Jay DeFeo, Forgotten Female Beat Artist, Gets Her Due

Photo: Courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art

If painters could produce one-hit wonders, then Jay DeFeo’s The Rose would rise up the charts. The Berkeley-born artist, acclaimed for her 2,000-pound oil painting that she painted, repainted, and chiseled away at over a span of eight years, is finally receiving recognition for her other works, most of which were overshadowed by her monolithic gray-and-white piece. “This is an artist who’s recognized for one work, but has had a career for 40 years,” explains Dana Miller, the curator behind the artist’s upcoming Whitney retrospective. “Being an artist didn’t seem like a choice for her. There was an internal motivation as it wasn’t imaginable to have a viable and lucrative career back then,” Miller says. “The fact that she’s known for one work does a disservice to her career.”

Starting on February 28, the Whitney aims to change that. The museum will feature over 150 items from the more eclectic pockets of her work, including small-scale wire sculptures and jewelry pieces she crafted to support herself financially during her Beat-era years in Berkeley; “gray” period paintings, from when she traveled to Paris and spent her days working indoors; her response pieces to the Abstract Expressionist period; plaster sculptures; and finally, her “build up, build down” photo collages that she formed post-Rose, using a similar, labor-intensive process. According to Miller, DeFeo was a woman married to her work, who was creating not for the marketplace but for her peer group, whether that meant her fellow Beat-era creatives at the legendary Six Gallery or even just herself. Click through the slideshow to see snapshots of a young Jay working on her massive masterpiece in her studio as well as her graphite paintings and photo collages that the Whitney will display through June 2.

Jay DeFeo, Forgotten Female Artist, Gets Her Due