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The following guest commentaries first appeared on The Jay DeFeo Foundation Facebook page.

E1411, Untitled (Florence) by Jay DeFeo
Leah Levy, Executive Director and Trustee, The Jay DeFeo Foundation
May 2017
“I’ve always loved looking at and thinking about DeFeo’s 1978 work Incident. It has a seemingly careful, deliberate central placement on the page, but also the speed and spontaneity and mix of marks evident in much of DeFeo’s work. The notion of a specified ‘incident’ calls forth DeFeo’s humor and her willingness to be mysterious in her playfulness. Incident is a wonderful example of the balance of intension, with every mark having a purpose, and of an openness to incorporating the element of chance that we see in even her most exacting works.”

E1411, Untitled (Florence) by Jay DeFeo
Anna Kraft, Exhibition Coordinator at Galerie Frank Elbaz, Paris
April 2017
“At first, the parallels between Jay DeFeo’s two works on paper, both Untitled 1979 (E2034 and E2035), and Picasso’s work did not visually strike me. It was later, when discovering images of her studio showing the works pinned on the wall next to a photocopy of Guernica, that the underlining harmonies revealed themselves as evidence. Jay DeFeo said in a 1975 interview with Paul Karlstrom, speaking of a class she took with John Haley in graduate school, ‘…We took Picasso’s Guernica as a point of departure, as a major work. From there we let it expand into small studies in small mediums and let small work grow out of the major work. And at the same time let small work feed into the major work.’ Years after, that ‘self-induced imagery’ still resonates through DeFeo’s complex body of work.”

E1411, Untitled (Florence) by Jay DeFeo
Dodie Bellamy, Writer
February 2017
“The canvas is tall and narrow, like a microscope slide standing on its end, like a close up of a slice of very strange flesh. I have to crane my head back to take in all eleven feet of it. The top of the splash touches an ominous darkness. No matter how far away I stand, I can’t manage to see the whole painting at once. My eye is forced into movement, waves of movement. The more I look at it the more frenetic The Verónica becomes, and I grow queasy. Where’s the center? Its focal point appears to be outside the right border of the frame. Its wide strokes are tiled over one another, suggesting petals or feathers, like it could be a close up of a wing, giant bird’s—or angel’s—wing. As I stare my vision twitches and the movement of The Verónica seems to change, to sweep down and to the right, into the giant feathery armpit, the armpit of something other, something transhuman. I love it when nonrepresentational art—rather than just standing there in its leaden materiality—sparks off an association feast, a slide show in my mind of images and emotional reverb. In its prettiness The Verónica is more subversive than Incision, which announces something deeper, intense is going on. The Verónica’s creepiness sneaks up on you. Femininity flails its pretty neck and grows monstrous, out of control.”

E1411, Untitled (Florence) by Jay DeFeo
Klaus Kertess, Writer and curator (1940-2016)
November 2016
“She would as readily extrude totemic resonance from a gust of gestural strokes as from the meticulously rendered reincarnation of a camera tripod or a pair of swimming goggles. Quite fearlessly, she urged formalism into shamanism, photography into drawing, drawing into painting, painting into sculpture, blossom into decay—and vice versa.”
Kertess, Klaus. “Lyric Tempers: Jay DeFeo’s Early Works.” In Jay DeFeo: The Florence View. San Francisco: Museo ItaloAmericano, 1997.

E1211, Doctor Jazz by Jay DeFeo
Bill Berkson, Poet, critic, and teacher (1939-2016)
October 2016
“Fittingly, the lead sentence of DeFeo’s statement for the “Sixteen Americans” catalogue read: ‘Only by chancing the ridiculous can I hope for the sublime.’ Sublimity was built into the tremendous body language—‘organic’ and full of ‘growth forms’ in the parlance of the time but with supra-organic, and dashingly clear, cosmological overtones—that characterizes the paintings, outsized drawings, collages and other mixed medium constructions DeFeo made from about 1954 on. The ridiculous too was ever at hand. At her most obsessive, DeFeo was gifted with a sprightly sense of play that allowed her to follow her intuitions and yearnings without hammering them into theses. A early as her student years, she later told [Paul] Karlstrom, she had conceived of making an image ‘about being on an edge…I wanted to create a work that was just so precariously balanced between going this way or that way that it maintained itself.’”
Berkson, Bill. “In the Heat of The Rose.” Art in America, March 1996.

E1055, Untitled by Jay DeFeo
Ursula Cipa, Artist
Augus 2016
“With Jay, everything was material. I mean, the way she saw the world, everything was a possible material used for her process. That was always exciting to be around. I remember her walls were covered with images that she turned upside down, looked at, reused. If she broke a glass she would keep the shape around, because it just suggested something else to her. Everything was material for her. She was constantly looking all of the time.”
Cipa, Ursula. From “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective” audio guide. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013.

E2922, Untitled by Jay DeFeo
Catherine Spenser, Lecturer in modern and contemporary art at the University of St Andrews, Scotland
July 2016
“In Incision, DeFeo’s combination of thick paint and string similarly assumes the quality of a ‘hybrid product.’ Its abstract forms and textures combine references to geology, minerals, coral and rock formations, while alluding viscerally to the body and Thoreau’s ‘brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds.’”
Spencer, Catherine. “Coral and Lichen, Brains and Bowels: Jay DeFeo’s Hybrid Abstraction.” Tate Papers No.3, Spring 2015.

E2922, Untitled by Jay DeFeo
Greil Marcus, American author, music journalist and cultural critic
June 2016
“In these acts, the three were less collaborating than continuing a conversation that regardless of how long it might have been since DeFeo saw Berman or Conner could be picked up at any time. Everyone has had a very few friends of whom that could be said, but there was something more going on. It was as if, at certain times, when the loneliness in art-making made art-making feel incomplete, someone else was needed to complete a work, to provide a crucial affirmation, even if a work would not be finished for years, if ever, even if it was not exactly meant to be a work at all, when play came first and the spirit of play never floated away from the work.”
Marcus, Greil. Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo: Collaborative Mysticism. Paris: Galerie Frank Elbaz, 2016.

E2034, Untitled by Jay DeFeo
Any Trachtenberg, Artist
June 2016
“So. Trust and Play. Tipping points.
It’s all about that. The equilibrium of careening into play with trust. With a friend or on our own. Mostly on our own. This push against the comfort zones while digging farther into our astral and archeological minefields.
Greil Marcus gets it so good. Between Jay, Berman and Conner, their bios reading like a weather report locating the facts of their births and deaths, they are the California Mystics.
When I moved to Paris in late 70s I brought them with me in memory and in reproductions. The fluidity between collage, drawing, film, photography, correspondence and collaboration, painting, objects and addressing each other was my contemporary California version of Paris in the 20s.
Nobody in Paris seemed to know them. Or care.
The beat went on and bolstered my inclinations away from a singular way of working as I was pushed strongly to determine a signature always knowing that to be impossible.”

E1200, Untitled (Eternal Triangle series) by Jay DeFeo
Jens Hoffman, Deputy Director of The Jewish Museum in New York
May 2016
“In the Eternal Triangle series the putty eraser is similarly physically charged in its drawn, painted, and photographed forms—its malleability resembling that of flesh. The eraser carries further connotations particularly resonant to DeFeo’s method, suggesting both failure and production: her drawings, as well as her paintings, are as much process of removal as accumulation and thus the eraser plays an almost equivalent role to the pencil or brush.”
Hoffman, Jens. “The Ritual of Everyday Life: On the Migrating Objects of Jay DeFeo.” In 33 Texts: 93,614 Words: 581,035 Characters Selected Writings (2003–2015). Zurich: JRP | Ringier and Les Presses Du Réel, 2015.

P1333F, Untitled by Jay Defeo
Walead Beshty, Artist and writer
April 2016
“Instead of being a symbol of suffering, it is as though the cross itself had suffered injury and is being made whole again in its coming together as an object, like a wounded limb bandaged not simply to heal, but to become more than it was, adding that bandage to itself for perpetuity rather than shedding it at some point when wholeness was re-achieved, another instance of accumulation, of patchwork expansion.”
Beshty, Walead. “Chancing The Ridiculous to Reach the Sublime.” In Jay DeFeo: Where the Swan Flies.. Houston: Moody Gallery, 2008.

Jay DeFeo listening to jazz at The Cellar, San Francisco
Constance Lewallen, Adjunct Curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
April 2016
“The small group of artists and poets who revolved around the CSFA [California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute], the King Ubu, and, later, the Six and Batman galleries, the Cellar and the Place cafés, and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, in North Beach, shared not only a devotion to their own crafts but to Jazz which flourished in San Francisco since the forties and symbolized the rejection of the stultifying conformism and materialism of the McCarthy-Eisenhower years. Moreover, bebop’s fusion of erudition and and intuition was a perfect analog for the Beat philosophy. DeFeo was deeply involved in jazz, especially female vocalists like Bessie Smith, whose 78s she bought at the Black and White Record store on Filmore Street.”
Lewallen, Constance. “Mountain Climbing.” In Jay DeFeo: Selected Works 1952–1989. Philadelphia: Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design, 1996

Torso by Jay DeFeo
Constance Lewallen, Adjunct Curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
April 2016
“When DeFeo returned to Berkeley in 1953 from her European sojourn, she moved back into the same large studio on Magnolia Street she had rented in her final year at the university. Of the dozens of motifs she had tried out the in the previous three years, she held on to some—like the torso, the cross, the eye, and the bird throughout her life. Torso (1952) combines the colorful, slashing strokes of her European works on paper with the stable, rectangular image similar to the ‘table’ of Untitled (Berkeley) (1953) (righted it becomes a body). Its elongated vertical proportions also point to many of the drawings and sculptural paintings that soon were to occupy her.”
Lewallen, Constance. “Mountain Climbing.” In Jay DeFeo: Selected Works 1952–1989. Philadelphia: Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design, 1996

The Eyes by Jay DeFeo
John Yau, American poet and critic
March 2016
“Is the object mechanical or organic or both? Is its purpose positive or negative, creative or destructive? By cropping it so that we can see only where the tubular form enters and the other exits, DeFeo robs us of a sense of scale. Is it massive or infinitesimally small? And what scale is the viewer? DeFeo’s work evokes an awareness of the immensity of reality and how mysterious, wondrous, and at times terrifying it can be.”
Yau, John. “The Indefinable Art of Jay DeFeo.” In Jay DeFeo: Chiaroscuro. Zurich: Galerie Eva Presenhuber and JPR|Ringier, 2013.

Untitled (Mountain series - Everest) by Jay DeFeo
Catherine Spencer, Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art, University of St. Andrews
February 2016
“While Untitled (Mountain series—Everest) seems occasionally about to cohere into identifiable imagery, it remains in flux. DeFeo’s placement of ‘Everest’ in titular brackets infers the generalized idea of a mountain, rather than topographical actuality. As DeFeo emphasized, her engagement with the natural environment did not result in ‘landscapes that one goes out and parks oneself down in the field to paint … they are landscape-like. They conjure up a kind of landscape feeling.’ Untitled (Everest) might offer a view down from a summit onto the terrain below, or even a glimpse of peaks breaking through cloud from the air, yet the composition also pitches the viewer into a granular, micro-level view of a rocky surface, frustrating a clear perspective.”
Spencer, Catherine. “Coral and Lichen, Brains and Bowels: Jay DeFeo’s Hybrid Abstraction.” Tate Papers No.23. Spring 2015
Origin by Jay DeFeo
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Associate Director for Conservation and Research, Whitney Museum of American Art; Director of the Center for Technical Study of Modern Art, Harvard Art Museum
January 2016
“We are greeted by mountainous rivulets of thick, wrinkled paint whose physicality is further emphasized by intermittent precipitous drop-offs to exposed, bare canvas. Carefully articulated, these palpable gulfs stand in contrast to the relatively smooth, fluid application of unctuous paint at the summit of the painting. Here, the versatility provided by various brushes and a palette knife, coupled with the incorporation of particulate matter in the medium, enables the simultaneous creation of flattened swaths of viscous paint and stokes with a decidedly bumpy topography.”
Mancusi-Ungaro, Carol. “When Material Becomes Art.” In Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective by Dana Miller. New York and New Haven: Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2012.
Untitled (Masking Model for later Loop System paintings) by Jay DeFeo
Corey Keller, Curator of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
December 2015
“Thinking about what is at stake in DeFeo’s photography is a way of reconsidering what medium means; through her process we can see photography as a medium with specific, inherent qualities, but also as a mediator or bridge between modes. Within the possibilities of photography are crystalized the major themes of DeFeo’s work: the push and pull between abstraction and representation; a concatenation of past, present, and future; and the relationship of the fragment to the whole.”
Keller, Corey. “My Favorite Things: The Photographs of Jay DeFeo.” In Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective by Dana Miller. New York and New Haven: Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2012.;
The Jewel by Jay DeFeo
Zach Fischman, Registrar, Harper’s Books
April 2015
“I thought about Jay DeFeo adding layers of mica to layers of paint, building up the geography of her work. There’s a very literal connection to be made between DeFeo crafting her surfaces and the continental forces that shape our landscape. Painting becomes geography, mountain building, valley forging. DeFeo builds her mountains, but she also weathers their slopes, becomes responsible for the erosion of her dunes. She built a mountain range of her own construction, and then mined it for the jewel of the painting’s title.”
The Eyes by Jay DeFeo
Judith Delfiner, Art Historian, Assistant Professor of History of Contemporary Art, Université Pierre Mendès-France, Grenoble
March 2015
“As the fragment of a self-portrait, ‘The Eyes’ crystallizes, in a single unique image, the essence of the creative process operating in Jay DeFeo’s work. Retaining only the face’s gaze, this drawing exacerbates the articulation between the inner space of introspection and visionary projections that radiate outward from rectilinear features. The dilated pupils are crucibles for forming transcendent visions. Similar to crystal, which Nietzsche regarded as the place where ‘artistic forces’ appear, they are foyers for the release of creative energies, redoubling the mythic center out of which and toward which DeFeo’s entire work emanates and converges. Inspired by an untitled poem published by Philip Lamantia in the collection entitled Ekstasis (1959), ‘The Eyes’ prefigures the artist’s identification with the black hole of origins, exemplified by the crystal/rose engendering the totality of her work.”
Blossom by Jay DeFeo
Rebecca Schoenthal, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
February 2015
“Blossom 1958
Suggests a first flowering but the images of nude women she cuts from magazines are mature (as is JDF).
First flowering suggests innocence/loss of innocence.
Wm Blake poem ‘The Blossom.’
Is ‘the Rose’ blossoming? In her thoughts? Has she started it?
Nude pin-up girls — used also by male peers (BC)
Year later poses nude herself (for WB)
Men at the center, looking, reaching.
Women are faceless. Can’t look.
No identity other than the bodily. Flesh: round, soft, inviting. Evokes tactility of the petal.”
Wallace Berman, Jay DeFeo, 1959
Hayley Barker, Artist
December 2014
“Calling The Rose a masterpiece seems like an understatement. The Rose is more like an entire retrospective in one painting. Years and years collected, layered. Abstract. White. Radial. Like staring into the sun and seeing your god there. This makes The Rose more being than painting. To see it in person would be to meet DeFeo’s family, her sisters and brothers, her lovers, her mother and father, the kids she never had, her clan, her ancestors. Her earth and body. Her woes and passions. Her will to create. Her atmosphere. Her Universe. Her future cancer.”
© 2014, Hayley Barker
Living area of Jay DeFeo's studio in Oakland, California, 1986
Rene de Guzman, Senior Curator of Art at the Oakland Museum of California
November 2014
“The hardest winter was spent in Jay DeFeo’s studio. As a young artist, I sublet it during one of the coldest winters on record in the late ’80s. I recall the vast dark space, the legendary bar, and vapor breaths dissipating above me in bed. A DeFeo now hangs in the Oakland Museum of California. After working in San Francisco for years, my career has taken me back to the East Bay where I grew up and went to school. Jay’s art inspires reflections on life. They are about time, evoking ruins, PompeiiÕs ashes, and the dust that we will all become.”
Wyatt Kahn, Drifter, 2011
Wyatt Kahn, Artist
October 2014
“When I was nineteen years old I saw a piece of art that would have a profound and long lasting impact on my work. The Rose was significantly larger than myself and its physical nature pulled me in but also kept me at bay, providing a prolonged experience of aesthetic purgatory. I didn't know that a painting could so fully incorporate sculpture and architecture while still only using paint. Everyday in my studio, I attempt to the integrate the same ideal, methodology, and weight into every picture I make. In many ways, I owe my whole practice to The Rose.
Members enjoying the galleries during the opening of Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
Renny Pritikin, Chief Curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
June 2014
“I told my student in the curatorial practice Masters program at CCA, Will Brown, that he should check out the DeFeo retrospective at SFMOMA. He hadn’t heard of her; he’s young, mid-twenties young. I was taking my brother, visiting from New York, through the show a week later. There was Will, standing in front of The Rose, where he confessed he’d been standing for almost an hour, overwhelmed. I told him it was on my list of the ten greatest contemporary art pieces I’d ever seen, and he asked me to send him my list.”
Sarah Hotchkiss, Artist, Communications & Outreach Director at Southern Exposure, and co-director of Stairwell's
May 2014
“The shadowy form looks ominous, yet not fully grown. It’s a young reaper, or possibly one of fiction’s Dementors, hunched over schoolwork and just beginning to glance up. It casts a diminished shadow on the wall behind, the result of a blinding camera flash, a surprise attack. The end result: an unfortunate candid for the yearbook pages of Hades High, all contrast, no definition, another alienating day in the halls.
“Of course, what I see says more about me than the print before me. The best abstraction conjures up a Rorschach test of free-floating associations—and Jay is never one to let me down.”
Tess Thackara, Editor at Artsy
April 2014
“A window onto an ancient moon, its curve formed against the thick void. Fragments of land masses, torn and fragile, their frayed edges brittle like ashy paper caught on fire. A moldy wall, dank and deep. Mottled. Bending to time and age, the corner of a sheet of paper curls. A tuxedo cat, wiry and wise, steadily places soft paws into the night.”
Natasha Poor, Art Historian and Museum Educator
April 2014
“Dirty laundry in the fridge. Dead Christmas trees. 2,300 pounds of debris collected, molded, adored. Self-imposed isolation and an obsession with dirt during a period preoccupied with cleanliness, boundaries, and traditional roles. Your encrusted rose blossomed nonetheless, eroding any semblance of conventional domesticity. A twisted housewife or a figure blurred and consumed by the surrounding decay?”
Sophia Hussain, Community Storyteller at Oakland Museum of California
March 2014
Song of Innocence is a small painting of an infinite scope. I may be looking up at a spectral vision in a clear night sky, or down at a volcano’s hiss. Perhaps I am in the midst of the quiet, still explosion. I imagine the painting growing and undulating on my computer screen: song of iTunes Visualizer. I have never seen the painting in person, but nonetheless feel lost in its depths. It has granted me a view of microscopic closeness or a rough outline of the universe, so abstracted by distance that it becomes, once again, small.”
Iva Gueorguieva, Artist
January 2014
“It’s 10 pm and I am staring at the image of Jay DeFeo’s photograph ‘Untitled’ from 1971 on my computer screen. I squint. I take a shower. I squint. I stare at the image of the cauliflower. When I was a child I believed that eating cauliflower would make you smart because it looks like a brain. As in Caravaggio’s painting of Salomé holding the head of St. John, the cauliflower rests on a platter. It exists in multiple dimensions. It is whole and it is severed. It is visible both frontally and from behind as it recedes within the space of a propped mirror, its severed part triangulated in a double reflection. I think of 17th century anatomy theaters where amongst the living sat skeletons holding inscriptions such as ‘Remember, you will die.’”
Kevin Killian, Poet, Author and Playwright
December 2013
“DeFeo’s work from the 1970s repays careful viewing, but even a careless or first, purely binary impression can speak volumes. When I look at ‘Untitled (White Spica),’ a photograph from 1973, I see not her crumpled and reflattened 50s drawing; instead I see part of a psychedelic mushroom I ingested in 1973, a kid on a date on Long Island, hoping for a buzz that would last me to Monday. Today I touch the screen, and anticipate the tingle in my fingertips that was famously said to signal the trip. DeFeo as artist of synaesthesia, like Joan Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Scriabin, Nabokov, van Gogh, David Hockney, Syd Barrett, Kandinsky, Bernadette Mayer? Yes yes, why not? Astronomers know the white spica as a bright star in Virgo, but Richard Olney reserved the name for the purest aspic, the jellied consommé of a thousand Proven¨al dreams.”
Lara Schweller, Coordinator, Community and Access Programs, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
October 2013
“The off-kilter symmetry reminds me of a Rorschach test. But with this image DeFeo gives us a glimpse into her mysterious language of form, instead of words. It is the type of image that makes me want to write a letter to the artist, to know her quiet thoughts, to speak her language. Dear Jay, there is mystery in the way you point us toward connections that cross form and material and object. It is the beauty in the way the constellation of sandpaper dots across the shell speaks to the pattern in the background.”

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