An only child, Mary Joan DeFeo was born to a nurse from an Austrian immigrant family and an Italian-American medical student in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1929. DeFeo moved with her mother to San Jose, California after her parents divorced in 1939. In 1946, she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. There, she explored the art scene in San Francisco and embraced abstract expressionism. She resisted what she called "the hierarchy of material," using plaster and mixing media to experiment with effects, a thread one can see running through the art of that time, especially on the West Coast.
“I believe the only real moments of happiness and a feeling of aliveness and
completeness occur when I swing a brush. I don’t think I can do without it.”
Letter to her mother Florence, Italy, 1952
In 1958 DeFeo began work on “an idea that had a center to it” and almost eight years later, in 1966, completed The Rose, a monumental work created with so much oil paint that she called it “a marriage between painting and sculpture.” To concentrate completely on The Rose, DeFeo essentially withdrew from the art world for much of the 1960s, turning down offers of new gallery affiliations and solo exhibitions. The Rose was first exhibited in 1969 at the Pasadena Art Museum.
DeFeo moved to Marin County, near San Francisco, in 1966 and, exhausted, took a break from making art until late 1969. With renewed energy, DeFeo investigated new materials, invented applications, and became deeply involved with photography. Often her subjects were favored domestic oddities, which she transformed into images that, in her words, “transcend the definition of the objects from which they are derived.”3 A master draftsman and painter, DeFeo was also an ardent experimenter, allowing her to create an idiosyncratic cross-disciplinary oeuvre. Working in series to examine divergent possibilities, she at times referred to images from earlier periods, as well as works she imagined still to come. Toward the end of the 1970s, DeFeo’s art reemerged in the public arena in gallery and museum exhibitions.
In 1981 DeFeo moved from Marin County to Oakland, after accepting a position teaching painting at Mills College, where she became a tenured professor five years later. She traveled frequently, often titling works and series after anticipated or remembered travels. While continuing to mix and assemble materials in her works on paper, collages, photocopies, and photographs as well as in her paintings and drawings, DeFeo returned to oil for the first time since completing The Rose, creating both large, glowing canvases and small, delicate paintings on paper and linen or canvas, many reflecting the themes that inspired her in the 1950s.
DeFeo was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1988 but continued to work prolifically until she was forced to vacate her Oakland studio in October 1989 because of damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake. She died on November 11, 1989, at the age of 60. Since her death, not only has DeFeo’s work been featured in museum and gallery exhibitions, but the body of serious scholarship considering her significance in twentieth-century art has consistently grown.