Rip Tales: Jay DeFeo’s Estocada & Other Pieces
(Soberscove Press, 2021)
Jordan Stein’s Rip Tales: Jay DeFeo’s Estocada & Other Pieces takes the idea of an artwork that has gone from creation, to destruction, to reanimation as the premise for a book that offers a much-needed glimpse into the ecology of the Bay Area art scene. Stein, a writer and curator who moved to California in 2003 to attend grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), and later founded an independent exhibition and program space in the city’s Mission District, offers an insider’s view of an art scene that is storied yet often ignored. At the center of the book is the evolution of Estocada, a work on paper that Jay DeFeo began in the late 1950s but was forced to remove from a wall in her home studio (what was essentially a hallway) when evicted from her apartment on Fillmore Street and forced to leave San Francisco for Marin County.
Stein traces the evolution of the work through a series of vignettes that are interspersed with anecdotes from his own participation in this scene and interviews that he conducted with other local artists and cultural workers. Rip Tales is not only a study of DeFeo’s tenacity as an artist, but an oral history project that connects a multigenerational group of artists, including conceptual artist Lutz Bacher (who never revealed her birth name), portrait photographer April Dawn Alison (the private persona of commercial photographer Alan Schaefer), and sculptor Vincent Fecteau. A common thread that connects DeFeo and other featured artists is a tendency toward experimental art practices that allow for the gradual build-up of ideas or the meditative realization of new approaches far from the view of the public and intentionally disengaged from the market. This is partly due to the unconventional nature of the local art scene, a place where artists have worked without the pressures of a robust art market for decades and often survive by teaching or adopting other lines of work. For artists like DeFeo, who began her career in the short-lived artist-run spaces that were central to the activities of the Beat generation in San Francisco’s North Beach District, being free from the influence of the mainstream was critical to maintaining artistic autonomy, allowing for the creation of works that were neither precious nor made to last, or even expected to be shown. Weaving his study of DeFeo’s work with interviews that touch upon these issues, Stein presents a template for how documentation and analysis can be used to honor the region’s idiosyncratic art-making practices and artists who have resisted what he identifies as “the gravity of art world centers and broader schools or hierarchies of practice.”
The author begins by narrating the historical context of Estocada, diving into the type of work DeFeo was producing at the time, which included heroically constructed multimedia paintings, while recounting the circumstances that led to its initial demise. Indicative of the book’s reflective tone, Stein considers what it means to be in search of an artwork whose pieces are known to be missing or dispersed among institutions (in this case the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Jay DeFeo Foundation). “How do we account for ghosts?” he asks, “We circle an absence. We listen for the artist’s voice, an echo. We go looking.” This instance of thinking out loud sets the stage for the remainder of the book. Similarly thoughtful interludes appear throughout. For example, when discussing the work of Lutz Bacher, he observes that “we often turn to art for coherence, forsaking its ability to clearly reflect its opposite.” As Stein seeks to uncover coinciding hidden histories, he points to the broader philosophical implications that can be drawn from the experiences of artists who are not easily discouraged, despite experiencing long periods of obscurity.
Estocada is a quiet work that had largely disappeared from memory until now. Consisting of abstractly painted sheets of paper stapled across the length of the wall, the work was in progress when DeFeo was forced to tear it down after her landlord pressured her to vacate the apartment. Although she considered the work to be a drawing, Stein notes that it was rendered with heavy layers of paint, an approach that defined the early period of her artistic practice. Its torn edges became a feature of later works on paper, despite being the result of circumstances rather than a conscious decision. That the artist eventually accepted the fate of the drawing and began to see tears and rough edges as “compositional elements” seems to have been necessary to surviving setbacks in life that impacted her ability to continue to create large-scale paintings. DeFeo adapted, and although her productivity was inconsistent for several years after being evicted, she eventually turned to photography, drawing, collage, and Xerox art. Pieces of Estocada were stored under her bed and later repurposed in new works or photographed in ways that reimagined or “translated” its painted forms.
In San Francisco, DeFeo also feverishly developed her monumental painting The Rose (1958–66), whose exploding star composition and volcanic surface came to weigh almost a ton due to its multiple layers of paint, plaster, and wooden dowels. The story of that work and its removal from her Fillmore Street apartment—through a bay window that movers widened by cutting into the building’s façade—is the stuff of legends. (The process was recorded in Jay DeFeo’s Painting Removed by Angelic Hosts , a short film by Bruce Conner, DeFeo’s close friend and arguably the period’s most irreverent artist.) Stein provides the history of the outsized work in a chapter devoted to her early paintings, recounting its extraction from the apartment, its inclusion in DeFeo’s first museum exhibition in Pasadena, which was initiated by Southern California curator and gallerist Walter Hopps, and its eventual placement behind the wall of a conference room at SFAI, where it stood hidden and in need of repair for more than two decades.
The book’s detour into the artist’s career-defining work not only establishes DeFeo as a relentless and fearless artist but also introduces her artistic community, which, in addition to Bruce Conner, included her then-husband, artist and gallerist Wally Hedrick—from whom she separated shortly after the eviction—and painter and SFAI administrator Fred Martin, whom she knew from UC Berkeley’s undergraduate art program, where they formed a tight-knit group of rebellious art students with painter Sam Francis in the mid-1940s. It was under Martin’s watch that the Institute erected a wall in front of The Rose in order to make room for student work, an act that essentially concealed it, removing it from public viewing, and thus burying a critical moment in the region’s art history. In his own published writings, Martin describes their relationship as one of great camaraderie and admiration, but contends that their generation of Bay Area artists were more concerned with art making that reflected their subjectivity and reflexivity, rather than material longevity. He tells the story of finding a large painting that he had given DeFeo propped up in her backyard dotted with water damage from a nearby sprinkler.
Stein’s interview with longtime San Francisco residents Steven Fama and Mary Miller in the final chapter of the book demonstrates the extent to which Bay Area artists have rejected the idea that art is exceptional and should be treated as a precious commodity. In 2007, the couple became the custodians of a 9-by-5-foot painting by Conner titled Homage to Jay DeFeo (1991). Rather than sell or store the work, Conner entrusted his friends to hang it in their home on long-term loan. Soon after realizing that the large painting could not be displayed inside, however, Conner suggested hanging it on an area of the fence that bordered their back garden. Years of exposure to the sun, rain, mist, and wind outdoors left the painting in ruins, and over time pieces of its canvas that were ripped from the stretcher by the elements were collected in a plastic baggy and stored in their garage. All that remains intact is the frame of the painting, which they left hanging in the yard. Conner died before it completely disintegrated but had assured the couple that they would not be liable for any changes to its original condition. The black-and-white painting contained a sketched-in square with a darker shape that resembled a question mark at its center and a less developed, shadowy formation above it in the upper right corner of the canvas. The connection to DeFeo in its title is left open to interpretation, however the story of its life, death, and rebirth is clear. Conner placed the work outside, knowing that it would essentially fall apart, and that he would not see it in its final state. Fama notes that the painting will likely outlive him as well.