Laguna Art Museum branches out with Jay DeFeo: Trees

Laguna Art Museum (LAM) will present Jay DeFeo: Trees showcasing the works of California artist Jay DeFeo (1929-1989). Set to be on view from September 21 through January 12, 2025, this is the first exhibition dedicated to the artist’s fascination with trees and exploration of the natural world. Jay DeFeo: Trees encompasses two bodies of work: drawings from the Tree series made in the 1950s and photographs of trees created during the 1970s.

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Courtesy of LAM

Jay DeFeo, “Untitled” (Tree series), 1953. Tempera on paper, 11 3/4” x 17”, JDF no. E3020. Collection Laguna Art Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Merle S. Glick, 1991.077 ©2024 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Curated by LAM Curatorial Fellow Rochelle Steiner, Jay DeFeo: Trees will offer a rare glimpse into the artist’s drawings produced between 1953 and 1954 in her Berkeley studio, following extensive travels in Europe and North Africa. These drawings, infused with nature’s inspiration, demonstrate DeFeo’s unique blend of representation and abstraction, marking a pivotal period in her artistic journey. Among the nine extant works from the Tree series are two pieces from Laguna Art Museum’s esteemed collection.

Jay DeFeo: Trees provides us a view of an overlooked aspect of Jay DeFeo’s extraordinary body of work, inviting visitors into nature through her eyes,” said Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of Laguna Art Museum. “Laguna Art Museum’s unique commitment to sharing the California experience through art allows us to spotlight works of well-known artists in new and exciting ways.”

In addition to the drawings, the exhibition will feature a group of DeFeo’s remarkable black and white photographs of trees taken in the Bay Area during the early 1970s. Although DeFeo’s photographs were not shown during her lifetime, she took this aspect of her practice with the utmost seriousness. Accompanying these artworks will be a selection of archival materials highlighting the artist’s enduring fascination with trees and nature.

“It is a rare opportunity to bring together these nine drawings from the 1950s and present them in conjunction with artist’s photographs from the 1970s,” said Steiner. “Throughout her life, DeFeo observed and depicted the natural world, and this exhibition offers an opportunity to see some of her first-hand experiences and impressions of her surroundings.”

Jay DeFeo: Trees will be accompanied by an illustrated publication by Steiner, with a contribution by Elizabeth A. T. Smith. Steiner’s essay explores DeFeo’s drawings and photographs of trees in light of her unique artistic approach, while Smith contextualizes DeFeo’s work within the broader landscape of women artists during the mid-20th century.

The exhibition and publication have received generous support from The Jay DeFeo Foundation and The Segerstrom Foundation.

Coinciding with Laguna Art Museum’s annual Art + Nature initiative in fall 2024, Jay DeFeo: Trees will offer a multifaceted exploration of the artist’s work within the rich tapestry of the California environment. Through special public programs and educational engagements, the exhibition aims to engage diverse audiences and foster a deeper appreciation for DeFeo’s enduring legacy.

Jay DeFeo (1929-1989) was born in Hanover, N.H., and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her B.A. in 1950 and M.A. in 1951 from the University of California, Berkeley. Over the course of a career spanning four decades, DeFeo experimented with a range of materials, exploring painting, sculpture, drawing, collage, photocopying and photography, often in unorthodox ways.

DeFeo was a pivotal figure in the historic beat community of artists, poets and jazz musicians in San Francisco. Her first major solo exhibition was held at the Dilexi Gallery, San Francisco in 1959, and the same year she was included in Dorothy Miller’s historic exhibition Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Championed on the West Coast by curator Walter Hopps, DeFeo was included in group exhibitions at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and had a solo exhibition there in 1960.

DeFeo’s works are in the collections of many museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; de Young Museum, San Francisco; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Menil Collection, Houston; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Tate Modern, London and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Dr. Rochelle Steiner is a Los Angeles-based curator, writer and educator, and serves as a Curatorial Fellow for Laguna Art Museum. Previously, she was chief curator and director of public programs and education at Palm Springs Art Museum; associate director and chief curator at Vancouver Art Gallery; director of the Public Art Fund, New York; chief curator at the Serpentine Gallery, London and associate curator of contemporary art, Saint Louis Art Museum.

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Laguna Art Museum is located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.

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