DeFeo at Berkeley: Developing the Art Department from 1946 - 1951

 Unknown photographer Jay DeFeo in Webster Street studio, Berkeley, with unidentified painting.   1951 Reference no. R0414 © 2018 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York

Unknown photographer
Jay DeFeo in Webster Street studio, Berkeley, with unidentified painting.   1951
Reference no. R0414
© 2018 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York

Of the artists featured in the “Way Bay” exhibition at BAMPFA, it comes as no surprise that some of the best started their careers at UC Berkeley.  Jay DeFeo (1929-89) is a notable female artist of the Beat generation with works as diverse as the materials used to make them.  Her most famous piece The Rose (1958-66) is a monumental painting made of plaster that nearly weighs a ton[1].  When DeFeo attended Berkeley from 1946-51, its Art Department was caught between the end of Cubism[2] and the development of Abstract Expressionism.  This learning environment provided a formalist base that she combined with mixed-media experimentation.  DeFeo’s time at Berkeley would prove to be a seminal experience that informed the art of her 40-year long career.

As the first studio-practice department in a national university, Berkeley’s Art Department was one of the most progressive when it was created within the College of Letters and Science[3].  The program combined esthetics, practice, and art history and included distinguished artists as guest instructors (DeFeo returned as a visiting artist in 1980-81).  The department’s pedagogy was heavily influenced by Hans Hofmann, a renown German artist who had taught at Berkeley in the summers of 1930 and 1931.  His philosophy of painting involved a strict adherence to a rigorous practice in reductive, modern painting.  Though this approach was demanding, DeFeo credited her professors for imparting a “tremendous awareness of what a creative direction was and how to expand upon it.[4]

This disciplined approach stands in contrast to the current art practice website that lists “encouraging guided experimentation” as a defining feature of the department[5].  When DeFeo enrolled in 1946, Berkeley’s studio arts program was known for its strict formalism.  A “hierarchy of media[6]” structured the curriculum: mediums were organized progressively and separate from each other.  As students advanced from drawing to painting, DeFeo mixed mediums and used unorthodox materials to resist this controlled study of art. 

 Unknown photographer UC Berkeley student Jay DeFeo standing next to untitled 1951 painting, Berkeley, CA  1951 Reference no. R0417 © 2018 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York. 

Unknown photographer
UC Berkeley student Jay DeFeo standing next to untitled 1951 painting,
Berkeley, CA  1951
Reference no. R0417
© 2018 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York. 

During her first semester, DeFeo registered for two art courses along with anthropology, reading and composition, and French[7].  Her spring semester included the first of three art history classes that she took with Walter Horn, a medievalist and the first art historian in the University of California system[8].  Her courses on medieval, Renaissance, and Asian art taught by Horn (and Otto Mäenchen-Helfen) left a lasting impression.  These courses emphasized architecture, which intensified a study of geometric form that continued through her career.  She even kept notes from lectures on Renaissance architecture through the 1970’s[9].  

In her second year, DeFeo fulfilled general requirements for her degree, including physiology and psychology.  She also took the Survey of Expressions in Materials[10], an art course where students explore the properties of using metal, wood, glass, and clay in their work.  Her first sculpture class-- offered through the Architecture Department (sculpture wasn’t absorbed by the Art Department until 1959[11])-- only provided one material, “[a] terrible plasticine,” which pushed DeFeo to experiment with plaster.  Her sculptures also included rags and sticks, but only plaster became a medium that she would later revisit.

One of the most impactful faculty members for DeFeo was the only female in the department, Margaret Peterson O’Hagan.  Her classes like Advanced Drawing and Painting, which DeFeo was enrolled in, were extremely disciplined.  DeFeo later wrote: “I may have done a lot of rotten paintings [for her], but… I was able to understand what she was really talking about… in terms of getting to the core of an idea, visually and psychologically at once… That sounds pretentious as hell… in fact it blew the ribbon on the soul of the Remington Noiseless[12].”  After excelling in her art classes, DeFeo also joined Berkeley’s art honor society, Delta Epsilon.  She graduated in 1950, then entered the studio art graduate program in the fall.

 Untitled, Paris Jay DeFeo University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Untitled, Paris
Jay DeFeo
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

While DeFeo was at Berkeley, the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) became the hub for contemporary art activity in the Bay Area.  With professors like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, DeFeo recognized that “the impetus of that movement was so powerful that it was really felt by everyone[13].”  There was minimal interest in the New York Abstract Expressionists at Berkeley since the movement’s characteristic openness didn’t match the rigorous academics.  The most exposure DeFeo had to these new approaches of representation, abstraction, and form came from reproductions in art magazines[14].  When she received Berkeley’s competitive Sigmund Martin Heller Traveling Fellowship in 1951, DeFeo wanted to use her limited but liberating knowledge of Abstract Expressionism with what she had been formally taught.

Away from the constraints of school (and from home for the first time), DeFeo began to find her own voice.  She first stayed in Paris and the resulting “Paris” series is a group of mixed-media works on paper that examined an object or set of forms[15]-- form was not only DeFeo’s strength at Berkeley[16], but also prevalent in other San Francisco art of the early fifties.  These series are also referred to as her “gray” paintings and include the atmospheric gray and orange Untitled (Paris) (1951) in BAMPFA’s current show. 

For the rest of her career, DeFeo never produced pieces like those from the fellowship and considers them as her only truly Abstract Expressionist-like works.  As she revisited Renaissance architecture and other sites from her art history education, the variety of philosophical and visual knowledge imparted by her professors was just as valuable as the influence of Abstract Expression around her.  Berkeley’s impact on DeFeo can best be understood through a simultaneous embrace and rejection of the school’s formal approach to art. 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://collection.whitney.org/object/10075

[2] Oral history interview with Jay DeFeo, 1975 June 3-1976 Jan. 23, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3]University of California. John C. Haley: In Memoriam. 1991. 

[4]Dana Miller. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective. 2012.

[5]http://art.berkeley.edu/programs/undergraduate-program/

[6]Sidra Stich. Jay DeFeo: Works on Paper. 1989.

[7]Michael Duncan. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective. 2012.

[8]University of California. Walter Horn: In Memoriam. 1996. 

[9] Stich. Jay DeFeo: Works on Paper.

[10] Miller. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.

[11] University of California. UC History. http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/uchistory/general_history/

[12]Miller. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.

[13]Duncan. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.

[14]Miller. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.

[15]Brigid Doherty.  Jay DeFeo: Works on Paper. 1989

[16] Constance Lewallen. The Florence View and Related Works. 1997.