This October, HoMA presents Photographic Manipulations, a selection of non-traditional photographs from the permanent collection that allude to themes of identity, fantasy, and the altered landscape. Works on view present psychologically complex and expressive images created through traditional collage, photomontage, and staged scenes and include two of artist Jay DeFeo’s original photographic collages. The untitled pieces from 1973 are frequently reproduced in catalogue raisonnés on the artist and represent a pivotal point in her career.
Born Mary Joan DeFeo in 1929, her family moved to California when she was a young child and eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay area. She attended college at UC Berkeley in the early 1950s when New York Abstract Expressionism was the dominant style of painting. The Bay Area Figurative movement also developed during the 1950s when artists including David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn departed from pure abstraction and returned to depicting the human figure and landscape. Throughout her career, DeFeo incorporated elements of figuration with gestural, expressive brushstrokes, and her paintings and drawings were intentionally symbolic and spiritual, rather than concerned with pure formal abstraction.
Although she continued to incorporate the loose and energetic brushwork associated with expressionism, she was interested in a wide range of art historical movements and was an integral part of San Francisco’s Beat community. Forging her own aesthetic, she preferred to work in various media including paint, plaster, wire, metal, jewelry, graphite, photography, and collage, primarily in a limited palette of black, grey, and white. Although she produced hundreds of diverse works, DeFeo is most known for her monumental painting The Rose (1958-66), which she worked on almost exclusively for nearly eight years. Comprised of many layers of paint, mica, and wood on canvas, and in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, it weighs 2,300 pounds and is over 10 feet high.
In 1972 DeFeo became interested in photography, bought a camera, and constructed a darkroom in her home where she developed photographs to use in collages. In 1973 she produced a significant group of photo collages inspired by her friendship with the pioneering multi-media artist Bruce Conner. At the time, Conner and DeFeo spoke regularly on the phone with Conner encouraging DeFeo to look to everyday objects as a source of imagery. These works, two of which are included in HoMA’s exhibition, incorporate pictures of household items such as plants, telephones, furniture, fans, and lightbulbs which have been cut up, recombined, and assembled in surrealistic compositions.
In much the same way artists frequently use the media of drawing to work out ideas, photo collages allowed DeFeo to expand her exploration of the aesthetic and expressive possibilities inherent in merging recognizable and abstracted imagery. Throughout her career, many compositions developed around a central image or motif such as a cross, sunburst, or circular form, and these patterns appear in her photographic pieces. Untitled (for B.C.) incorporates two photos of an aloe vera plant inverted one above the other creating a sunburst design. (The sunburst also serves as the central motif of The Rose.) These dynamic collages provide a unique glimpse into DeFeo’s creative process and are remarkable examples from this groundbreaking artist’s oeuvre.
Photographic Manipulations will be on view in the Works on Paper Gallery starting Oct. 25 through Jan. 20, 2019.