LIFE/DEATH THEMES IN THE ART OF JAY DeFEO

Abstraction played an undeniable role in shaping Jay DeFeo’s art. The influence, largely derived from early 20th-century masters, is evident in the formalist and expressive dynamics of her work. But DeFeo was not a purist. Especially in her formative years she used imagery and objects as points of departure. Even when  figuration is retained, it is never descriptive. In some cases, titles are suggestive but but more often than not, they obscure or confound explicit identities.

Among the most compelling works are those that use both abstract and referential perspectives as an expression of life and a defiance of death or earthly existence.

the eyes, 1958For example, DeFeo used a photograph of her own eyes as the source for The Eyes, a pencil drawing from 1958. Despite the self-derivation she does not treat the imagery as a self-portrait or photographic replica. Instead she portrays a generic pair of eyes in anatomical exactitude—except that their large scale, pupiless, colorless irises, implicit blindness, and disembodied isolation in the center of a vacant field exaggerate the spectral aura. Theses eyes are no longer organs of sight. Further denaturalizing the imagery are the streaks of electrifying tension, the vertical lines that counter the corporeal horizontality of the eyes.

These eyes, a mere semblance of life, inhabit space as a haunting presence. There is no escape from their relentless, impenetrable stare. All residues of life are nullified and yet, the imagery resists absolute annihilation.

DeFeo inscribed a contemporaneous poem by Philip Lamantia on the back of the drawing. Like The Eyes, it alludes to themes of resistance, survival, transition, and mortality. “Ah Blessed Virgin Mary / pray for me I live in you  / to sleep in God / to die in God / to praise His Holy Name.    O Blessed Virgin Mary / ask Jesus to embed in me / a sword of sorrow / to kill my sin / my sin that wounds His Wounds.    Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven / as I look to you / Queen  mirror / of the heavenly court.”

The oval form bearing abstract allusions to an eye image reappears in Apparition, 1956 (charcoal and chalk), and After Image, 1970 (mixed media on torn paper).

Apparition 1956

Apparition shows the oval covered with wisps of hair. Other than its shape and the eerie evocation of a tightly closed eye shrouded with overgrown eyelashes, identity is illusory. Suggestions of an eye fighting to survive at a final stage of existence, or as an emergent form newly energized but not yet defined, are both possible.

After Image, 1970

The elliptical shape recurs in After Image in which inklings of an eye, or pair of eyes, merge with the image of a conch shell. Although quite different from Apparition, the two works are enigmatic, centrifugal forms that obscure and shield the actuality of an underlying organism. In this case, the hypothetical eye has its lids shut such that it cannot see or be seen. Likeness to a conch is equally uncertain. Distinguishing ridges, a whorled surface, and pearlescent tonality of a shell are recognizable but the characterizing channel to the interior is missing. Once again DeFeo’s imagery possesses an unyielding stamina at the same time as its identity challenges specificity.

The Rose, 1958-66

In The Rose—the legendary painting that preoccupied DeFeo for seven years (1958-66)—exuberant life and cataclysmic ruin coalesce in a dramatic climax. Despite the title, the imagery does not portray a flower, nor is it rose-toned. In fact, the work was initially called Deathrose—a label signifying the end of life for one of the most sensuous species in the natural world. Subsequently it was known as White Rose—an appellation deriving from Bruce Conner’s 1967 film documenting the removal of the massive, 2,300-pound painting from DeFeo’s second-floor studio. The titular change signified a crucial reorientation. As the artist stated: “I wanted the sense that the rose was as much an aspect of life as death.” Naming it simply The Rose was ultimately preferable. This designation served as a non-particularizing reference to the painting’s opposing components.

The Rose is an imposing, captivating artwork with a thickly layered, excessively modeled and carved surface. An explosive light radiates from a central focal point. Its white and yellow-toned rays splay outward, plunging into a barren surround of rock-strewn debris. An extreme contrast between the blinding sunburst and ashen piles of rubble dominates the composition. The sunburst conveys dynamic energy—the vitality of life—while the rubble exemplifies a ravaged, death-ridden environment—the extinction of life.

DeFeo’s exploration of the life/death theme attains consummate expression in The Rose. As much this work is distinguished by a very subjective mode of creativity, when viewed in the context of the post-World War II and Cold War era, its historical significance is duly enhanced.

In the visual arts, life/death evocations, whether implicit or explicit, are relevant underpinings in paintings by abstract expressionist artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. Although DeFeo rejected a place within the New York art scene, she was well aware of the pioneering work of artists who were at the forefront of the movement’s triumphant rise to worldwide attention.

In the realm of literature, life/death evocations reinforced portrayals of the human condition in the work of Beat generation poets. DeFeo’s passive participation in San Francisco’s Beat culture included her role as the multitask attendant at the Six Gallery—renowned as the place where Allen Ginsburg first gave a public reading of his controversial poem Howl on October 7, 1955.

Although DeFeo never cultivated overt relationships with abstract expressionist artists on the east coast or the radical poets of the Beat generation, her art, like theirs, is rooted in and enriched by allusions to life/death themes.

This commentary was motivated by the exhibition DeFeo: A Retrospective presented at SFMOMA, November 3, 2012-February 3, 2013.

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