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Jay DeFeo

American
(1929–1989)

Dr. Jazz
1958

Ink, acrylic, graphite, synthetic polymer, and tinsel on paper
125.5 x 42.5 x 3.5 in. (318.77 x 107.95 x 8.89 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
2001.11

Jay DeFeo, like other women who gave rise to San Francisco’s distinctive contribution to abstract expressionism, had no qualms about embracing the antidecorative aesthetic generally equated with the machismo that returning veterans brought to the West Coast movement after World War II. Often associated with the beat generation because of her friendship with many of the Bay Area’s maverick poets and assemblage artists, DeFeo’s work of the 1950s generally consisted of gritty, monochromatic gesture paintings in which paint is laid on several inches thick, as if with a mason’s trowel. Her most celebrated painting, The Rose (1958–66), measures eleven inches deep and weighs more than a ton. She was so single-mindedly dedicated to this work that it took an eviction to force her to remove it from her studio. This required her to tear down a wall and hoist it from a window—an event immortalized in Bruce Conner’s film The White Rose (1965).

The torrential Dr. Jazz is another of DeFeo’s best-known paintings. Like many of her peers, she embedded detritus from her surroundings in her works—in this case tinsel from a Christmas tree. The “jazz” of the title is, in particular, bebop, which served as an inspirational mainstay for DeFeo and her husband, Wally Hedrick, who played banjo in the jazz band of the California School of Fine Arts. As the “Dr.” implies, jazz was a source of healing for DeFeo and her circle, with its improvisational mastery and shared ideal of spiritual purity. In this painting, DeFeo represents jazz as a wellspring issuing from a vessel form reminiscent of a Greek amphora. At its base is the shape of a heart, suggesting the music’s soulful authenticity. The seminal place of jazz is also alluded to in this work’s invocation of a phallus, often found in Hedrick’s more explicit paintings.

Susan Landauer


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