Jay DeFeo
Incision, 1958-1960

Although Jay DeFeo identified herself as a painter, she recognized that her artwork “could more accurately be described as a combination of painting and sculpture. I consider the aspects of each inseparable and interdependent, the process being one of building and carving, but always in reference to the properties of paint as a medium.”

This heroically sized painting teeters on the brink of sculpture, with more than five hundred pounds of paint encrusted on its surface. Applying layer after layer of oil pigment to canvas, then scraping or dragging a trowel through the paint with broad strokes, DeFeo produced crags and crevices that reveal ragged textures and underlying layers of color, suggesting built-up geological sediment. With dangling strings indicative of sinews, the work invokes a sense of living or decaying tissue.

Often conceiving of works in small groups, DeFeo initially designed Incision as the left-hand panel of a triptych. A broad V would have extended across all three canvases, with a green heart spanning the middle and right sections. Prone to laboring endlessly over her creations, she ultimately abandoned the project; the center panel was lost or destroyed and the right one never completed.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Artist name
Jay DeFeo
Date created
oil and string on board and canvas
118 in. × 55 5/8 in. × 9 3/8 in. (299.72 cm × 141.29 cm × 23.81 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase with the aid of funds from the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art
© The Jay DeFeo Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Permanent URL
Artwork status
On view on floor 4 as part of Freeform: Experiencing Abstraction

Audio Stories

What inspired this five-hundred-pound painting?

Show TranscriptHide Transcript



In 1967, the year Incision was finished, Jay DeFeo wrote that Although I am a painter by definition, my work as it has emerged in the past two years could more accurately be described as a combination of painting and sculpture. I consider the aspects of each inseparable and interdependent. 

Weighing nearly five hundred pounds, this piece is made up of layer upon layer of oil paint clinging precariously to a canvas surface. As in most of her work, DeFeo has used only black, white, and a full range of grays to convey a sense of volcanic upheaval. Rather than appearing to be the product of a human hand, Incision looks as if it were a slice of an ancient, primeval landscape, incised from the earth and elevated onto the wall. Notice the few strings embedded in the scraped and parched surface, hanging down like dead strands of grass, roots, sinew,s or veins. The overwhelming physicality and rawness of DeFeo’s paint dominates this work, but the inky darkness of the upper right section hovers over the entire painting and lends it an atmosphere of brooding intensity. 

The tradition of abstract, action painting that traveled from New York to San Francisco was important to DeFeo’s work. But like many of her compatriots in the flourishing, often rebellious Bay Area art scene of the late 1950s, she also drew inspiration from jazz, poetry, and mysticism.

Read MoreCollapse



The looming stature and hundreds of pounds of oil paint that form the craggy gray surface of Incision call to mind a landslide. The title alludes to the techniques behind its sculptural crevices: DeFeo used palette knives and brushes to build up and carve into the many layers of pigment. Some ridges were also shaped by underlying rows of string. DeFeo refined the artwork over two years of sustained adjustments, additions, and subtractions. Although it was originally conceived to be the first panel of a V-shaped triptych, it evolved into a stand-alone monolith that attests to DeFeo’s dedication to letting a painting develop in its own time.

Gallery text, 2017

Other Works by Jay DeFeo

See other works by Jay DeFeo

Please note that artwork locations are subject to change, and not all works are on view at all times. If you are planning a visit to SFMOMA to see a specific work of art, we suggest you contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to confirm it will be on view.

Only a portion of SFMOMA's collection is currently online, and the information presented here is subject to revision. Please contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to verify collection holdings and artwork information. If you are interested in receiving a high resolution image of an artwork for educational, scholarly, or publication purposes, please contact us at copyright@sfmoma.org.

This resource is for educational use and its contents may not be reproduced without permission. Please review our Terms of Use for more information.