The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is tagging the new double bill of exhibits that fill its fourth floor "Two Artists/Two Coasts."
Museum director Neal Benezra has another capsule description: The two came of age when artists were "looking for a way forward" from Abstract Impressionism, which dominated American art after World War II. "Very important but very different artists," Benezra notes.
These two decidedly independent creative forces -- the oft-neglected Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo and the far better-known Jasper Johns -- have never fit exactly into anybody's categories.
DeFeo, whose monumental painting "The Rose" long eclipsed the rest of her career, was the Bay Area artist who taught at Mills College in Oakland for nearly a decade until her death in 1989. Johns, whose work startled New York in the 1950s and led the way to Pop art and Minimalism, is still painting at the age of 82.
"Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective" is exactly that: The hypnotic "Rose" is here, all 2,000 pounds of it, plus more than 130 other paintings, drawings, collages, constructions and even jewelry she crafted in the 1950s. This exploration of DeFeo's life and work, organized by New York's Whitney Museum, offers just what curator Dana Miller promises, "an astoundingly diverse range of works."
"Jasper Johns: Seeing With the Mind's Eye" does not include Johns' most iconic painting, the red-white-and-blue American "Flag" from 1955. But it does feature touchstones from a half century of his career, among them lithographed flags, targets, numbers, alphabets, lead sculptures, constructions and paintings from as recently as 2005. Most are from SFMOMA's own holdings or borrowed from Bay Area art collectors.
In their lives and work, DeFeo and Johns do show some common traits.
They refused to be labeled. DeFeo moved among San Francisco artists, writers and musicians in the 1950s but didn't consider herself part of the Beat scene. Although Johns used familiar, sometimes commercial objects as subjects, he rejected the Pop art label. "I decided to do only what I meant to do, and not what other people did," he said.
Throughout the two exhibits, on view through Feb. 3, DeFeo and Johns redefine what can make art.
A DeFeo construction from the 1960s is labeled with its contents: "trowel, shoe, newspaper, newsprint, American flag, paint remover can, Saint Christopher statue, string, paint." She used her dentures as the mysterious, floating subject of the painting, "Crescent Bridge." She once tore apart a painting-in-progress that wasn't going well; 15 years later, she mounted and framed one of the fragments.
Johns' celebrated work in wax-pigment encaustic is on display (in "White Numbers," 1959), along with pieces using the medium of sculpt-metal and lead relief and a construction including a plate, a mirror and a flashlight. There's also a notable painting from the 1950s, done in gray, as the label notes, "to avoid the distraction of emotion." It's simply called "Canvas."
For both artists, there's a sense of inventing and reinventing. If Johns' most influential "Flag" isn't on display, other images are, such as "Flags" (1967-68) with black-and-green stripes and black stars on an orange ground.
There's a target image, too, "Target With Four Faces" (1979), with the "faces" made up of the word "face" lettered four times. Johns' numbers are here in image after image: drawn, etched, lithographed, done in silver, gold and lead.
Johns includes personal elements -- which he avoided early in his career -- in the fresh, collagelike images of "The Seasons," a series of etchings from the 1980s on display. And his wit and irony come through in such works as the lead relief "The Critic Smiles," a stylized toothbrush with cast-gold teeth for bristles, and "Souvenir 2," with his own face superimposed in a circle, suggesting a Buster Keaton silent-movie still photo from "The Navigator."
Nine years ago, the Whitney Museum in New York organized the exhibit "Beside 'The Rose': Selected Works by Jay DeFeo." The idea was to introduce the artist's larger body of work, beyond that legendary, monumental painting, which itself had been rarely seen.
Now 100 more works are included in the Whitney's retrospective at SFMOMA -- in the city where DeFeo created "The Rose" and so much else.
DeFeo worked on "The Rose" for seven years in her studio on Fillmore Street, applying paint and chiseling away at it, sometimes scraping it all the way down to the canvas and starting again. When DeFeo was finished, "The Rose" was more than 11 feet high, as much as 11 inches deep, and it weighed about 1,800 pounds. A window had to be removed and a section of the wall cut out to get the painting out of the building.
After initial showings in Pasadena and San Francisco, deterioration of "The Rose" meant that it was covered and, eventually, hidden behind a temporary wall for nearly 20 years at the San Francisco Art Institute. Restored and resupported with a metal framework in the 1990s and owned by the Whitney, it was shown at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1996 and the Berkeley Art Museum in 1997-98.
Even though it is part of a comprehensive exhibit covering DeFeo's entire career, "The Rose" truly is a revelation, with radiating indentations from a central core, an earthiness suggesting prehistoric mystery and an almost palpable sense of exploding and contracting.
How DeFeo got to "The Rose" and managed, after a three-year hiatus, to get beyond it and continue painting, provides an enthralling journey for visitors to this retrospective. There are paintings from the early 1950s inspired by her fellowship in Italy after she graduated from UC Berkeley, among them a bold geometric from Florence. There are vivid photo-collages from later in the 1950s, and big, bold, earthy works in the spirit of "The Rose."
DeFeo remained an imaginative, inventive artist throughout her life, until her death from lung cancer at the age of 60 in Oakland. One of her works from the 1970s looks like it was torn from an ancient temple; in truth, it was a paint-on-paper image she'd stored under her bed for eight years.
DeFeo used many, many gum-erasers when she created drawings. Toss them away? Not at all. She shaped the erasers into sculptural objects, photographed them, and used them as models for another series of drawings.
'jay defeo: retrospective'
'jasper johns: seeing with the mind's eye'
Through: Feb. 3
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St.
Admission: $11-$18, 415-357-4000,