Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Jay DeFeo, Artist and Teacher: A Personal View

When I was eighteen, I was accepted to UC Berkeley as an art major, and I enrolled in my first required art class there: Form in Drawing. We had no Google then, we had only a description in a catalogue; my class would be taught by a visiting professor: J. DeFeo. I was clueless, impatient with requirements, I had no idea who she was or any desire to find out. All I knew, from my youthful vantage point, was that she had lipstick on her teeth.

Honestly, I don't remember much about the class. She smoked, I believe. Should we write "Jay" or "J"? we asked. She said either one was fine, but she signed her comments "J." On the last day, she finally agreed to show us her work but seemed wary of doing so. As the slides cycled through I saw why she was wary: I didn't get it. Eventually, I dropped out of Cal, finished a BFA at California College of Arts and Crafts, and didn't think about J very much. I found out later that she went on to teach at Mills.

But when the retrospective exhibition of her work came to SFMOMA in 2012, I knew I had to see it: the work of my first college art teacher, someone whose art had been known by everyone, it seemed, but me. I was curious what the pieces looked like up close, how I would see them now, either as an artist or teacher or both. What had I missed? On a rainy December Sunday, I finally understood. I've always felt that slides are ridiculous, but in J's case, they were absolutely useless. She's best known for her monumental painting, The Rose (1958-1966), that weighs close to 2300 pounds/approximately 1000 kg. The works are powerful for their scale, their presence, their texture. She had a sensitivity to her materials, whether she used the oil paint she loved or photographs, acrylics, metal, or plaster. Her rendering is exquisite, her use of gray scale from very dark blacks to pristine whites is gorgeous. She had precise technical skills which she coupled with her explorations into collage and photography. Her subjects were meaningfully gleaned from her travels, from her home, from the tools she used: pieces of her camera tripod, compasses, crosses from Italy, kneaded erasers, a wing from a bird she tried to save, all represented in mostly large-scale works. She could have taught me some amazing things, if only I had listened.

When I got home, I dug out three drawings I had done in her class thirty-two years ago. I had saved the ones she critiqued, as well as the single sheet of onion skin paper on which she wrote my final grade and final comments.

J's comments on the banana drawing, below.
More precision in rendering.
(words are a little un-
necessary—a little "corny"

Comments on the back of a cup drawing, below:
Needs far more intensity in
change from light to dark
—also should be precise

Comments on my scarf, below (it's larger, 18" x 24").
This is excellent—
a little more attention
to precision of contour—
subtlety in shadow areas

My final grade.

Alisa—this is an excellent presentation—I appreciate your efforts to experience it all—There are stronger pieces conceptually—I hope you will gradually start focussing on the ideas that are more important to you as you gain in experience. —separating "educational excercises" from more personal ideas. However, the exercises will add strength to your work in general. Also, there are technical skills that will improve with practice. If you continue to give as much time & energy—I have high hopes for you—

Good luck!


Her comments sound very similar to things I now tell my own students. I believe you can make art about anything, as long as you feel some kind of personal connection to it. At eighteen, I was vaguely disconnected from my work, although I wore (and still have) the scarf. She clearly felt connected to her subjects, curious, investigative. Part of the wall text said that she always wanted to stay true to the subjects, to their realness, and not be seduced by the materials into making false portraits.

Jay DeFeo died in 1989 of lung cancer at age 60. This exhibit remains in San Francisco until February 2013. It moves to The Whitney on February 28, until June 2. A catalogue of her work is available, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, but it is best to see it in person if you can. Although I missed something when I was in her class, I feel that I've just learned something from her work. Something, perhaps, I can recapture in my own work, now.

The sun was out on our way back from the museum. We stopped for lunch a block away on Mission Street at a warm café called The Grove. High ceilings, lots of wood, tiny lights, and found signs and objects made it a comfortable and perfect venue to keep thinking about art. I was surprised to see a friendly former student of mine; I hadn't had contact with him since he was in my class three years earlier and I didn't know he worked there. He told me he displays the books he made in my class in his apartment and offered us a cookie or more coffee, which we declined. I was just happy knowing that he remembered the class fondly. Maybe next time.

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