my writing about jay defeo

for the publication we produced for our exhibition:

1.    a compass is an instrument used to describe a circle or arc.

Family lore says that as a child Jay DeFeo would spend hours practicing to draw a perfect circle.  Possibly, she’d heard Vasari’s story of Giotto proving his genius to Pope Benedict with a freehand circle.  Perhaps it was simply an early indication of an ardent curiosity with a form that would last her lifetime.

In medieval illumination, the draftsman’s compass was used as an allegory for God’s act of creation.

The compass was among several art-making tools that DeFeo used for inspiration.  Her camera’s tripod, a Scotch Tape dispenser, an eraser, the color wheel chart she made in school, the paper towels she taped onto the surface of a painting to protect it from splatters – each is the basis of bodies of work completed in the 1970s and 1980s.  These mundane yet essential objects became mystical subjects in the practice of an artist who equated the creative process with the sacred.

In a body of work from 1979/80, DeFeo used compasses not as implements, but as models.  Their formal qualities gave her the opportunity to pursue her fascination with angles and curves, though that was merely her starting point.  In her hands, the subject became figurative.  Potent.  Heroic.  A fetish object imbued with inordinate presence and power.

II.        A compass is an instrument that indicates direction.  A compass is a guide – a tool for finding your way.

DeFeo’s method was to engage an object that intrigued her, exploring that thing deeply.  Examining, representing, reassessing, re-doing, adding, erasing, building up, excising, cutting, collaging, subverting, re-starting on a blank canvas or fresh sheet of paper. The exploration was a meditation on the object — a quest to transcend the everyday and find the universal and eternal.  The process was a pilgrimage, each drawing, painting or photograph full of potential and the opportunity of a fresh path.

The oldest instrument in the world, the compass was invented in ancient China.  Before it was used for navigation, it was used for fortune-telling and geomancy, the art of placing or arranging objects or buildings auspiciously.

In 1979, DeFeo made a series of works utilizing a photocopier.   Drafting compasses, a bone, a figurine and one of her own drawings (of a compass) were arranged and rearranged on the bed of the copy machine to create works that are neither photographs nor photograms, but something in between.  A form from the photocopies morphed into a series of totemic charcoal and acrylic works on paper  that both refer back to several of her works from the 1950s and presage work she would make nine years later.

Since prehistory, cairns have been built not only as trail guides, but also for astronomical or ceremonial purposes, or as monuments.

The series Seven Pillars of Wisdom, made a few months before her death in 1989, began with a different source, a ceramic cup, a gift from the sculptor Ron Nagle.  DeFeo drew and photocopied the pink cup repeatedly.  The form evolved into a column, curved at the bottom, sharp at the top, floating in space.  The shape is a pointer — a compass needle.  It is also a cairn — a marker on a trail.

Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, a star used for centuries as a navigational marker.

In 1958, DeFeo made a work on paper she later called White Spica.  Fifteen years later she repeatedly photographed a cut fragment of the original work:  a white star-like form encompassing a circular brush stroke.  In the iteration of that image in this exhibition, she went a step further by cutting the photographic representation of the drawing fragment, retaining a corner of pearly empty space and emphasizing the jagged curve of her original cut-out.  Untitled (White Spica) exemplifies DeFeo’s process – a path begun in one place and arriving somewhere completely unexpected.

DeFeo’s most famous painting, The Rose, resembles a compass rose — the legend showing cardinal directions on a map or chart — more so than it does the flower.  Jay herself called The Rose “a fact painted somewhere on a slow curve between destinations.”

All of the objects DeFeo used as models are markers — points on a chart — constellations by which the recurring themes of her art-making can be navigated and contemplated.

“DEFEO” can be seen at my san francisco gallery from 10 september to 22 0ctober.    the catalog is available by e-mailing the gallery at

for an earlier post about jay defeo’s work, click

none of the images in this post may be reproduced in any form without permission of the jay defeo trust.  copyright 2010, the jay defeo trust/artists rights society/ars, new york.