The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue

Jay DeFeo: Depicting with Abandon

Jay DeFeo,<em> Untitled (Study of Cave Painting)</em>, 1951-52. Ink on paper, 19 3/4 x 27 7/8 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.
Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Study of Cave Painting), 1951-52. Ink on paper, 19 3/4 x 27 7/8 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.
Beverly Hills
Marc Selwyn Fine Art
Jay DeFeo: The Language of Gesture
July 13 – September 14, 2019

What is it about these works on paper by Jay DeFeo that draws us in—that triggers our curiosity to the tipping point of empathy?

The 18 works on paper in this exhibition dating from 1951–54 were executed in four distinct locations—Paris, Florence, New York, and Berkeley. And while it’s possible to explore the relation of the works to each locale, that would miss the point. DeFeo was an artist who consistently explored her fascination with the real world—its lines, shapes, colors, and atmospheres, its organization—with an unmitigated desire to express her feelings about it. In these works, we see her dancing back and forth between these two instincts. We watch as her brush drips, scrubs, doubles-back, leaps, circles, and declares—the paint gathering itself toward abstract configurations that emote on her behalf. And we watch as her wrist makes the same moves but with different intent, to let us see the world with her. Windows, water, buildings, trees, animals—and perhaps even spirits. One could imagine Piranesi, Franz Kline, Nijinsky, and Merce Cunningham—the ultimate peanut gallery for DeFeo’s work—all applauding her methods. And the outcome. These artists align with the elemental brew of her achievement—the real world, good eyes, fierce hearts.

Jay DeFeo, The Eyes, 1958. Graphite on paper, 42 x 84-3/4 inches. © 2019 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Tree series), 1954. Tempera on paper, 15 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.

In the end, these works on paper are emotional flirtations with the world, their accumulated marks traversing a body of work that is a brooding and lyric meditation. The works summon us through a shifting balance between paint and image. They are intimate standoffs, perhaps never quite in balance after all, locked together, her two priorities taking turns as dominant from work to work. The story being told is about striving, reaching for understanding or feeling, but continuously failing to clarify anything once and for all. We are lucky she left us the remarkable evidence of an artist focused on her remembered world, her emotions, and the materials of her art.

DeFeo’s quandary seems related to Willem de Kooning’s description of himself as a “slipping glimpser":

“I’m in my element when I’m a little bit out of this world: then I’m in the real world—I’m on the beam. Because when I’m falling, I’m doing all right. When I’m slipping, I say, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’ It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me.… As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping most of the time. I’m like a slipping glimpser.”1

Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, 1941-43. Pencil on paper, 12 1/4 x 11 7/8 inches. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

To conjure de Kooning when thinking of DeFeo is an obvious association, but it helps us get DeFeo right. Both artists had the drive and capability to grasp the real world—see the Dutch master’s drawing Elaine de Kooning (1940), and DeFeo’s The Eyes (1958). Both artists were obsessed with seeing, but they found expressive possibilities and truths in abstraction. The real world was a critical gateway for many of the Abstract Expressionists besides DeFeo and de Kooning, some of whom chose to walk back through it later in their careers, including Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, to name just two.

It’s tempting to think of DeFeo’s work, like that of many of her peers, as launching back and forth from the real world to abstraction, depicting with abandon.

  1. Excerpt from a transcript of the film Sketchbook 1: Three Americans, produced by Robert Snyder and Time, Inc., 1960.
  2. Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Florence), 1952. Tempera on paper, 29 x 21 3/4 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.

    Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Florence), 1952. Tempera and ink with collage on paper, 20 x 14 3/4 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.

    Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Paris), 1951. Ink and chalk on kraft paper, 26 x 20 1/2 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.

    Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Florence), 1952. Tempera on paper, 31 1/2 x 23 3/8 inches. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts.

Text © Clifford Ross


Clifford Ross

is an artist.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues