Jay DeFeo at The Whitney

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Jay DeFeo at The Whitney

Postby NYC_Correspondent-tm » Mon Mar 04, 2013 6:39 pm

On a cold, grey, dirty end of February night, the Whitney was buzzing with a moderate crowd for the opening of the excellently curated, well-rounded Jay DeFeo retrospective at the Whitney Museum. When I arrived, the crowd in the lower reception area was in full swing, chattering away, eyes darting over their plastic cups of house red or white, crunching on absurdly long breadsticks, and fat, lovely Cerignola olives. A pleasantly entertaining rag-oldtimey jazz combo were tooting and shuffling, adding an extra layer of whimsical thickness that contrasted the black-clad attendees. (The invites called for “festive attire” - largely ignored, or more likely, simply interpreted as maybe adding an extra scarf of more black, with the exception of color hints peeking out, or partially exposed tattoos.) After some well-spent time amongst the social buzz, myself and my companion broke upstairs to actually see some art.

The thickened layers I felt amongst the crowd downstairs proved to be an apt theme. In some of her most well-known pieces, including the enormous, over 2,000 pound work, The Rose, DeFeo worked famously in huge, compounding, frosting-like layers of paint, applied and shaped with ultra-wide palette knives. Although The Rose, on which DeFeo worked for about eight years, acted as a centerpiece of that period and the show itself, other alluring works from that period, and the entire show surrounded it.

Stand-out amongst the earlier works were jewelry pieces. These pieces captured the essence and seedlings of traits that manifested elsewhere in her later works - tender birdnests of chaotic wire wrappings were carefully balanced with more simple space-giving aspects within the same piece - such as a lengthy stretch of wire - and in relation to other, more clean, weighty-feeling pieces, such as those containing a series of deliberate spirals. To me, balance was the key component and underscored later works, even those where layers overwhelmed.

The real draw in the exhibition was The Rose and her other large, abstract, sculptural paintings. I was immediately struck by the full-length waterfall-like palette-knife strokes, and the three-dimensionality of these pieces. The Rose itself appeared as a magnificent star-like apparition, glowing and pulsing in its crusted off-white dominance, proudly set-off from the other works in its own recessed alcove. The show notes stated that DeFeo changed the name from the original Deathrose because of unwanted connotations, but in retrospect, the death description was appropriate. DeFeo’s marriage was crumbling at the same time, and she fell into depression. She left her long-time residence and studio in the Haight in San Francisco, moved to Marin County, and stopped creating works for the next four years.

Just as death signifies not only an ending, but space for transformation into new beginnings, when DeFeo began creating new works, her entire approach was transformed. Abandoning the process of heavy oil paint layers, she re-emerged with simple, small black-and-white photo-collages, merging organic and non-natural source portrayals. These pieces retained a semblance of three-dimensionality, cut and pasted together, but this time, sharply and cleanly.

From there, her work re-evolved, eventually moving to larger pieces yet again. Except these contrasted sharply with the sculptural oils. Here, she painted in acrylics, with definite lines, design-like in form, with clearly delineated colors. These included a mixture of representational with abstract, such as a rendering of a Samurai helmet, worked in splashy, luscious vermillon.

The final pieces in the exhibition were my emotional favorites. Done when DeFeo was in the last stages of her life, stricken with cancer, these works were mature and focused, subtle in tone and texture, and done in modest scale. In particular, most touching were a portrayal of a wounded bird she attempted to rescue, and the final piece, a love-note of a valentine-like heart.

The curating was excellent, clearly delineating the periods in DeFeo’s career and life. Helpful period essays and notes for individual pieces provided historical information and context, and technical background. Even better, the words acted as a backdrop guide, leaving the majority of artistic analysis and experience to the viewer.

Back downstairs, while the band was packing up and the bar was being broken down,
I noticed a few stragglers who looked like they failed to leave the cozy confines of the social atmosphere to even make the show. Maybe they’ll be back - they probably live here. But if you’re visiting the city for the Armory show (and others), in arguably the most splashy art week of the year in NYC, make an effort to tear away from the business and social events, and plunge into the depths of the DeFeo exhibition. Transformation awaits.
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Re: Jay DeFeo at The Whitney

Postby CAP » Tue Apr 09, 2013 12:52 am

Here's a You Tube of the show (courtesy of James Kalm) 8-)
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