The close friendship between Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner, leading figures on the San Francisco art scene, is the stuff of bohemian legend. They spoke to each other so often that DeFeo nicknamed Conner “Telephone,” and their long, meandering conversations spilled over into their work. A captivating two-person show at the Paula Cooper Gallery, “We Are Not What We Seem,” is the first to consider their constructive and touching influence on each other.
DeFeo, who died in 1989, at age 60, is known for a single work, her astounding “Rose,” a monumental accretion of oil paint that consumed her for more than seven years. Working in her apartment on Fillmore Street, she applied pigment in gloppy impastos, then chiseled into the paint. What finally emerged was an 11-foot-tall, ash-gray slab incised with a central starburst radiating white lines. The piece (which, by a happy coincidence, is now on view in the permanent-collection galleries of the Whitney Museum of American Art) has a visionary energy and can put you in mind of William Blake’s blazing 19th-century suns.
In 1965, unable to afford a rent increase, DeFeo received an eviction notice. She worried that “The Rose” was unmovable. By then it weighed more than a ton and was too cumbersome to fit through the front door. Alternate plans were devised. We know all this because Conner, who is often described as the father of music videos, made a much-loved short film, “THE WHITE ROSE,” that documents the drama of moving day and comes with a Miles Davis score. You will want to watch all seven minutes of it in the current show. It’s a fascinating historical document: Several Bekins moving men in white jumpsuits pry “The Rose” from the wall and maneuver it out a bay window with a forklift as DeFeo sits disconsolately on a fire escape, smoking. “It was the end of ‘The Rose,’ and it was the end of Jay,” Conner said later in an interview.
Not quite. She ceased working for several years, but fortunately rebounded in the ’70s, when she produced an inspired if lesser-known body of photographs, collages and drawings as well as grainy, Xerox-style copies of them. And it is the ’70s, rather than the much-mythologized Beat ’60s, that dominate this show. In keeping with their avant-garde origins, both DeFeo and Conner favored humble, papery, sometimes fragile mediums devoid of the big-game status of painting. Conner betrays his debt to European Surrealism in his many collages assembled from carefully snipped engravings as well as in a series of amusing photographs in which a giant horror-movie eyeball fills the entirety of a television screen.
DeFeo, by contrast, is the more subtle and form-conscious artist. An untitled photograph, barely five inches square, is set inside her studio, a chaste refuge whose table holds a single, slightly shaggy rose in a clear glass vase. The edge of a manual typewriter is visible on the left and one of Conner’s black-inked lithographs — “#121 TWELVE MOONS” (1970-1) — hangs on the right. (He always insisted that the titles of his work be uppercase, like E.E. Cummings in reverse.) The room is mesmerizing in its quietude.
In a series of meticulous photo-collages that feel like a private joke, DeFeo tinkers with Conner’s work. Borrowing a full-length silhouette of his body from a gallery announcement for his 1975 show of photograms, “Angels,” she slyly transformed his outlines into a frame or container for her cut-up photographs. Her additions — a pointy light bulb, a part from a vacuum cleaner that echoes the shape of his torso — seem to say that even angels need functioning equipment.
In the end, the work of the two artists was more different than alike. DeFeo, though often categorized as a California Surrealist, had none of that movement’s desire to shock. She can fairly be viewed as a forerunner of the Pictures Generation, the group of mostly female artists who would shift photography from the action-packed realm of the street into the more meditative indoors. You can see why Conner looked to her as a muse. Whether in her enormous “Rose” or in her miniaturist photographs, she consistently suggests that her studio was not just a workplace but a temple for a congregation of one.
Bruce Conner & Jay DeFeo: We Are Not What We Seem
Through Oct. 23, Paula Cooper Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, Chelsea, (212) 255-1105; paulacoopergallery.com.