If you back your way into the Jay DeFeo exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you’ll discover, as I did, a group of five oil paintings in the final gallery. The works are small by today’s standards of monumentality and smaller still by the standards of DeFeo’s most famous work, The Rose. The Rose, occupying its own alcove earlier in the show, is large in every way, even by today’s standards of audacity. Its 2,300 pounds of paint not only expand into three spatial dimensions—its depth measurable in inches and mappable as a topography of hill and valley—but also inflate to a fourth dimension: time, the eight years DeFeo took to create the work.
The paintings in the final gallery were all created in 1989—the year of the last big San Francisco earthquake and the year DeFeo died of lung cancer. The earthquake gave no notice of its imminence, but the intimacy of these paintings, their seeming modesty, might be interpreted to represent DeFeo’s attempt to contain the uncertainty of the time, an attempt to ground herself in an ungrounded world. But for me the paintings demonstrate something very different—something that might be said to characterize all of DeFeo’s work.
DeFeo is a master of scale. Her works pack the monumentality we usually associate only with the physically enormous into immense and modest spaces alike. Dove One, which seems to present a dying dove—its eye, its breast, its ruffled wing—is also an immense landscape: a desert void, from which black, white, and gray emerge, first calmly and then with increasing frenzy. If the dove seems to be in repose in one instant, in death in another, the image will not allow these conclusions to rest, for I am overtaken by motion, a roiling river of color that threatens to break into the gallery, and by enormity, as the bird transforms into landscape. All of this happens within the confines of 16 by 20 inches.
This magic is the result not only of what seems to be a patient layering of color—patience is, after all, a hallmark of The Rose, whose construction consumed DeFeo for years—but also her compositional choices. DeFeo contends with space as much as with the objects that fill it. This is an activity of all artists, but rarely do artworks demonstrate this central theme so compellingly. DeFeo demonstrates again and again her capacity to place an “object” in a void as if there were no other place in the field from which the object might emerge. She animates the background, transforming it into an actor itself and the painting into a conversation between two figures.
It’s not really necessary to reverse the chronological order of the exhibition to discover DeFeo’s capacity to engage space. But having experienced works like Dove One, Room with a View, and Last Valentine, I was primed to recognize the intimacy DeFeo conjures in much larger works like Hawk Moon No. 2, Origin, and even The Rose. The figure in Hawk Moon No. 2 flows through the painting’s 40-square-foot space, embodying, as a friend put it, the grace of graffiti. Not all graffiti is graceful or resembles a DeFeo, but it is a characteristic of that form to place itself into spaces that it cannot claim but with which it must contend and engage. In Hawk Moon No. 2, neither figure nor background triumphs over the other. DeFeo portrays instead the arena in which the black “background” and the gray and white “foreground” challenge each other and then negotiate their claims. In fact, I am swept up as much by the inevitability of this black as I am by the poetry of the gray and white, by the ways in which the black refuses to limit itself to containing or even contending. Instead, it seems to collaborate as actor in the formation of its gray curves and the white angles.
The gray and white, like all of DeFeo’s figures, emerges from its background the way clouds materialize in the sky. The materiality of clouds—palpable, enormous, yet almost nothing—is as confusing as is their agency—powerful and compliant, predictable and arbitrary. Clouds appear as objects moving in space, rather than what they are: atmosphere, the creations of space. The dove, the smudge in Room with a View, even the heart in Last Valentine, appear neither willfully nor arbitrarily, but like a cloud, only where and when the right atmospheric conditions conspire to generate them; and each extends only to the places where these precise conditions persist.
In Unknown Image, a drawing of the broken handle of a teacup, DeFeo defines three dimensions and in doing so builds a universe with the object at its center. The space with which DeFeo contends multiplies into these three dimensions: the space within and about the shard and its handle, the space on the paper that surrounds the figure, and also the space of the board on which DeFeo has pasted the drawing paper. The cup handle seems to both dig in and emerge from the paper and so defines a horizontal that violates the flatness of the picture. By pasting the drawing to its support and leaving the unfinished board visible, DeFeo, in effect, emphasizes the work’s flatness and verticality. The result both confuses the space and expands it in all directions, so at moments it seems as if I were looking into a cube. If The Rose is sculpture by virtue of the build-up of a ton of paint, Unknown Image is virtual sculpture because it achieves an embodied experience using only visual tools.
In The Rose, DeFeo shows us something new that paint could be: both a building-up and decaying-away material. The Rose speaks not so much to the flower deconstructed or evoked, but to the “rose window,” a place to see and through which to see, a meditation on the act of seeing that becomes a meditation on the act of inhabiting space. All that building up and decaying away, the consequence of so much time and so much material, cannot fail but to evoke the effect of time on the experience of space. The flattened Unknown Image is not without the qualities that the furrowed Rose demonstrates: in both, DeFeo delivers space to us.
DeFeo marshals space as a condition, not as an emptiness inhabited by objects and beings, but as a co-habitant filled, as well, with itself. Her works share a goal, conscious or not, with that of phenomenological artists such as Robert Smithson and Richard Serra, to marshal space as their primary medium and transform it into the unavoidable experience of the art participant. Like Serra’s and Smithson’s, DeFeo’s works evince the effects of this co-habitation: her space becomes our space. The viewer may not be able to explain the laws that govern object and space in DeFeo’s artwork any better than he or she is able to explain cloud formation; and I am at a loss to account for the simultaneous intimacy and monumentality. DeFeo’s masterworks of scale, technique, and most of all, space, however, account for everything. They reveal the reciprocal relationships between objects, including ourselves, and the spaces that contain them, including the universe.
Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and its effect on self and society. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and in visual and critical studies from the California College of the Arts. Marks recently won the Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research for his essay, “The Site of Imaginative Contention.”
 The label in this gallery informs me that, in fact, it was DeFeo’s failing stamina that forced her to work small.
The wall plaque informs me that DeFeo was inspired to paint Dove One after attempting to save a wounded bird.
The comparison to Serra is even more apt than this. As his 2011 drawing retrospective demonstrated, even when Serra works on paper, resulting drawings intervene, as Serra intended them, into space.