The pairing of Jasper Johns and Jay DeFeo at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, now through February 3, 2013, offers a unique opportunity to ponder the wildly different paths and fortunes of two artists from the same era, one whose paintings and prints continue to be defined by intellectual distance and reserve, the other whose work exuded an ethereal earthiness. Both artists were included in Sixteen Americans, a star-making exhibition in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg and DeFeo's then-husband, Wally Hedrick, were also featured). Today, that show is a high point of DeFeo's career, while for Johns, his inclusion in a group show at MOMA feels more like a quaint footnote to a fait accompli.
It's easy to see why Johns rather than DeFeo became the household name. For all its high-minded pretension, Johns's work is just the sort of "important," but ultimately decorative, confection that art aficionados of a certain age love to eat up. It helps, too, that Johns is a technical virtuoso, who can be precise, sloppy or both, and he's got a great eye for pleasant, immediately accessible colors.
Jay DeFeo, Origin, 1956; oil on canvas; 92 x 79 3/4 in.; c. 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Sibila Savage
But in their own weird way, DeFeo's paintings, drawings, photographs, collages and pieces of jewelry come off better in 2012. While the meaning behind DeFeo's work may often be ineffable and her output is undeniably spotty, it never suffers from the soul-killing self-consciousness that describes Johns's art products for the 1%. DeFeo was an obsessive, working and reworking one painting, The Rose, from 1958 to 1966. Her struggles stand before us for all to see, her wins as well as her face plants. In contrast, Johns's work is meticulous, calculated and always in control. No wonder it's so boring.
Jay DeFeo, Dove One, 1989; oil on linen; c. 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Ben Blackwell
Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the DeFeo retrospective includes her modernist-inspired copper jewelry from the early 1950s; an impressive collection of thick, impastoed paintings from later in the decade (naturally The Rose, which the Whitney lovingly restored in 1995, is here, but spend some time in front of Origin and The Jewel, too); a fine selection of her photographs and photo collages; the handsome drawings that evolved from her work with the camera; and a small group of intimate drawings and paintings produced in 1989, the year she died of lung cancer at the age of 60. Throughout, DeFeo mostly keeps to a palette that favors shades of black and white, while her subjects frequently appear shrouded and tangled. Though some of her pieces inspired outright awe, as a group they mostly made me feel oddly uncomfortable and nervous, filling me with a vague feeling of discontent.
Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, 1979; c. Jasper Johns and Petersburg Press/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
In contrast, Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye, organized by SFMOMA, is little more than a provincial victory lap -- most of the pieces were borrowed from local collections and a few even document catalytic moments the artist experienced in San Francisco, albeit with other New Yorkers. Out here in the hinterlands, we take our brushes with greatness any way we can, I guess.
Sarcasm aside, the constraints of the show have determined that attendees will see a lot of Johns multiples collected by the Andersons and Fishers (of the 91 pieces in the show, more than a third are prints from the Numbers series), as well as a handful of paintings belonging to the Schwabs (0 through 9 from 1960 is the best thing here) and a few from Johns himself (apparently it's a big deal that we are all getting to see Bushbaby from 2005 for the first time). This exhibition also happens to have seven prints based on a quartet of paintings called The Seasons, which are riddled with references to works by Leonardo da Vinci, George Ohr and Pablo Picasso. Modestly, Johns inserts his work in here, too, along with a crude silhouette of his shadow.
Jasper Johns, Bushbaby, 2005; c. Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
To be fair, Johns has never claimed to be an emotional artist, comfortable with his characterization by Willem de Kooning as a "sign painter," nor is he obliged to be more. But it was a little bit sad to see how consistently he has hidden behind his motifs, be they numbers, maps, targets, flags or, in the case of The Seasons, his own shadow. In comparison, DeFeo's truncated life, at least as evidenced by her art, is the picture of fearlessness.
Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye and Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective continue through February 3, 2013, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For more information, visit sfmoma.org.