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The Life and Work of Jay DeFeo

Please note: A full biographical chronology of Jay DeFeo is in progress and will be included in this section at a later date. For the most current chronological information, please see the catalogue, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.

Jay DeFeo was born in 1929 in Hanover, New Hampshire, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1950 and a master’s in 1951, both in studio art, from the University of California, Berkeley. Upon graduation, she was awarded a fellowship and traveled to Europe and North Africa for a year and a half, settling in Florence for six months. There, DeFeo worked intensively on what became her first significant body of work, influenced by Abstract Expressionism, the geometry of Italian architecture, and her ongoing fascination with Asian, African, and prehistoric art.

Returning to Northern California in 1953, DeFeo became a pivotal figure in the historic San Francisco community of artists, poets, and jazz musicians at the time. The art she began making in the mid-1950s incorporated the dualities of representation and abstraction, organic rhythms and geometric form, refinement and expressionism. DeFeo worked with unorthodox materials to explore the broadest definitions of sculpture, drawing, collage, and painting.

In 1959 DeFeo’s first major solo exhibition was held at the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco, the same year that DeFeo’s art, along with that of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, and others, was included in Dorothy Miller’s momentous exhibition Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Walter Hopps and Irving Blum at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles mounted her next solo exhibition in 1960.

In 1958 DeFeo began work on “an idea that had a center to it”1 and almost eight years later, in 1966, completed The Rose, a monumental work created with so much oil paint that she called it “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”2 To concentrate completely on The Rose, DeFeo essentially withdrew from the art world for much of the 1960s, turning down offers of new gallery affiliations and solo exhibitions. The Rose was first exhibited in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum.

DeFeo moved to Marin County, near San Francisco, in 1966 and, exhausted, took a break from making art until late 1969. With renewed energy, DeFeo investigated new materials, invented applications, and became deeply involved with photography. Often her subjects were favored domestic oddities, which she transformed into images that, in her words, “transcend the definition of the objects from which they are derived.”3 A master draftsman and painter, DeFeo was also an ardent experimenter, allowing her to create an idiosyncratic cross-disciplinary oeuvre. Working in series to examine divergent possibilities, she at times referred to images from earlier periods, as well as works she imagined still to come. Toward the end of the 1970s, DeFeo’s art reemerged in the public arena in gallery and museum exhibitions.

In 1981 DeFeo moved from Marin County to Oakland, after accepting a position teaching painting at Mills College, where she became a tenured professor five years later. She traveled frequently, often titling works and series after anticipated or remembered travels. While continuing to mix and assemble materials in her works on paper, collages, photocopies, and photographs as well as in her paintings and drawings, DeFeo returned to oil for the first time since completing The Rose, creating both large, glowing canvases and small, delicate paintings on paper and linen or canvas, many reflecting the themes that inspired her in the 1950s.

DeFeo was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1988 but continued to work prolifically until she was forced to vacate her Oakland studio in October 1989 because of damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake. She died on November 11, 1989, at the age of 60.

Since her death, not only has DeFeo’s work been featured in museum and gallery exhibitions, but the body of serious scholarship considering her significance in twentieth-century art has consistently grown.

1 Paul Karlstrom, “Interview with Jay DeFeo,” 23 January 1976, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, part 3.

2 Douglas M. Davis, “Miss DeFeo’s Awesome Painting Is Like Living Thing under Decay,” National Observer (14 July 1969): 16.

3 Jay DeFeo, letter to Henry Hopkins, 21 June 1978 (Corr0564), archives of the Jay DeFeo Trust.


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