Book Review: Jay DeFeo – Works on Paper by Matthew Ballou

Jay DeFeo – Works on Paper

Kelly’s Cove Press has been crafting publications focused on California artists and writers for the last half decade. In particular, their books on the work of Richard Diebenkorn (one of which was reviewed previously here on Neoteric Art) are a real contribution to the dialogue surrounding that artist. It makes sense that this small press would continue to seek major artists with California connections to present in their pages, if only to help them being lesser known artists, such as Squeak Carnwath, to light. They do good work.

Jay DeFeo – Works on Paper“Ascension” and “Tear”, both graphite on paper, both 1959. Size: approximately 50 by 43 inches.

Cue the latest volume available from Kelly’s Cove: Jay DeFeo – Works on Paper. Loaded with 100 images, several dozen of which that have not been seen in reproduction, the book brings DeFeo’s too-short career into focus. Editor Bart Schneider deftly presents that career through three specific eras of work, each spanning around a decade. The pieces published here illustrate the characteristic raw energy so central to DeFeo’s approach over many years, yet they also give us a sense of her determination and rigorous focus.

Jay DeFeo was, in many ways, always seeking a kind of firm resolution. This publication clearly displays the dichotomies at stake in DeFeo’s fiery studio practice. Interestingly, there is something positive about seeing her mid-sized drawings reproduced at a small scale (the book is 8 by 6 inches in size, with most images shown at 4 by 5 inches or so). That size shift allows one to sense the level of detail that DeFeo was attempting to render while simultaneously showing the vigor of her expressionist gesture. She was always willing to leave the chaotic and the refined to live together. That duality – between tight resolution and fast mark making – seems to me to be the hallmark of her oeuvre.

Jay DeFeo“Untitled” from 1958, graphite on paper, 11.5 by 8.75 inches and “Study for The Rose” from 1959, graphite and silver gelatin print on paper, 5 by 3.75 inches.

It would be impossible to discuss DeFeo without mentioning her masterpiece and eight-years-in-the-making tour-de-force, The Rose. This massive work, which weighs in at nearly a ton, has gained DeFeo more public awareness through her retrospective held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2013. In this book, Kelly’s Cove Press gives us two beautiful works that reference the overall structure of The Rose, while simultaneously providing the context for the kind of rigor that went into that iconic work. It is easy to imagine almost any of the works on paper contained in this book as the seed for a massive piece like The Rose. That sense of potential for resolution and translatability of scale is something DeFeo shared with the likes of Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, and Jim Dine.

Jay DeFeo – Works on Paper“Oracle (One O’Clock Jump Series)”, from 1979, acrylic, graphite and mixed media on paper, 40 by 30 inches.

That historical and formal contextualization is what I find so valuable in this book. One is easily guided toward a sense of Jay DeFeo as a whole person – a whole artist – rather than only the woman who created The Rose. While that work certainly provides a compelling platform upon which to begin recognizing her forty-year commitment to art making, it is not the whole story. DeFeo was as compelled by the banal and everyday (a compass, an eraser) as she was any grand metaphysical themes. Thankfully this book encourages viewers to look deeper and to respect DeFeo through the lens of a lifetime of work. Congrats again to Kelly’s Cove Press for creating a fine book and placing the artist front and center while keeping the word count low.

Jay DeFeo – Works on Paper“Untitled (Eternal Triangle Series)” from 1970, acrylic and charcoal on paper, both on 30 by 22 inch paper.

Buy the book on the Kelly’s Cove Press website here.

Top Image: Cover of the book showing “Untitled” from 1953, tempera and collage on paper, 28 by 22 inches.