Saturday, January 05, 2013

Jay DeFeo; Jasper Johns

Eastside Road, January 5, 2013—
•Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective
•Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye

Exhibitions at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through February 3, 2013

WE LEAVE IN JUST a few days for distant parts; the last thing I should be doing this morning is writing. And the last thing I want to address, in writing, is painting; particularly the painting we saw a few days ago. Painting is ineffable. There are those who feel it absurd to address music with words; the whole point of music is that it dispenses with verbal language, even with the kind of conceptualization and cognition that is associated with verbal language. The same can be said about painting.

And, in a way, this paradox is among the most significant aspects of the two shows in question. But my complaint is that of a lazy writer: if these painters can address the objects of their contemplations with paint, a writer can investigate their work with his words. Alas, these exhibitions present, especially in the case of Jay DeFeo, the contemplation and work of a lifetime; I have only an hour or two. Well, that's journalism.

Jay DeFeo is best known for The Rose, the canvas she began in 1958 and left — one can't say either "finished" or "abandoned," "parted from" is perhaps the best way to put it — in 1966. The work began at the end of the Beat era, you might say, and ended during the flower-child generation. DeFeo was never anything remotely resembling a hippie, and one of the several "meanings" of this great icon of 20th-century art, to me, is its suggestion of independent, individual, uncontrovertible aloofness from the excesses of the 1960s. It almost stands as a caution against them, warning that in spite of all social (and pharmacological) evasions, certain forces of nature, certain undeniable truths will stand; they will even outlive human awareness of them.

The Rose stands at one end of the axis of the main room in this exhibition; The Eyes at the other — a huge drawing, graphite on paper, nearly four by seven feet, of a pair of eyes, the artist's own, I'm sure. The primary subject of DeFeo's work was always that unverbalizable thing that comes between the eyes and the physical object they look at, or see. You can look at seeing, Duchamp wrote, but you can't hear hearing. True: but can you see seeing? That's the question that I, um, see DeFeo contemplating throughout her career.

After The Rose, for various personal reasons having to do with living accommodations and so on, she either lapsed from art-making (in the sense of making physical objects) or worked in smaller formats. Among the fascinating things here is a collection of tiny sculptures the hoi polloi might think of as jewelry: they made me think of that wonderful Dutch artist, Onno Boekhoudt. They clearly record the same focussed and deliberate work — observing, seeing, contemplating, making — that had characterized her painting.

For a number of years she contemplated what others might think of as detritus: broken 78rpm shellac records; dental bridges; a photographer's tripod; lenses. What she saw in these items was something we cannot really see ourselves; she doesn't really depict them. She was seized, I think, by a purely visual (not at all visible meaning that lay within their contours, beyond their substance, behind their color. I'm certain that meaning amounted to a language of visual contemplations, a personal language, evolved, whether spontaneously or the result of long mental effort, to the end of finding another, more cosmic kind of meaning.

I'm sorry this is vague and mystical; journalism should probably never open this kind of door; it should capture facts and actions, not drive them into ineffability. Fortunately we have artists, among the most successful of them Jay DeFeo, to let them loose again, to soar beyond verbal language and join that cosmos.
Where DeFeo works to nearly a mystical effect, Johns, it seems to me, is more clearly what's generally thought of as "intellectual": in the lineage of 20th-century American art, I think of him as the continuation of Robert Motherwell. I quoted Johns here the other day, when I was ruminating over a show of Diebenkorn etchings:
Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.
At the time I had read this as a dismissal of both actions; now I see it's merely a refusal to prioritize between the two. What Johns does, clearly, as Diebenkorn does come to think of it, is constantly adjust between seeing and doing, or rather adjust the record of the activity between seeing and doing. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the adjustments we all must make between our prior experience, and the mental and emotional stance we develop in the wake of that experience, and the new discoveries we make through new experience, especially those revealed by art and contemplation.

There's more to be said, but not today.

•Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective
•Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye

Exhibitions at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through February 3, 2013
151 Third Street, San Francisco; Friday-Tuesday 11am-5:45pm, Thursday 11am-8:45 pm, closed Wednesdays

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