Venus Over Manhattan is pleased to present an exhibition of work by Roy De Forest, organized in collaboration with the Roy De Forest Estate. Following the recent retrospective of his work, “Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest,” organized by Susan Landauer at the Oakland Museum of California, the exhibition marks the largest presentation of De Forest’s work in New York since 1975, when the Whitney Museum of American Art staged a retrospective dedicated to his work. Comprising a large group of paintings, constructions, and works on paper—some of which have never before been exhibited—as well as a set of key loans from the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis, and the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, the presentation surveys the breadth of De Forest’s production. In conjunction with the presentation, the gallery has published a major catalogue featuring a new text on the artist by Dan Nadel, along with archival materials from the Roy De Forest papers, housed at the Archives of American Art. The online iteration of this presentation will be on view from April 8 - May 10, 2020.
"Toward the mid-’60s, he cut down the dotting and started to draw, outlining crude circles which he filled only partially with dots and other shapes. Much of the canvas was left bare. Cartoonlike hands reached in from the edges and a few small figures, human and otherwise, wandered through. The paintings have always been narrative and involved with journeys even when they simply looked like the terrain."
– Roberta Smith
Roy De Forest’s freewheeling vision, treasured for its combination of dots, dogs, and fantastical voyages, made him a pillar of Northern California’s artistic community for more than fifty years. Born in 1930 to migrant farmers in North Platte, Nebraska, De Forest and his family fled the dust bowl for Washington State, where he grew up on the family farm in the lush Yakima Valley, surrounded by dogs and farm animals. In 1950, De Forest received a scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute), where he studied under Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith, artists who encouraged De Forest to challenge the heroism of Abstract Expressionism. De Forest quickly became involved with San Francisco’s nascent Beat community, and supplemented his formal education with seminars, conversations, and exhibitions at venues like the King Ubu and East & West galleries, where he became close with artists Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Jess, and Deborah Remington, among others. An active participant in the boisterous atmosphere fostered by his teachers and peers, De Forest “developed a kind of opposition to [...] quasi-religious attitudes toward painting” and became “skeptical about all the Romanticism and especially the overt conversions people were supposed to go through.” His earliest works feature large skeins of bright color, which he paired with fanciful titles that undercut the heady moralism and spiritual excesses of Abstract Expressionism. In 1955, Walter Hopps included his work in “Action,” a fabled show of abstract painting in a merry-go-round on the Santa Monica Pier, and later included his work in “Objects on the New Landscape Demanding of the Eye,” the inaugural exhibition at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.
De Forest worked as an art handler at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMoMA), and after an injury sustained when a Herbert Ferber sculpture fell on him, he returned to the Yakima Valley, where he spent two formative years codifying his signature style. He produced dazzling paintings and works on paper, developing a visual vocabulary that recalled his diverse interests, including natural forms like seed pods and protozoa, articles from Scientific American, and beaded tapestries from the indigenous Yakama Nation. He started using acrylic paint, whose adhesive properties he put to use in hybrid, wall-hung constructions of wood and found objects, which incorporated animals and figurative imagery for the first time. His trademark dots—Hershey Kiss like dabs of acrylic squeezed directly from the tube—emerged during this period, and many of his paintings appear to depict aerial views of vast, dotted landscapes, which he described as “more or less what you’d think of when you see a landscape from an airplane.” De Forest returned to California’s burgeoning artistic community in 1960, and mounted a series of successful solo exhibitions at the legendary Dilexi Gallery. In 1965, he joined the faculty at the University of California, Davis, which became a hotbed of creative experimentation. Alongside his colleagues Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, and William T. Wiley, De Forest fostered a renaissance of unconventional artistic production, whose exponents called their movement “Nut Art.” Bound chiefly by their joyous, rampant idiosyncrasies, more than twenty artists eventually exhibited under the banner of Nut Art, including De Forest, Arneson, Clayton Bailey, David Gilhooly, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Maija Peeples-Bright, and Karl Wirsum. De Forest’s paintings grew increasingly figurative, featuring his signature menagerie of unusual dogs rendered in a “crazy quilt” style, where pockets of deep space punctuate the picture plane. In 1974, the San Francisco Museum of Art organized a retrospective his work, which traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art the next year.
In the years following his retrospective, drawing came to play a more central role in De Forest’s production, and he would often put aside painting for lengths of time to focus exclusively on drawing, represented in this exhibition by a large group of works on paper. His compositions featured ever more animated canines and figures, situated in landscapes that suggest imaginative adventure narratives. Toward the end of the 1980s, De Forest began making complex sculptural frames for his paintings and works on paper that extended his imagery beyond the picture plane, often enhancing the sense of whimsy found in his compositions. Referencing the strategies of his earlier constructions, the frames led to even larger wall-mounted assemblages, like One Life to Lead, from 1986, a monumental sculpture that extends De Forest’s imagery nearly two feet off the wall. Often missed for the sheer likability of his subject matter and color palette, the rigor of De Forest’s practice and his mastery of technique is far too little discussed. This group of work charts the persistence of De Forest’s entirely unique vision, featuring examples from the earliest moments of his career to the years before his death in California in 2007.
ABOUT ROY DE FOREST
Roy De Forest was born in North Platte, Nebraska, in 1930. He attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and San Francisco State College, where he received his B.A. in 1953, and his M.A. in 1958. His work has been the subject of numerous solo presentations both stateside and abroad, including exhibitions at the Oakland Museum of California; Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris; ICA Boston; SFMoMA; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Candy Store Gallery, Folsom; and Dilexi Gallery, San Francisco. De Forest’s work is frequently featured in major group exhibitions, including recent presentations at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; RISD Museum, Providence; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His work is held in numerous public collections around the world, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Philadelphia Museum of Art; SFMoMA; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. De Forest lived and worked in Port Costa, California, before his death in 2007.
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Roy De Forest Catalogue
Now availble for preorder
Dan Nadel, Curator-at-Large,
Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti
Shrem Museum of Art,
University of California, Davis
Roy De Forest
124 pages, perfect bound with french flaps
9 3/4 x 8 7/8 in
24.8 x 22.5 cm
Edition of 750
Nut Art Manifesto
One day while talking to the poet, David Zack I expressed my belief and interest in the artificer as an eccentric, peculiar individual creating art as a fantasy with the amazing intention of totally building a miniature world into which the nut could retire with all his friends, animals and paraphanalia [sic]. The little world inside becomes a “completely fitted out” phantasmagoria.
And so said we, “the work of a peculiar and eccentric nut can truly be called ‘Nut Art.’” And furthermore I proposed, “Nut Art” is Kernal Art, or Brain Art, convoluted, rambling, roundabout like a journey to central Tibet in the company of a French count and his sidekick, a mangy sheepdog of Lombardy. The Nut artificer travels in a phantasmagoric micro-world, small and extremely compact, as is the light of a dwarf star imploding inward and in passage collapsing paradise and hell to one as it vanishes forever with our joys, sorrows, and unrequited love.
“A Nut Artist”, said the Sheepherder of Lombardy, “is a black dog in the night mysterious and hermetic in the darkness but slyly cunning and opulent in the firelight.”
“Furthermore” wrote an obscene hyena, “Nut Art is a squirrel in the forest of visual delights.”
“The Nut Scene constitutes a scarlet cloud immune to the light of distant skies”, announced the horse of a different color.
“Nut Art leads the discriminating dogmatic fellow to complete antisocial aristocracy”, shouted rover, a domesticated but still recalcitrant dingo.
“I give a howl to nut artist’s”, barked Samuel Johnson, distinguished short-haired poet of the terriers. He growled “oh how I abhor the fond lap dogs, the surly spaniels—those clever thieves of current taste.” And what is current taste but old desires made palatable by present boredom. Oh where are you, O_____ with your plastic kennels, and you L______ with your bland blue dots, and even you J_____ with your erased heroes.
All of us, David (the poet), myself (obscure visual constructor), a traveling French count and his mangy sheepdog, a black mongrel of the night, an obscene hyena, Samuel Johnson (distinguished terrier), and rover (domesticated dingo); shouted, barked, and howled, “Nut Art now and forever is the hope of the future as well as the dream of the past.”
“All too true” lisped the horse of a different color as he stood marking the earth with his translucent hooves. Would that I could have read the significance of those lovely abstract channels chiseled in the moist earth.
Written on this day of our Lord April 12, 1972 by Ralph (Doggy) Dinsmore, intimate friend and confidant of Roy De Forest.
– Roy De Forest, 1972
“I’m basically a soup maker. I have no particular interest in being pure. I think you give up so much in doing that that you give up too much for my taste. I’m for French cooking, French painting, which tends to be less pure.”
– Roy De Forest