Keely Orgeman (Images)
Underneath the Mushroom Cloud Tree: Atomic Imagery in the Art of Jay DeFeo
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Almost every American artist coming of age during the Atomic Era (1945 – 1991) has had a personal history punctuated by concurrent nuclear bomb developments. This was particularly the case with Jay DeFeo (1929 – 1989), a Beat Generation artist raised in California, who reached teenage maturity when the bomb first came into existence. DeFeo was not known to have discussed the bomb in connection to her work, and, as a result, scholars have unquestioningly accepted her silence. Yet, evidence points to the ways she might have restricted atomic culture to the role of a visual resource from which to draw motifs and symbols, thereby distancing herself from it and regulating its influence.
I would argue DeFeo created a Cold War icon—an atomic image— in her magnum opus The Rose (1958-1966). For her it embodied a multitude of observable and metaphysical opposites, perhaps the most fundamental being its evocation of the life cycle. No more striking or timely an example from which DeFeo could draw inspiration for her Rose existed—above all, relating to the life-death paradox—than the bomb. This paper investigates from a broader cultural perspective, as well as through the Beat lens, the iconography of several DeFeo works heretofore subjected only to formal interpretation.
In 2003, Keely Orgeman received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and, in January 2006, her Master’s degree in Art History from Boston University, where she continues to work toward her Ph.D. Boston University awarded her the Presidential Fellowship for her graduate studies and the Adelson Fellowship in American Art to support the doctoral phase. As an Adelson Fellow, she will have the opportunity to curate an exhibition at the Boston University Art Gallery, as well as to publish a supplementary catalogue. Although not slated to open until fall 2008, the show will most likely derive its central theme—atomic imagery in American Art—from the paper which she will deliver at this conference. Her related areas of research include New York’s critical reception of the Beat Generation artists in California, fallout shelter culture, and visual culture of the Nuclear Age in general.