There are many museums around the world that own DeFeo photographs, including Centre Pompidou, Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, San Francisco Museum of Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and the Center for Creative Photography, and her photographs are currently entering the collection of the Tate Modern.
Born Mary Joan DeFeo in 1929, she took the name Jay DeFeo in her teens, choosing a unisex name to eliminate any gender association to herself and her work. She grew up in New Hampshire, San Francisco, Colorado, and San Jose. DeFeo was a highly motivated student who discovered her passion for the arts in high school. She studied at University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Bachelor's and Master’s degrees. Upon graduation, DeFeo was awarded a fellowship to study art in Europe and North Africa; she studied prehistoric art in Spain and France, as well as Renaissance art in Florence, where she lived for six months. In Europe she was particularly influenced by Abstract Expressionism, the pure lines of Italian architecture and a growing fascination with Asian, African and pre-historic art. While DeFeo originally poured her talents into creating jewelry to make a living, she eventually discovered her passion for painting as well. In 1959 she had her first solo exhibition at the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco. In the same year she was featured as one of The Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans, an exhibit that included the work of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Louise Nevelson, among others. In 1960 she had a second solo exhibit at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. During the 1960’s she withdrew from the art world to concentrate on a monumental work called The Rose, which blurred the boundary between sculpture and painting. In 1970, she expanded her mediums to include photography, in addition to painting and jewelry making. In 1981, she joined the faculty at Mills College in Oakland, California.
Refusing to identify with a specific artistic movement, DeFeo is most commonly associated with the Abstract Expressionist and the Beat Generation artists; however, she often combined representation with abstraction, organic rhythms with geometric form, and refinement with expressionism. DeFeo, along with her husband and fellow artist, were the epicenter of a dynamic community of Beat artists, poets, and musicians in San Francisco. in 2013, there was a retrospective celebrating her artistic career at the Whitney Museum of American Art that highlighted her unconventional approach to materials and intensive physical process, both of which made her a highly innovative artist of the Twentieth Century.
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