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Jay DeFeo vs. Jasper Johns: Who Looks More Radical Now?

The first time that painters Jasper Johns and Jay DeFeo exhibited in the same museum was in 1959, when New York’s MoMA presented “16 Americans,” a show so avantgarde that critics are still talking about it. Fifty-three years later, the two artists are under the same roof again, this time at SFMOMA.

JAY DEFEO

Early years
DeFeo settled in San Francisco in 1953 and experimented with various media before turning to painting. Radical props for being a woman artist, but not for marrying a man (fellow Beat Wally Hedrick) or for her forays into jewelry making and collage. Radical Rating: 8/10

Iconic work
Over eight years, DeFeo obsessively built up, scraped down, and rebuilt The Rose at least three times, using nearly a ton of oil paint in the final version. (Forty-six years later, it’s probably still not dry on the inside.) On the other hand, it’s a flower. By a woman. 8/10

Later career
Drained from all that time spent working on a single painting, DeFeo hit the skids career- and mental-health-wise. Following a long recovery, she taught at Mills College until her death from lung cancer in 1989. 6/10

Influence
After a couple of exhibitions in 1969, The Rose was deposited at the San Francisco Art Institute and then forgotten, hidden behind a wall where it deteriorated for years. Restored after DeFeo’s death, only now can it be expected to have its full influence. The same is true for the artist. 5/10

JASPER JOHNS

Early years
Arriving in New York in 1953, Johns fell in with a crowd that included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg (his lover for eight years). Props for being openly gay and for bucking “serious art” (splashy abstraction) to paint ordinary things. Radical Rating: 9/10

Iconic work
In 1954, at the height of the Red Scare, Johns dreamed that he was painting the American flag. The next morning, he got out his brushes and claimed possession of one of the most contentious symbols of U.S. patriotism. Take that, Joe McCarthy. 9/10

Later career
Discovered early on by mega-dealer Leo Castelli, Johns quickly placed three pieces in the MoMA permanent collection. In 2010, one of his flag paintings sold for $28.6 million. He still works almost every day. 4/10

Influence
Johns’s artworks are among the most famous and influential of the 20th century. Eliminating the traditional distance between paintings and what they depict, his flags, maps, and targets are exactly what they appear to be. From pop to minimalism and conceptualism, artists are still sorting out the implications. 10/10

Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye," and "Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective." Both Nov. 3 - Feb. 3, 2013, SFMOMA

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