20 August 2017

The Single Petal Of A Rose: Jay De Feo

"The White Rose is a fact painted somewhere on a slow curve between destinations.  This is all I remember.  This is all I know." - Jay De Feo, 1965

"I first saw the rose in De Feo's top-floor apartment on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.  It was in a bay window - the only thing in the room - and the windows on either side of it were splattered with pint, so that light came in softly.  Paint encrusted floor and walls, giving the impression of  a kid of primordial cave, in which the panting was an apparition, a flower, a great female symbol.  the power of the work was overwhelming." - Walter Hopps, curator, Pasadena Art Museum

Can all the wonder of nature, of life itself, be expressed by the single petal of a rose?  Jay De Feo thought so; that is why she made so many variants on that single theme throughout her career.

Jay De Feo (her name, so don't be confused) worked on The Rose for eight years; it was all literally touch and go, adding layers and daubs, not by chance but in search of a revelation akin to the emergence of life from the primordial soup. As a student in Florence, Italy, De Feo had spent hours  communing with the frescoes of Biblical scenes in its churches and would try, through a variety of media, to reach the transcendence she had experienced through them.   In De Feo's work, whether painted or photographed, light seems to emanate from the very petals of the rose.  She could not bear to let The Rose go, even when it was listed in the catalog for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959.  Fortunately, several other works did make it to "Sixteen American Artists" where De Feo shared a gallery  two other young artists -Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

Her eviction from the Fillmore Street apartment forced the issue in 1965 and Hopps arranged for the painting (which by then weighed over a ton) to be transported to Pasadena, where it remained unseen and neglected for two decades,  entombed behind a wall at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art.   Hopps recounts how, when he finally had to tell De Feo that the painting was done and she needed to return home to San Francisco, she lay down on the street next to the bus and began to cry. Thanks to Hopps, The Rose was finally rescued from behind that wall in California and sent to the Whitney Museum in New York where it has undergone three restorations.
Standing somewhat apart from her male Abstract Expressionist counterparts,  De Feo's work looks startlingly modern today.  Her use of photo-hybrids, collage, and especially her striving beyond the "thingness" of the everyday,  her "irrepressible need for spirituality" (Eileen Berkovich), all look prescient now that figuration an landscape are again acceptable subject matter for artists.
In making The Rose De Feo broke the boundaries between painting and sculpture in a way that is not unlike the dissimilar work of her female contemporary, Eva Hesse.  Hesse was fortunate to be celebrated during her brief life while De Feo is more like her contemporary, Helen Frankenthaler, in having her art reconsidered since her death. (Frankenthaler is currently the subject of two simultaneous exhibitions at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.)

Jay De Feo was born in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1929, studied art at Berkeley and lived in the Bay area for most of her adult life.  Shortly before her death in 1989, she was forced to move from her Oakland studio when it was damaged in the Loma Prieto earthquake.

For further reading:
The Dream Colony: A Life In Art by Waler Hopps, with Deborah Treisman, New York, Bloomsbury: 2017.

Visit Jay De Feo website  here.

1. Jay De Feo - untitled rose photograph - gelatin silver print - torn paper, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
2. Jay de Feo - The Rose, 1958-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.   Note that the museum has changed the title from De Feo's original White Rose.
3. unidentified photographer - Jay de Feo in front of The Rose, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

10 August 2017

Out Of This World: Johanna Grussner

"You're clear out of this world
When I'm looking at you
I hear out of this world
The music that no mortal ever knew

You're right out of a book
The fairy tale I read when I was so high
No armored knight out of a book
Would find a more enchanted Lorelei than I

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd  cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you" 

  - Out Of This World, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Harold Arlen.

Considering the warm reception her Naxos release No More Blues received from both the critics and listeners, Johanna Grussber should need no introduction to jazz fans.  A native of Finland, Grussner   lived  in the U.S for eight years,  attended the Berklee School of Music on scholarship and then earned a Master's degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998.   She then taught at Public School 86 in the Bronx where she developed a program of vocal and instrumental instruction and music theory.  Oh, and she was born on the Aland Islands, off the east coast of Finland in 1972.  She returned  home in May 2001 when she brought a group of fifth grade students to perform gospel concerts in Helsinki.  Since 2001 Grüssner has lived in Stockholm, Sweden.

Her musical ambitions are expansive.  As a child, Grussner and her sisters Ella and Isabella formed a folk group  Daughters Of The Wolf.   The year before graduating from Berklee she recorded her first cd; the year after she formed her own nineteen piece jazz orchestra which toured Scandinavia, performing at jazz festivals and clubs, sometimes joined by the New York Voices.   Since moving to Sweden, Grussner has recorded not only jazz but Swedish and Finnish folk songs and even a record of  songs for children based on the popular  characters created by Tove Jansson.

Out Of This World is usually classified as a ballad, because it is deemed to lack a pronounced rhythm.  Grussner turns this received wisdom upside down.   Her agile vocal technique and near perfect command of English paired with  work on both six and twelve-string guitars by her accompanist Ulf Karlsson, is impeccable.  Together they  give a rhythm to the song that it has not had before, something between a walking blues  and a bossa nova-ish lilt.  Unlike some singers with crystal clears voices, Grussner is also capable of adding colors to her phrasing.  Thanks to her version, I will never think of Out Of This World as a standard again.  It lives.

As to its mechanics, the song is structured  without a verse; it has four sections – A, a variation of A, B, and back to the A variation in conclusion.  The elegance of the lyrical conceit demands it:   the Lorelei of Germanic legend was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a faithless lover.   In recompense, the gods turned her into a siren whose voice was irresistible to all who heard it.  Alec Wilder (in his History Of American Popular Song, 1972)  claimed that he heard   echoes of the mixolydian mode of Gregorian chant in Arlen's melody.   (Mixolydian was the seventh of eight modes, similar to modern key signatures, in  medieval church music.)  Arlen also used  melisma in Out Of This World, as when he scored two notes for the word “knew.”  

Melisma is a technique familiar from  its use in gospel music;  its use originated in early Christian plainsong.  Unlike  syllabic singing where  each syllable is accorded one note,  when a singer moves from one note to another on a single syllable, that’s melisma.  When Johnny Mercer came to write  the lyric to Out Of This World in 1944, he had been working in Hollywood for almost ten years and it shows in its style; this was no Tin Pan Alley show tune to be belted to the rafters for applause.  Rather, it existed on an altogether more  intimate emotional plane.   Wilder was certainly right to describe Out Of This World as not being typical of Harold  Arlen's songs, but then it is not typical of anyone else's that I can think of either.  Sui generis, anyone?

P.S. Other standouts on No More Blues are a sultry version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So and Desafinado.

Listen to Johanna Grussner sing Out Of This World
Visit Johanna Grussner's website
No More Blues, a recording by Johanna Grussner, Naxos Jazz: 2005.

Photograph of Johanna Grussner, 2010, courtesy of Allaboutjazz.com.