Exhibition Press Release


SFMOMA DEBUTS FIRST MAJOR RETROSPECTIVE OF JAY DEFEO

Exhibition Illuminates Entirety of the Bay Area Artist's Career Featuring More Than 130 Works Including Her Visionary Masterpiece, The Rose

Exhibition dates: November 03, 2012 - February 03, 2013

Release date: August 8, 2012

SFMOMA DEBUTS FIRST MAJOR RETROSPECTIVE OF JAY DEFEO

Burt Glinn, Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, 1960; © 2012 Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

From November 3, 2012 through February 3, 2013, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo (1929–1989). Although best known for her landmark painting The Rose (1958–66)—a near two-thousand-pound masterpiece—DeFeo created an astoundingly diverse range of work. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the retrospective places The Rose in the context of her larger body of work, tracing DeFeo's visual concerns and motifs across more than four decades of art making. Following its premiere at SFMOMA, the exhibition will be shown at the Whitney from February 28 through June 2, 2013.

Comprising more than 130 works, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective brings together the artist's paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, small sculptures, and jewelry designs—most of which have not been seen in decades or have never been exhibited before. The exhibition is curated by Dana Miller, curator of the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum. The San Francisco presentation is overseen by Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA.

"DeFeo is well known for her magnum opus, The Rose, but her full and complex oeuvre has not yet been given the serious consideration that it merits. This exhibition will be a revelation. A nationally recognized artist, she was also a major figure in the Bay Area art community, and beloved by many here. It is an honor to present her work at SFMOMA," says Keller.

"DeFeo believed that, more than most other artists, her art was best understood when considered comprehensively. In presenting the entire career, this retrospective will demonstrate the captivating sweep of DeFeo's heterogeneous work and illuminate her groundbreaking experimentation and extraordinary vision," explains Miller.

The retrospective draws from more than 35 private and public collections, including those of the Whitney and SFMOMA, as well as the Jay DeFeo Trust, which provided unprecedented access to works and archives for the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated 320 page catalogue with new scholarship on all aspects of DeFeo's work and career, including essays by Dana Miller; Corey Keller; Michael Duncan, independent scholar; Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, associate director of conservation and research, Whitney Museum; and Greil Marcus, independent scholar. The most accurate biographical chronology of DeFeo to date will round out this volume.

About Jay DeFeo

Born in 1929 in Hanover, New Hampshire, Jay DeFeo was one of the few women of her generation to rise to artistic prominence but one who has still not been given her due. Her unconventional approach to materials and intensive, physical process make DeFeo a unique figure in postwar American art and she defies easy categorization.

DeFeo made her first mature body of work while traveling through Europe on a fellowship, shortly after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951. Not long after her return in 1953, she settled among the San Francisco community of artists, poets, and musicians later labeled the Beat generation. Her larger circle of friends and peers included Wallace Berman, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Sonia Gechtoff, Ed Kienholz, and the artist Wally Hedrick, whom she married in 1954. The legendary curator Walter Hopps was an early champion and he placed DeFeo's work in several gallery and museum exhibitions in the 1950s and 60s, among them the inaugural show of the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957, which was followed by several other group shows and a solo presentation there in 1960. Dorothy Miller included DeFeo's work in the seminal 1959 Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibition Sixteen Americans, alongside Frank Stella's black striped paintings and Jasper Johns's flags. At that moment DeFeo was among the most prominent women artists of her generation.

From 1958 to 1966, DeFeo worked almost exclusively on The Rose, and when she finished, the work consisted of so many layers of paint that it weighed close to one ton. Exhausted, both physically and mentally, DeFeo then took a three-year hiatus from making art and largely faded from the public's consciousness. It was only after The Rose was finally given a museum exhibition in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum, which then traveled to SFMOMA (then the San Francisco Museum of Art) the same year, that she began painting again.

During the 1970s, DeFeo lived in Larkspur, California, and taught at several Bay Area schools and, for a time, at SFMOMA. She resumed making art and worked prolifically, exploring photography in depth and incorporating it into her practice in innovative ways. A 1973 National Endowment for the Arts grant allowed her to further pursue her photographic experiments and she created a highly inventive body of hybrid works on paper. Although DeFeo worked spontaneously, her paintings, drawings, and photo-collages evolved through a slow technique of building up an image and then reworking it, or erasing it and starting all over again. This open-ended process, which the artist described as a "cliff-hanging experience," allowed for highly expressionistic forms and an astonishing range of surface modulation. Yet DeFeo's intuitive and expansive method of working was tempered by her sense of compositional order and an often restrained grisaille palette. It is this state of balance, between carefully composed images and lush surfaces, expressive forms and subtle coloring, that intensifies her unique and utterly compelling body of work. In 1978 she had a one-person exhibition in the MATRIX program at the Berkeley Art Museum, organized by then Director of SFMOMA Henry Hopkins.

In 1981 DeFeo moved to Oakland and joined the faculty of Mills College, where she was awarded tenure in 1986. She continued to produce art and was the subject of several significant shows including a 1984 solo presentation at the San Francisco Art Institute as the recipient of the Adaline Kent Award and a 1989 exhibition, Jay DeFeo: Works on Paper, at the Berkeley Art Museum. DeFeo taught at Mills until her death from lung cancer on November 11, 1989, and had a profound impact on a generation of students who passed through the school.

DeFeo's work can be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and SFMOMA, as well in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives, Oakland Museum of California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Menil Collection, Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For more on Jay DeFeo, visit SFMOMA's interactive feature online.

About The Rose (1958–66)

Massive in scale, layered with nearly two thousand pounds of paint, the monumental painting was already legendary before its first exhibitions in Pasadena and San Francisco in 1969. Following the SFMOMA presentation, The Rose was installed in the newly built McMillan conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute. The painting was in need of conservation, and a protective coating was placed on the surface in 1974 as a temporary measure. The subsequent stages of planned conservation were never completed and the work remained obscured from sight for the next 21 years (in 1979 a false wall was even built in front of the painting). In 1995, The Rose reemerged when a historic and extensive conservation plan led by the Jay DeFeo Trust and the Whitney Museum restored the work to exhibitable condition; the restored painting debuted as the centerpiece of the Whitney's 1995 exhibition Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965. The Rose was acquired at that time by the Whitney with support from the Judith Rothschild Foundation and now resides in its permanent collection.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Bruce Conner's 1967 film documenting the removal of The Rose from DeFeo's Fillmore Street studio, THE WHITE ROSE, will be shown in SFMOMA's Koret Visitor Education Center through the run of the exhibition.

Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective is organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Major support for this exhibition is provided by the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Generous support is provided by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Louise Stude Sarofim, Susan Weeks and David Coulter, Francis H. Williams, M. Bernadette Castor and David R. Packard, the Clinton Hill/Allen Tran Foundation, Sarah Peter, and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Museum Educational Trust.

The San Francisco presentation of this exhibition is made possible by leadership support from the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Traveling Exhibitions. 

Media Contacts

  • Christine Choi, 415.357.4177,
  • Robyn Wise, 415.357.4172,
  • Miriam Newcomer, 415.357.4170,

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Founded in 1935 as the first West Coast museum devoted to modern and contemporary art, SFMOMA is currently undergoing a major expansion project to open in 2016 that will significantly enhance gallery, education, and public spaces, enabling the museum to better showcase more of its expanded permanent collection. While the museum is temporarily closed for construction, from June 3, 2013 to early 2016, SFMOMA will be “on the go” with an extensive array of off-site programming across the Bay Area, including collaborative and traveling museum exhibitions, major outdoor projects and commissioned installations, and new education initiatives.

Visit our Web site at www.sfmoma.org or call 415.357.4000 for more information.

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