Jay DeFeo

Untitled (White Spica)


Not on display

Jay DeFeo 1929–1989
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 225 × 192 mm
Presented by The Jay DeFeo Foundation (Tate Americas Foundation) 2019
On long term loan


This is one of two black and white photographs in Tate’s collection by Jay DeFeo called Untitled (White Spica) 1973 (also see Tate P82414). Each one depicts DeFeo’s drawing White Spica 1958–73 (The Jay DeFeo Foundation Collection, Berkeley, California), itself one of only four surviving fragments of an ambitious earlier drawing known as Untitled 1958. In this slightly larger photograph the drawing is at the centre of the composition, almost filling the frame; in the other, slightly smaller photograph the drawing is partially obscured by an annotated print of a colour wheel (Tate P82414). DeFeo embarked on White Spica 1958–73 in the same year as she began her monumental landmark painting The Rose 1958–66 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), a work which preoccupied her almost exclusively for several years. The surviving fragments of White Spica were reunited for the first time in the exhibition Holy Barbarians: Beat Culture on the West Coast at the Menil Collection, Houston from 18 November 2016 to 12 March 2017. In her analysis of this work, the exhibition’s curator Clare Elliott described its genesis:

DeFeo mounted the central element [of Untitled 1958] and titled it White Spica, 1958–73, and she photographed it more than any of the [other fragments], using a variety of experimental photographic techniques. She cut and tore prints of White Spica as if to reiterate and emphasize the cut and torn materiality of the original artwork. Other prints were subjected to solarization, the process of exposing photographs to additional light prior to fixing the image, partially reversing the black and white tones within the image. A photographic still life in which DeFeo positioned White Spica behind a color [sic.] wheel exercise she completed in 1944 while still in high school suggests an unending cycle of repetition and transformation that had begun decades earlier.
(Elliott 2017, accessed 25 July 2018.)

With the exception of a period devoted to The Rose in the 1960s, DeFeo worked across media throughout her career, producing sculptures, drawings and works on paper, as well as painting. She also supported herself as a jewellery designer. Between 1971 and 1976, aided by a grant from the National Endowment from the Arts in 1973 that allowed DeFeo to purchase a medium-format camera and set up a darkroom in her home, she focused intensely on photography. DeFeo devoted much of her photographic practice to still-life studies (mostly of objects found around her studio) and camera-less darkroom experiments. She also used the medium as a tool with which to investigate her earlier paintings and drawings. The same year that she received the NEA grant, DeFeo returned her attention to the surviving fragments of her unfinished large-scale drawing Untitled 1958. Reflecting on this process in a letter to the art critic Thomas Albright, she wrote: ‘Originally it was a huge drawing (about 10' x 6') – one of several ideas I had before The Rose which didn’t quite work – I did like the center [sic.] though & saved it until the early seventies when I saw it in isolation like this – as a new image. I named it White Spica (for a star).’ (Letter from Jay DeFeo to Thomas Albright, 30 April 1984, cited in Elliott 2017, accessed 25 July 2018.) Spica is the brightest star in the Virgo constellation, known for its distinctively blue-white light.

No other photographs or documentation of Untitled 1958 exist. It is not known why or when DeFeo ceased her work on this drawing, nor when it was dismantled. As Elliot has explained, the 1973 photographs of its central element, White Spica, confirm that DeFeo saved the work, in delicate but unwieldy fragments, until the later years of her life. They also show that ‘while DeFeo worked exclusively on The Rose for several years, the existence of these fragments and several other large drawings and canvases, including The Jewel 1958–59, attest that in the early stages of The Rose’s creation DeFeo was engaged with other ambitious projects’ (Elliott 2017, accessed 25 July 2018).

This photograph and its companion were included in the exhibition The Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art at Tate Modern, London from 2 May to 14 October 2018), alongside a third photograph also entitled Untitled (White Spica) 1973.

Further reading
Stephen Jost, ‘Out of My Own Head: Photographs by Jay DeFeo’, Oakland, California 2004, http://www.jaydefeo.org/essays/essay_jost.html, accessed 25 July 2018.
Dana Miler et al., Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2012.
Clare Elliott, ‘Fragments and Photographs: Reflections on an Unfinished Work by Jay De Feo’, Menil Foundation website 2017, https://www.menil.org/read/articles/21-fragments-and-photographs-reflections-on-an-unfinished-work-by-jay-defeo, accessed 25 July 2018.

Emma Lewis
July 2018

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