t the only key she played in. Another monumental abstraction, The Annunciation, feels like pure celebration, and she also produced chic jewelry, “singular” experiments in abstract expressionism, and—when she lost her teeth to her health woes—“beautiful Pop paintings of her dentures.” DeFeo’s reputation as an artist who got lost in her work is true enough, but the chance to see her output holistically “shrinks her caricature.” It allows us to appreciate “the breadth and depth of intellect and talent” that she exhibited across decades.

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