Jay DeFeo, Mary Joan DeFeo, was a painter and a photographer who is best known for her gigantic, mandala-like abstract paintings of the late 1950s. She replaced the spontaneous action of Abstract Expressionism with an obsessive repetition of simple gestures. In 1958, she began working on a pair of mandala-inspired paintings, “The Rose” and “The Jewel.” This work would last for eight years. By the time she began these two paintings, she was locally recognized as one of the most important young painters in the Bay Area.
DeFeo received a B.A. in 1950 and an M.A. in 1951 from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1951, she received a fellowship and studied painting in Florence. She said the her extended stay working in a studio in Florence was the foundational episode in her career. There she made hundreds of works on paper, using tempera, acrylic, ink, chalk, and graphite from 1951 to 1954.
Upon her return she settled in San Francisco where she became aligned with the San Francisco Bay Area painters and poets of the Beat Generation. In 1954, she married painter Wally Hedrick. They would divorce in 1969.
While working on her legendary painting, “The Rose,” DeFeo’s was also making “Incision.” This work is a great gray slab of 9-inch-thick oil paint, almost 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide, sutured with string. This piece took almost three years to paint from 1958-1961. It was a boundary-crossing emblem for Abstract Expressionism and was included in “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
“The Rose,” measured 10’ 9” by 7’ 8,” weighed over a ton, and took her seven years from 1958-1966 to complete. It was never intended to be shown in a gallery or museum. She refused to to exhibit and showed it and “The Jewel” only to her husband, friends, and a few collectors and curators, who visited her apartment. When carving away at the accumulated paint, the mound of paint drippings that formed on the floor beneath “the Rose” made her studio “a prehistoric cave” according to the artist and sculptor Bruce Conner. She had its many stages of development documented by professional photographers or friends. She also had herself photographed with the painting. In one photo she is posed naked – seen from the back – standing with arms outstretched in front of its mammoth size. When she was finally forced to abandon the studio where she was woking, the side of the building had to be cut away so that the painting could be removed.
It had been lost but was rediscovered, walled up for twenty years at the San Francisco Art Institute. It is now in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Her painting “The Jewel” is similar to “The Rose” in color and form. However, its size and weight is nowhere as massive or as heavy. It is almost sculptural since it is composed of thickly encrusted layers of paint, structured around a central point from which rays extend out. It evokes celestial, religious, and anthropomorphic interpretations. This work resides in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In 1966, after completing “The Rose,” De Feo stopped painting for four years. During this break, she taught at various colleges, eventually becoming a tenured professor at Mills College in Oakland, California. When she resumed making art, she worked extensively in photo-collage with very concrete bodily references. Her 1972-1973 photographic self-portraits brought together all kinds of different objects, such as jewelry and even her own teeth. Her work in the 1980s included photographs, collages, drawings, and paintings typically in black and white though sometimes featuring vibrant jewel tones. In 1987, she made a series of photocopied images of tissue boxes.
De Feo’s career was disrupted by her ruined health. Her premature death resulted from years of handling lead paint.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, the Menil Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Norton Simon Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the British Museum, and Centre Pompidou. The Whitney Museum of AmericanArt holds the largest public collection of her work.