Untitled (Shoetree series)

Jay DeFeo American

Not on view

As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, DeFeo was exposed to the teachings of Hans Hofmann, non-Western art, mysticism, and both art and architectural history, all of which would have an enduring impact on her work. After graduating, she settled in San Francisco, where she was involved in the Six Gallery, along with Wally Hedrick (her husband), Manuel Neri, Bruce Conner, and Wallace Berman, among others. Through this same circle, DeFeo was initiated into the artist collective known as the Rat Bastard Protective Society in 1958, the same year she commenced one of her most significant works, The Rose (1958–66; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), and one year before she appeared in Dorothy Miller's pioneering exhibition "Sixteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. DeFeo's and Hedrick's home became a meeting place for a wide range of artists, poets, and musicians in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Around 1965, DeFeo left the Bay Area for Marin County and ceased painting for six years, eventually resuming her practice in the early 1970s. Although close to both the Beats and the Bay Area Funk artists, DeFeo cultivated a singular approach to art that is difficult to attach to any one movement or style. Over the course of her career, she experimented with a wide variety of media, from photocollage and graphite to plaster, tempera, and oil paint, consistently probing the relationship between abstraction and representation, always with a rigorous attention to form.

By 1977, the year Untitled was created, DeFeo devoted a great deal of attention to drawing, usually beginning with an identifiable, vaguely anthropomorphic object as her source of formal and conceptual inspiration. These ranged from lightbulbs, tape dispensers, and water goggles to jewelry, tripods, and, in the case of Untitled, shoetrees. Here, DeFeo renders an ordinary shoetree strange and uncanny. Neither entirely abstract nor entirely representational, the work is deeply associative: the abstracted form of the shoetree has lost its legibility but not its connotative power, evoking a range of both objects and emotions. DeFeo made the drawing with graphite, charcoal, and acrylic in a restricted palette of whites, grays, and blacks. Glossy areas of varnish applied to select sections contrast with the otherwise matte finish. Such an approach deliberately draws attention to the artist's process. Indeed, the work is imbued with traces of the artist's hand as it crossed the surface of the paper, drawing, applying, and smudging media. DeFeo's strokes range from the linear to the gestural, moving in different directions to create a sense of inherent dynamism. The work's formal and compositional instability complements the indeterminacy of the motif, which resists definitive interpretation and by extension, resolution.

This period in DeFeo’s career culminated in an important 1978 exhibition at the University Art Museum at the University of California at Berkeley, which featured Untitled and many other drawings. In the accompanying brochure, DeFeo noted, "Over the years I have worked either from the subjective world of my imagination, finding the image through my response to, and manipulation of the materials I work with or working from the objective world of reality . . . discovering the image among the relationships of forms in the common objects that I am using for models. The process becomes a play between my control over the materials and an open or permissive attitude toward technique, allowing it to mold the image as it will."[1] With this in mind, Untitled might be understood as an intensely process-driven work, the result of a generative dialogue between the artist, her tools, her gestures, and her "model," the shoetree.

[1] Quoted in Henry T. Hopkins, Jay DeFeo: Matrix/Berkeley 11. Exh. brochure. Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1978, unpaginated, from a conversation with Hopkins, June 23, 1978.

Untitled (Shoetree series), Jay DeFeo (American, Hanover, New Hampshire 1929–1989 Oakland, California), Graphite, charcoal and acrylic on paper, selectively varnished

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© 2023 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork. Photography: Ben Blackwell.