a panel discussion about jay defeo’s exhibition

at hosfelt gallery, with julian cox and veronica roberts, moderated by todd hosfelt:

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Todd Hosfelt: Thank you all for coming.  We are so lucky to have two really smart and insightful people to talk with us about Jay DeFeo’s work today. I’d like to introduce Veronica Roberts, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently preparing a mid-career survey of Nina Katchadourian, opening at the Blanton in Spring 2017. Her most recent exhibition, Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt is on view at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA and travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art this spring. Prior to working at the Blanton, she held curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She received her M.A. in the history of art and architecture from UC Santa Barbara and her B.A. in art history from Williams College.

Julian Cox joined the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2010 as its Founding Curator of Photography and Chief Curator. After holding curatorial positions at the National Library of Wales and the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford, England, he moved to the United States in 1992. For more than a decade he worked with the photographs collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.  He also spent five years leading the photography program at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Cox has organized numerous exhibitions on subjects ranging from the dawn of photography’s invention in Europe to contemporary practice in the United States. He is the co-author, with Colin Ford, of the critically acclaimed publication: Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (2003).  His other publications include: Spirit into Matter: The Photographs of Edmund Teske (2004); Harry Callahan: Eleanor (2007); Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968 (2008); and Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay (2014).   He is presently working on a retrospective of the photographs and films of Danny Lyon which will open next summer at the Whitney Museum and travel to the de Young Museum in the fall of 2016.

 

TH: I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read my introduction to the show, but to sum it up, the exhibition is composed of various pairs or groups of works by DeFeo that illustrate her penchant for making works quite directly connected to each other. In this show, I use related works to tease out her interest in contrast, and hopefully reveal something about her process and the importance of opposition in her work.

What I’d like to start with today is the process of seriality. It’s very well known that Jay would begin work by looking at an object, often an everyday object, something that was lying around her studio or home, and she would use that as a model to photograph or to draw or paint from. She would usually make a series of works based on that object and sometimes she would be working on all of these works concurrently and other times she would be working on them consecutively, and one would lead to the next. Often the works would become more abstract the deeper she got into that process.   Sometimes she’d move back and forth between representation and abstraction.  So what I would like to do is to have each of you talk about this process of Jay’s in whatever way that interests you.

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Veronica Roberts: I think about seriality a lot because of my background as a Sol LeWitt scholar. During the 60’s and 70’s seriality was associated with minimalism and conceptual art but so often in their cases, and certainly in Sol’s case, it was used very systematically.  DeFeo’s work is not systematic; it is about embracing intuition.  If you look, for example, at one of my favorite trios (pictured above), there isn’t a logic to the three images and it’s precisely that that makes it so beautiful. She starts with an image, a photograph, but you’re not sure what you’re looking at, if you’re looking at, a photo or a drawing.  As an aside, I think it’s interesting how she collapses those languages.  But she’s taken a photograph of a painting of a skull, and has turned it into what looks to me like a bird in flight.  And then by Xeroxing it, it becomes even more abstract. I wouldn’t even know how to describe that image. So she is able to take something real and push it into some unknown territory by returning to the same image again and again and again. And then in the last work, the one on the far right, you see a stronger presence of drawing, of her hand.  The title of that work is Wings. But even when she gives you a title, there are a dozen ways to view that image. To me her seriality is very personal, it’s very intuitive, it crosses disciplines and media, and it is really profound and poetic.

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Julian Cox: Good morning everybody. Seriality infuses everything that DeFeo does. We have our backs to two great paintings — Hawk Moon (above) which were painted between 1983 and 85. It’s a real treat for us to see these two works together in this gallery.   Just these two works on their own, as a pair, but also the individual works, tell a lot about DeFeo’s way of working between…. sort of shuffling her ideas from one surface, one texture to another. You see an amazing exchange of vitality between the two objects. What’s amazing about these works, for me, is the cohabitation of really strategic, technically specific and exacting execution that involves using tape, and measurements and careful planning, but also this gestural quality. When talking about her painting, she said she typically would start out very gestural, and then would become more carefully honed toward the end. We are talking about paintings here, which we don’t always think of being serial objects. But I think they are most impressive examples of that notion of her work.

For me, as someone who works with photography and thinks about it a lot, her involvement with photography, which begins around 1970-1971, is a pivotal moment for her.   That media, in and of itself, lends itself to seriality and it becomes an important experimental fulcrum for her. It is what released an incredible outpouring of ideas and experiments. This exhibition spans the years from ‘71 to ‘89 (so it’s after The Rose of course).  And seriality is really what her work is about for the last two decades of her life. It’s like a jazz improvisation moving from medium to medium.   Testing ideas, and flexing and growing her various muscles. Seriality is right at the very core of what she does.

 

TH: It’s interesting that the groups you each chose to start talking about are so related formally.  There was an 8 or 9 year gap between them, but you still feel that connection.  One of the things I was hoping to do with this show was to show those connections between works that are separated by many years.

Veronica, I love the insights you had in your essay. You talk a lot about Jay’s views on the natural world, and landscape, and the landscape of the Bay Area. Would you expand on that?

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VR: I am a San Francisco native; I was born and raised here but I live now in Austin. Writing this essay for me was both wonderful and slightly painful, because it was a reminder that I’m not here.  Even though Jay is described as a quintessential Beat artist, I would also say she’s a quintessential Bay Area artist.  And that’s something I don’t think has been explored enough—in part because perhaps we aren’t so familiar with her photographs from the 70’s. There are quite a few photographs in this show that have never been seen before and i’ve been struck at how much the Bay Area informed them, and how much nature informed them. I think to a great degree it was because she was living in Larkspur in the 70’s.  I think the landscape of Marin inevitably seeped into her work.   It’s about more than that she was taking photographs of logs on the beach or botanical images. It was also about the natural and organic processes she was interested in in her photographic work. The processes of growth and decay that you feel in this show even when you’re looking at something that ostensibly has nothing to do with nature.

I also was thinking about the tradition of photography and landscape that is so prevalent in the Bay Area. Whether you are looking at  Ansel Adams or Imogen Cunningham or Richard Misrach, that tradition is really important here. There’s a wonderful essay in the Jay DeFeo catalog written by Corey Keller where I learned that the first fine art photography department was in San Francisco and I think this history is embedded in Defeo’s work.

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JC: Yes, it is, and you dealt with it very well in your text. I also think of the very talented photographers who taught and studied at the Art Institute.  For example, couple of summers ago, we presented at the de Young the work of Rose Mandel. I see her as an interesting antecedent to DeFeo.

In the last year the Fine Arts Museum was lucky enough to acquire four DeFeo photographs, two as a generous gift from the Trust and two that we purchased. The nature pictures I bought for the acquisition have a very interesting connection to the work of Rose Mandel.  Which is interesting because I typically think of DeFeo as a studio-based artist, as having an intense relationship to specific objects and motifs that she really bears down on again and again in her work. And by changing her perspective to the outdoors, to the landscape, what’s out there rather than what’s in there, is an interesting way to try to unpack her work.

One of the strongest works in this show, or the most surprising for me, is Summer Landscape (below), tucked around the corner there. There were a couple of other works in that series that were in the retrospective and also in the catalogue, but this is a wonderful work, it’s really intense, and it has all of those characteristics that we know DeFeo for. It also, for me, stands out as a very different kind of object in this show. I think the definition of landscape, typically, with DeFeo, is slippery. It can be approached in many different ways.

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TH: Could I ask you to talk a little bit about the photographs that you chose for the museum? And you also worked with Karin Breuer at the Achenbach several years ago to acquire some drawings that are very much in the spirit of this exhibition.

JC: At the Fine Arts Museums, the de Young and Legion of Honor, we have 10 works by DeFeo. We actually got into the DeFeo game late compared to most museums. Our first acquisition was in 1991, while the San Francisco Museum of Art, as it was then called, acquired Incision in 1967. That was the first major painting of Defeo’s to enter a museum in San Francisco. But we have a couple of great early paintings, one of which is Untitled (Florence) from 1952.    That work, which really hasn’t been much on public view looked spectacular in the retrospective. And then we have a great, very early painting, Mountain No. 2, from 1955 and it is always on display in our galleries.

A few years ago, in 2012, which was the year before the retrospective, we became more engaged with the Trust and really learned more about the incredible depth of this artist’s work. We were on the lookout for major drawings or paintings on paper and a painting, again understanding that you really need to see these related works in different media together. In the end, we bought three beautiful large works on paper from the Bride series in 1986 (below).   We didn’t acquire the related painting, partly for financial reasons.   But we felt that in those three beautiful large works on paper we had what we needed. It was a great fit for the Achenbach collection.

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And then the photographs, acquired last year, really represent the range of DeFeo’s photographic work. We got a couple of those studio-shot, object-based pieces and then this beautiful image of a flowering tree (below), quite different from anything else I’d seen. They all have the quality of attention that DeFeo gave to everything she did.  That’s what I love about her work in photography.  The camera, of course, is equipped to take a fragment out of the world, to take a slice out of reality, and she worked primarily with a square-format camera, which is a very mathematical proportion. So, her way of seeing the world, the way that she picked out fragments is very, very precise and very specific.

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This exhibition has beautiful pairs of objects that show you how specific her way of seeing was. I feel like she is almost saying to you “look carefully… I need you to look carefully at what is in front of you.” There is an incredible pairing of two photographs (below) of the same object, a pot of flowers, where she flipped the negative.  She would often do that — print the negative both ways. We have to look very closely to see whether it is the same base image or not. It is very, very precise, including the movements she makes in the darkroom, and so this is the wonderful quality of her work that makes people come back—it’s the way that she is magnetically pulling you into the object and insisting that you give the work some degree of attention into what she’s doing to bring it into the world.

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TH: Would you pick a pair or a series, something that you really like in the show and talk about them?

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VR: One of the things that I love about the show, and you talk about it in your essay, is the way that she allows contradictions to cohabitate. The dualities and contradictions that coexist in the work are their strength. I think that’s such a beautiful idea, and a beautiful reality in Jay’s hands, and in her eyes and in the way that she frames images. For example, the trio based on the tripod. (above)   I mean, I own a tripod.  It’s not a particularly pretty object.   It’s kind of ugly. I would not think of it as a terribly interesting thing to make the subject of so much work.  It’s a tool, but it’s not even a complete thing.  You still have to do something with it — add a camera. So, to me, it’s a boring prosaic thing, but it becomes a beautiful abstraction in her hands. The way she’s drawn it, without the photographic image to show you, I don’t think you could even know what the source of those drawings is. So she’s working with an object, but it’s viewed through her own lens.  The tripod is something mass-produced, but it becomes so much about her own hand. It’s something that is a tool for photography and yet she’s making it a drawing.  Maybe this is also my own interest in birds, but the second drawing is almost like a bird’s beak,  that circle is like the bird’s eye. She’s taken an earthbound object and made it evoke flight. And then you start beginning to make connections between bird, and sight, and camera… ways of seeing.

So what I think is so brilliant about the concept of the show—it’s not so much your concept as it’s Jay’s — it’s clearly in the work—are these contradictions that she plays with.   Dualities that are always present in her work. The intimacy of the work in this show begs you to look at the work slowly.  And they sort of tumble out as you look at them, and they do really reward that slow, careful looking.  Our lives are full of dualities and it’s what keeps life very interesting. She is able to poetically mine that in her own way, but it’s something universal that we all feel a connection to and that animates the work.

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TH: I want to say something about the “boring objects” Jay would choose. We might see them as boring objects, but clearly she found something amazing in them. They were often her art tools. For example the compasses in the drawing (above), or her tripod or eraser. I think that because she made art with those things, they were special to her and they had a kind of magic for her. And I think what she was doing was trying to pull that magic out and make it visible, make it apparent, make it obvious to us. One of the reasons I think Jay’s work is so special is because she made it only to please herself. She made art because it was what she needed to do. It is coming from this deep, genuine place. It’s a thing she was doing for love.

Let’s move on, and go to Julian, our photography expert.  Would you talk a little bit about Jay’s use of the photocopy machine? There are several pieces in the show that are photocopies, sometimes where she is using objects and sometimes where she is photocopying her own drawing. This was part of her practice for many years. We know that at one point she actually selected her office at Mills College because it was the office nearest to a photocopy machine.

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JC: Technology in general is a very interesting subject with DeFeo.  If you look at her work in the context of West Coast art, both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, you see her in relationship to Wallace Berman, who I think is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, with his amazing verifax collages.   And Bruce Conner, who was also very interested in collage. There was a really interesting exchange of ideas between not just between those three artists but the larger community as well.  I see Defeo’s photocopy work growing out of that matrix of experimentation. The Beats were all interested in that.

There is an object in this show, a photocopy (above), that’s an incredible work of art.  Spend some time looking at it if you haven’t already. It’s an incredible object, the scale, and what it contains.   This is what happens with DeFeo’s work, you have to really lock in, and pay attention to what’s there. It takes awhile to unwrap what is happening with all of these compasses, the eraser, all of the other elements of the composition, sort of tucked in behind the layering.  She has a way of dealing with the space that is extraordinary.

Of course, working with a photocopy machine, you’re working with a flat surface and layering things on top of that surface. So, it’s a totally different set of mental exercises in terms of the art of photography, when she’d set something up in the studio on a tabletop, or when she’d play with images emerging in the darkroom and the actual relationship with the darkroom chemistry. I don’t know too much about the details of her darkroom practice, but I do pick up a sort of affinity with the process when you’re working with your negative and the image is emerging, and you make the decision as to when to stop the development and arrest the picture.  I think that notion seems applicable to the photocopies and so integral to everything she does.

When she is making a drawing, a sheet of paper is sitting in front of her untouched, but the way she decides to place the first impression or stroke ends that.  And I think photographing for her and her relationship to the darkroom… it’s sort of all about that.

Anyway, the photocopies seem to be part of her ongoing fascination with trying new things. It’s a type of instantaneous printmaking. It’s interesting to me that she never went into printmaking.  And why not?  I think there’s a one-off aspect of photocopies she was interested in.  Of course you could then reproduce it, but actually making the first one is the gesture, right? Printmaking is really different.  You establish a matrix, and then you let it go.  So I think there is an interesting discussion here.  The photocopies seem to fit in with all the things that, in my understanding, interested her about process.

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VR: It’s hard for us to imagine Xerox machines being cutting-edge technology. But they once were.   And there actually were artists exploring Xeroxing in very different ways than Jay. I was at the Walker for the Jack Whitten retrospective, and he was one of three artists who had residencies at Xerox in upstate New York. He was super interested in Xeroxing but used it in completely different ways than Jay DeFeo.

I think the photocopy would push DeFeo’s work into deeper levels of abstraction, but more importantly, it was  a perfect tool for an artist interested in seriality.  She could photocopy something and it became something different, which in turn might give her an idea for something else. So it was a part of a chain of activity of thought.

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TH: I hope everyone will check out the photocopy work before leaving today; I think it is really special. She used the bed of the photocopy machine in the same way you’d make a photogram;  photographic images without using a camera.

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VR:  I was just thinking about her turn to photography in the 70’s. Why did she, as someone who had made these extraordinary large-scale paintings? One of the things I was struck by, talking to Todd and Leah about this, was how artists who make really abrupt changes, often turn to printmaking when they get in a rut or have a difficult point in their lives.  For example, Agnes Martin, when, in 1967, one of her best friends, Ad Reinhart, died. She stopped painting for 7 years and the first work she made after that was a beautiful set of prints called On a Clear Day. And Nicole Eisenman, who had primarily been a painter, went through a divorce and  suddenly took on print making. She said that the studio is so isolating, and she was at a point where she didn’t want to be by herself. She wanted to be out in the world.  Printmaking is a collaborative process.  So Nicole was collaborating with six different printmakers, in New York, just to get out of her studio. I think Jay might have just she needed a break from painting.   Sometimes really difficult moments where you don’t know where you are going can lead to great places.

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JC: Her forays into the world of Xerox making,  seems to me to be part of her interest in exploring ways of seeing.  She made hundreds of photographs during her lifetime, some of which are directly related to paintings and others migrate into another category.  The photocopies are experiments in ways of seeing photographically, ways of seeing the world slightly differently.   And again, with the pairings, take a little time to look at them, and you’ll be able to find, these microscopic differentiations from object to object, and I’m sure in some cases there are probably three or four of them that sort of follow that same phenomenon, but the way that they are paired here, or in trios, is an example of that notion of “I wonder if it were just a little bit different… just 25 degrees the other way, or tilt the axis of my camera another 10 degrees and see the object totally differently.”  This pair right here that I’m looking at (below), I can’t even really determine what the object is, but we are definitely talking about landscape.   At the same time, these are tabletop photographs.  It’s sort of micro/macro in terms of these oppositions that she sees. I think it’s this notion of material exploration, and trying to find new ways of seeing reality.

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TH: You guys are great. Thank you so much taking part in this conversation today. I think we have time to take a couple questions.

Q1: So Jay DeFeo didn’t paint for several years?

TH: When she finished The Rose, she stopped painting for a few years.  Had a hiatus.  Imagine after working for years and years painting this enormous thing that weighed a ton, what a relief it would be to snap a picture.  I mean, she spent a lot of time and effort in the darkroom, doing all of these weird experimental chemical things, really interesting things. But, that instantaneous moment of the shutter opening and closing had to be such a relief, after laboring through that painting.

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Q2: Can you tell us some more about the Seven Dwarves (below)?

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TH: The Seven Dwarves are based on an object. Does anyone have any idea what the object is? It’s a galosh… a lady’s galosh. An old-fashioned rubber thing they’d pull over their shoe and hook over their heel.  It was for high heels. I’ve seen pictures of that galosh in her studio, hanging from a wooden stand. So she had that rubber thing hanging there, and like what Julian was talking about, she looked at it from every angle. She turned it and observed it and turned it and observed it and turned it again. I think with this series and in several of the other series in this show you see an interest in a sort of simultaneous perspective in her work. It’s a cubist thing. She’s trying to represent all sides of something at the same time. She wants to see every side, wants to know every side.   To “know” the thing.

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Q3: I am heartened to hear this conversation about the photocopy work that we haven’t had much opportunity to see before and particularly Julian’s description of it in connection with changing technologies.  I’m curious to hear what you think about how scholarship will continue to broaden this definition of the artist’s work in multiple disciplines—so they are not framed as either a painter or a photographer but the entire oeuvre can be examined.

VR: I think artists are no longer referring to themselves as “painters” or “photographers.”  They call themselves artists. They don’t subscribe to the departmental organizations that we have in museums. Institutions have those categories for a reason… Understanding how photos are made is critical for caring for  photographs.   But at the end of the day, those categories may not actually best serve the artistic process. We create these boxes, but artists are not very interested in sticking to those boxes.  To your point about technology becoming obsolete… that will just get to be a bigger question.  Yes, photocopiers are still widely used. But like this?   I have to tell you, I am currently researching selfies. And how airplane mode come into existence.  I’m looking at these things to understand another artist’s new works. There are already books on the history of the selfie, you know?  So it’s part of our jobs as scholars. Yes, we are absolutely going to be researching these histories, and thinking about them, and unpacking them. That is already happening.

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JC: I don’t have a direct response to your question but a footnote about the notion of the oeuvre and how we understand an artist’s work. The DeFeo Trust has expanded the understanding of this artist’s work partly by working closely with gallerists like Todd. I read an important statistic about this show. This show has 56 works in it, and more than 40 of them have never been shown before. So, that gives you an indication of the work that goes on behind the scenes for those who are custodians of the work. It also shows how much more we have to learn, how much we don’t yet know. We were talking for a bit about photographs today. There’s going to be a whole new generation of scholars and students looking at this work in a new way and tackling different parts of it; it is going to be reinterpreted 25-30 years from now. My own experience working for more than a decade on Julia Margaret Cameron, the great 19th century photographer, was that at the end of that project in some ways I knew less about her, she is that fascinating a character, that amazing an artist. Not to be hyperbolic but I think DeFeo is in the same category. She is a very, very important artist. Some of the issues that we sort of skimmed over today will continue to be explored and talked about and other issues will come up later as scholarship changes and grows. Shows like this have a very important role in that process. So I want to thank Todd and the Trust for putting the show together. We are very fortunate to have a show like this in our community.

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Q4: For us, The Rose (above) is a finished object. But obviously for her, it was seriality taking place. I wonder what are the implications for young artists today of the finished object vs. an artistic practice of becoming art and releasing it?

TH: I think a work is finished when the artist decides it’s finished… or at a point where they are either willing or forced to let go of it. We know that Jay was sort of forced to let go of The Rose. I think that perhaps from The Rose she learned that at some point she had to let go of an individual work, whether or not she was done studying the model the work was based on.  I think The Rose might be 10,000 separate works, not so unlike the works in this exhibition, all laid down one on top of each other.

VR: I have such profound respect for DeFeo spending so many years to create The Rose.  She made it at the tail end of abstract expressionism, when her peers were making paintings in a day.   Imagine spending 8 years on one.  To me, an artist is someone who has no choice but to do what they need to do to be an artist.  To have the will to commit so much to a single work is extraordinary.  I don’t see that with a lot of contemporary artists.  There’s pressure to achieve.  Financially, DeFeo was sort of scraping by for a lot of her life.  Freelance jobs.  A lot of older artists… I was just interviewing an 80-year-old artist who was married to Al Jensen and she was telling me about the 95 day jobs she had so she could work as an artist.  You could do that then. Sol (Lewitt) could be a security guard at MoMA then have all day to make art.  His rent was $85/month in New York.  Now, I don’t know how easy it would be.  There’s pressure on artists to produce a lot of work and quickly because it’s a sheer matter of rent and survival.  But in the 70’s there wasn’t much in the way of an art market… for better or worse.

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Q5: I am wondering if you could talk about Jay DeFeo’s use of geometry, and how certain shapes are part of her visual vocabulary.

TH: The very first show I did of Jay’s work was actually based on her interest in geometry. Circles, triangles, squares, but also that star form that you see in The Rose. Those were things she was looking at throughout her life, over and over and over again because she was so smitten with those shapes. There’s a story about when she was a girl practicing trying to draw a circle perfectly. So those are the kinds of forms that she continued to go to. The reason she took a picture of that tripod, probably, is because she saw a triangle.  With the added bonus of that circular knob. I’d bet that was why she was attracted to the compass as well. On the other hand, if you look at the photocopy of the compasses and the photograph next to it (below), you see she’s interested in looking at those forms that she found in those objects, but then changing them, in this case, anthropomorphizing them. Remember, she talked about her tripod as if it were her friend. She is fascinated with those objects because she sees more in them than we do and that’s why she returns to them.

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JAY DEFEO — ALTER EGO is on view at hosfelt gallery 12 september – 10 october 2015.    this panel discussion took place in the gallery on saturday the 26th of september.

images of artworks © 2015 the jay defeo trust/artists rights society (ars), new york.

exhibition installation shots by and courtesy of david stroud.

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