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Artist Roy De Forest Dies

By Claudia Morain on May 21, 2007 in Society, Arts & Culture

Editor's note: Roy De Forest's art can be viewed on campus and throughout the Bay Area.

Roy De Forest, who was born into a Nebraska farmworker family during the Great Depression and became one of the most important artists of his generation, died Friday following a brief illness. He was 77.

De Forest, a longtime professor of art at the University of California, Davis, was one of the originators of a Northern California art movement once described by Washington Post art reviewer Sidney Lawrence as a style "in which counterculture thinking fused with an anything-goes, anti-art attitude harking back to the Dadaists of the World War I era." The style, marked by exuberant, outrageous wit, was sometimes called "California funk," a classification De Forest disliked.

"Roy was a man with a good and great sense of irony," recalled artist Wayne Thiebaud, a professor emeritus at UC Davis and longtime friend and colleague. "He was not interested in any kind of preciousness, prestige or any of that nonsense. He pursued his work with real genuineness, regardless of what others thought."

De Forest's work was exhibited throughout the United States, most prominently at a Roy De Forest Retrospective that opened in 1974 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and then moved in 1975 to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

In a review of De Forest's last New York show, at the George Adams Gallery in Chelsea in 2005, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith declared the septuagenarian painter's work had "never been more clearly or radiantly stated."

"At 75, Mr. De Forest is painting pretty much what he has painted for years: dogs, men in hats or headdresses, and supernatural beings against a flattened terrain ... These works have a blatant, consummate ease," Smith wrote at the time. "If Mr. De Forest's goal is to transfer the ecstatic experience of the world from his creature-subjects to his creature-viewers, it has never been more clearly or radiantly stated."

The critic also lamented that De Forest's "singular greatness," like that of other "regional" artists, including Robert Arneson, is "less fixed in the art world consciousness than (it) should be."

De Forest was born in 1930 in North Platte, Neb., the son of migrant farmworkers. He grew up in Nebraska, Colorado and eastern Washington state. He received an associate degree in math and humanities from Yakima Junior College in Yakima, Wash., in 1950, and spent the next decade studying art. He attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art at San Francisco State University.

By 1965, when he joined UC Davis as a lecturer, De Forest had established a national reputation as a painter. He became an assistant professor in 1967, rose to full professor in 1974 and remained on the full-time faculty until the summer of 1982. He continued teaching part time until December 1992, when he retired with a title of professor emeritus.

In addition to Thiebaud and Arneson, De Forest's colleagues in the UC Davis art department included such prominent artists as William Wiley, Manuel Neri and Ralph Johnson.

"The UC Davis art department in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was dedicated to the notion that there are a lot of ways to make art," said retired professor Harvey Himmelfarb, who chaired the department in the mid-80s. "The faculty was made up, very deliberately, of artists who were as different from each other as possible in their ideas about art and their approaches to art, and who were the best possible representatives of a particular way to make art.

"The idea was to expose students to as many ways to make art as possible, and let them find their own way. It was an incredibly enriching experience -- and Roy was an absolutely major contributor."

Himmelfarb said the qualities that made De Forest an exceptional artist were the same as those that made him an exceptional teacher: "In his art and his teaching, he was able to say things that were very, very difficult in ways that people could hear and accept and learn from. He was full of whimsy, and at the same time he was profound. He was funny, and at the same time he was deadly serious. He was quite an extraordinary human being."

One of De Forest's former students, Jock Reynolds, now director of the Yale University Art Gallery, remembers how well the art faculty worked together. "Roy and all the Davis painters were just amazingly generous with their time and available to meet with us students and to encourage us," Reynolds said. "Their sense of collegiality was something for us to model moving forward in life."

De Forest also had a fiercely independent spirit, said George Adams, owner of the George Adams Gallery. "That spirit should remain a lesson to the younger art world," Adams said. "Roy always went his own way. He never looked over his shoulder to see what someone else was doing. He never did anything like anybody else."

Prominent American sculptor John Buck, a student and longtime friend of De Forest, called the artist "the champion of imagination."

"He will continue to influence painting and sculpture in my work and others' for years to come," Buck said. "He was the king of his own vision, the 'Great Dingo,' and the one who loved us, as a teacher and a friend."

De Forest and his wife, Gloria, lived in Port Costa, Calif., on land populated by cattle, birds and the dogs that inspired so much of his art. In recent years, the couple visited Patagonia, Mexico, Hawaii, Australia and New Mexico. Realizing a lifelong ambition, De Forest in 2004 traveled down the Amazon.

In addition to his wife, De Forest is survived by a daughter, Oriana, and a son, Pascal, both of Concord, Calif., and his sisters, Beth Jacobs of San Leandro, Beverly Lagiss of Livermore and Lynn Robie of Sacramento.

Memorial services are pending.

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