It is not unusual for an exhibition to appear differently when shown at multiple venues. More than changes in the checklist, caused by lender stipulations, curatorial decisions can produce unfortunate, often conflicting responses to the art and artist. This was the case with the Jay De Feo retrospective.
When first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the presentation began with introductory objects. These were followed by a rich display of De Feo’s early paintings, which revealed her distinctive approach to Abstract Expressionism and her independent spirit. The rich impasto and large scale of the work was daunting, especially in The Rose (1958-66)—De Feo’s magnum opus. This extraordinary sculptural painting has become her signature artwork, finally taking its place as an outstanding example of mid-century creativity. At SFMOMA, The Rose was installed as a magnetic presence at the end of a long gallery. It deservedly served as the focal point of the exhibition.
A pass-through gallery and another situated behind the main gallery included a modest number of small drawings and photo-collages. Their placement tended to minimize their significance, making them appear more like preparatory work, rather than objects in their own right.
The retrospective culminated in a extensive array of late paintings. Although competent, these works lack the compelling character and compositional flair of De Feo’s early paintings and photo-collages. Regrettably, they were a weak finale to the SFMOMA exhibition.
De Feo, an important but overlooked artist, warranted a more judicious selection and skillful presentation of her work. She got this when the retrospective was shown at its second venue, the Whitney Museum in New York. Here, the entire installation conveyed the vibrancy of De Feo’s art. Beyond the impressive early paintings, which again held their own as precursors of the iconic stature of The Rose, the selection concentrated on an impressive assembly of photo-collages. Installed together, this body of work was highlighted as a preeminent facet of De Feo’s career—equal to her oil paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s. At the Whitney the scope of the photo-collages was decidedly more substantial, more varied, more inclusive, and more visually engaging than at SFMOMA. They, not the late paintings, took their rightful place as the finale to the exhibition.