Earth and Paint

Saturday morning on my street is quiet, especially now that the library next door is closed for renovations (boo!).  I heard my first bird sing in the courtyard.  I got my errands done quickly.

The Whitney was quiet, too, just right for the spirit of the Jay DeFeo retrospective.  The exhibit provides insights into the development of her eye and style, which means it works well as a retrospective.  She made a formative trip to Florence on a fellowship, the only women to get one, and incorporated religious imagery into her work.  She saw the Abstract Expressionists working in New York in the early 1950s.

One gallery displaying only a handful of very large works show how she brought these two impulses together.  Her most famous work is “Rose,” which is set off in its own alcove like a side chapel of a Romanesque church.  The work is a spiritual experience. The Whitney has lit it with reverence.  I got to stand in front of it in silence and meditate, as no one else was around.  I imagine this is what the artist did, too.

DeFeo worked on it for 8 years, starting in 1958, never quite getting what she was after.  Soon the paint built up to 11″ thick in some places, and she carved into it, creating this 1500 pounds work.  The museum in the San Francisco area couldn’t conserve it, so the work transitioned to the Whitney.  Their conservation efforts led to the show.

The work is magnificent, but I loved some of the others as much, if not more.  “Jewel” and “Incision” are mesmerizing.

She shows off the age old division between designo, focused on line, and colore, celebrating color.  Her palette is muted to say the least.  She often works in black, white and gray.  But texture and form is her passion. The work looks like Land Art meets spirit–organic, earthy, luscious.


This is “Incision.”  The picture doesn’t do it justice.  But you can see its cave-like quality.  That is paint.





I stood in front of “Veronica” from 1957 for a long time.   The paint build up creates so much movement.  I was swept along on a rush of water-like energy, although the color palette is earthen.

My mother made paintings and prints that resemble this, which may be why I resonated so much with DeFeo’s work.




I think you can skip everything else that’s at the Whitney right now, and go stand in that one gallery.  Be transported to her world.  It’s a great journey.