Jay Defeo and Rudolph Nureyev: Legends

by kbarulich

narayev ballet de young jan2013 (2 of 7)

San Francisco is a hub of cultural activity as a metropolitan leader in the art world. In the Bay Area, we are afforded countless opportunities to view the most acclaimed art, theatre, music, dance and productions. The M. H. De Young Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are both large, architecturally original museums who house prestigious permanent collections and host world-renowned temporary exhibitions.

I visited the SF MoMA for the Jay Defeo retrospective this fall. The large-scale, two-ton painting, The Rose, stood out to me as the centerpiece; set in its own room on a stage, The Rose takes its proper place as the “star” of the show. Defeo had worked on this piece for eight years without ever completing it. The painting became a part of her personal and artistic life, occupying a window in her apartment as she constantly altered it in an eternal struggle.


The exhibition space are set up in a straightforward, easy to follow manner. A wall text introduces each room with dated titles, summarizes Defeo’s production during that time, and then highlights certain pieces. The viewer is lead through the white-walled rooms through Defeo’s artwork. The Rose exists outside of this strict chronology. Since Defeo started working on the painting in 1958 and it was first exhibited in 1969, the curator places “The Rose” room after the room titled “The Early 1950’s” and before “The Early 1970’s”. The piece occupies its own room, departing from all the other numbered rooms, as The Rose is still incomplete in Defeo’s mind. She was never happy with the finished product. As a curator, I would have lead the viewer back to The Rose room after the completion of the rest of the chronological exhibition that ends in 1989.  This setup would emphasize the important never-ending struggle that this piece was to Defeo.

Spatial limitations must always be considered when looking at the art of dance as the body moves throughout the allotted space. The De Young exhibits the life of ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, named A Life in Dance as a eulogy to the deceased legend. As the viewer moved through Defeo’s work, Nureyev’s work moves through the viewer in this special exhibition.

Unlike the MoMA show, A Life in Dance is not set up in a linear fashion. The viewer enters into the darkness as the show begins. Wall texts note information on Nureyev’s personal and professional life along with artifacts, photographs and costumes. The dancer and his partner Margaret Fonteyn’s torn-up shoes are on view along with smaller framed photographs of Nureyev rehearsing. There are several blown-up photographs of the “larger-than-life” Nureyev dancing while costumes that he wore lifelessly hover in front of them. From the beginning of the show, we are made aware of an absent life that is clearly missed. Four beat-up, leather theatre seats placed in front of a large projection of Nureyev dancing recreate the atmosphere of a theatre. We are transported to the time of the dancer’s tremendous impact on the world, getting to witness a ghost of the famous ballerino.

The second part of the exhibition consists of over eighty ballet costumes grouped by show and hung up by transparent strings or on black mannequins that seem to vanish into the background. Music accompanies these costumes that appeared in ballets that Rudolph Nureyev danced in or choreographed. As the viewer weaves through the maze, he is transported in time and place to the different performances of Nureyev’s career. In the presentation of Swan Lake, a video of the original performance is projected onto a somewhat transparent curtain that the costumes float behind. This set-up seamlessly combines the performance with the costumes in a way that does not detract from either. There is no clear path for the viewer to take, as the set-up rather encourages her to wander through at her own pace. This curatorial choice goes well with the subject of the exhibition as a eulogy to Nureyev, not as a straightforward retrospective, but an attempt to communicate the beauty of a single life. The art of dance cannot be examined in the same way as painting or sculpture; the energy of the performance cannot be recreated after the artist is gone. More testimonies of viewers and friends of Nureyev could have been added in the first part to elevate the exhibition to a more personal level, though overall, A Life in Dance fairly credits the amazing life of Rudolph Nureyev.

The set-ups of the Jay Defeo retrospective and Nureyev homage both work well because their flows are defined by the kind of art on display. The differences in the exhibitions are necessary to best credit the artists’ life works. Jay Defeo’s work is displayed in an linear fashion, with one exceptional work bursting through while the more free-form Nureyev show leaves the viewer with a feeling of nostalgia and sadness for the loss of the beautiful dancer. The curatorial choices in both shows display the exceptional work of both artists and lives.