Everything’s Coming Up DeFeo

The cover of a new book of Jay DeFeo: Works and Notes, a new book of her writing from the 1980s. A postcard of an Egyptian princess head, sent by Jay DeFeo to R.E. Johnson, August 1978.

The cover of Jay DeFeo: Works and Notes, a new book of her writing from the 1980s, which features a postcard of an Egyptian princess head, sent by Jay DeFeo to R.E. Johnson, August 1978.


One of the more heartening developments on the art-historical front over the past few years has been the renewed interest in Jay DeFeo, the Bay Area painter who was born in 1929, played a vital role in San Francisco’s Beat scene, spent years honing her sumptuous, hulking masterpiece, The Rose (1958–66), and died in 1989, still too little recognized for her venturesome work in painting, photographs, and quite a few other mediums.

Following her passing, museums presented shows focused on specific series or materials, but the first full-dress survey did not come come until 2012, when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective,” which traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2013. It was a revelation.

And the DeFeo have just kept coming at major galleries since then—at Eva Presenhuber in Zurich in 2013, at Hosfelt in San Francisco in 2013 and 2015, and at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York in 2014. Now, through tomorrow, Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Los Angeles is showing paintings on paper that the artist made between 1986 and ’87, including examples from her “Samurai” series—expressionistic, smoky, potent works made with attacks of black, gray, and white that have touches of both Franz Kline and Amy Sillman.

Regrettably, I have been stationed in New York this winter and have not been able to see the show, but if you are in Los Angeles, consider a visit tomorrow morning, at 11:30 a.m., when Leah Levy, the director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, will be giving a talk on the artist’s work. For those of us sequestered elsewhere, though there is a fine book, published by Selwyn and Christine Burgin, which for the first time offers a taste of DeFeo’s writing.

DeFeo’s tone in her writing, which comes from her journals, is searching and intimate as she discusses her practice, and her struggles to make work. “I always dread complacency & am suspect of the occasional moments when I can actually feel some achievement,” she writes in one entry, dated December 1982. And she adds later, “I could never live with myself for copping out on these changes because of deadlines & maintaining a technique I felt more secure & safe with.”

DeFeo discusses teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, spaying her dog, visiting her sick mother, and always returns to her work, which she examines, tests, and doubts unceasingly. One selection from the handsome little book, which also includes images of works in the present exhibition, follows below, first as a reproduction of her actual journal, then as a transcription. Here’s hoping a full compendium of DeFeo’s writing will appear soon.

A page from DeFeo's journal dated January 1983.COURTESY SELWYN/BURGIN

A page from DeFeo’s journal dated January 1983.


A transcription of the journal entry.COURTESY SELWYN/BURGIN

A transcription of the journal entry.


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