jay de feo & the rose

jay de feo was a new england born contemporary visual artist who created a diverse body of mixed media work over four decades (1950-1990, approximately), based primarily out of the san francisco bay area before succumbing to cancer in 1989 at age 60.  best known for her magnum opus, the rose, currently owned by the whitney museum, the densely layered and uniquely tactile quality of her work has become her trademark throughout her drawing, painting, and photography. the elusiveness and protean nature of her style has defied easy categorization, thus resulting in her being branded everything from a beat artist due to her personal and professional links to that period in san francisco, an expressionist or abstract expressionist in regard to her private language, spirituality and iconography, and most recently her inclusion in the so-called feminist art pantheon, though the last is probably the label with which she would have been least comfortable.

jay de feo, the rose, 1958-1966, oil on canvas with wood and mica, whitney museum of american art, new york, gift of the estate of jay de feo and purchase with funds from the contemporary painting and sculpture committee and the judith rothschild foundation

at the time of its completion, the mammoth painting measured 11 by 8 feet, weighed over a ton and took over 8 years of the artist’s life, though that was in part due to an inactive period resulting from her illness.  ultimately, what is so remarkable about this work is its transcendent quality built upon seemingly inherent contradictions.  the thick impasto which defines the depth of the rose belies its grace, radiance and spirituality–though buried under its own weight it reflects nothing but light.  the neutral color scheme, another standard characteristic of her work, is here manipulated by the artist so deftly that what would in other hands be a chiaroscuro painting hidden in shadow and defined by negative space, as many of the old masters triumphantly exemplified, becomes an inverted black hole with the light at the center of the work advancing toward the viewer rather than buckling in on itself.

while compared to works by other female artists of the time, particularly those of eva hesse and lee bontecou, and called (pejoratively?) the “female version of jackson pollock”, the rose is self-contained and singular.  though the argument can be made to substantiate de feo’s influence by her exposure to native american and african art in her early years and studies stateside and in england, the naturalism and symbolism is all the artist’s own.  she employs neutrals to emphasize the purity of the work, creates a sculptural quality that is unmatched in contemporary–or primitive–painting, and abstracts the line and form of the space in an innovative, avant-garde way resulting in a two-dimensional icon.  most people are unfamiliar with her art and it’s a shame because she is responsible for one of the most timeless, progressive, hybrid examples of post-war american art to be found.  jay de feo, called the “impressionist of cosmic space,” developed her own language to unify the eternal and the ordinary in a composition over years of additive and reductive technique built up around an asymmetrical focal point to create an organic, spatial, mysterious burst of light.  the artist, in 1958, photographed next to the work she described as “the central effort” of her life. (biographical info supplemented by the link above)

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