The Art of Roy De Forest

This dog-loving artist’s first full career retrospective.
By Cameron Woo, June 2017
Roy De Forest, Country Dog Gentlemen, 1972; polymer on canvas, 66.75 x 97 in. (169.55 cm x 246.38 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of the Hamilton-Wells Collection; © Estate of Roy De Forest/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Roy De Forest, Country Dog Gentlemen, 1972; polymer on canvas, 66.75 x 97 in. (169.55 cm x 246.38 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of the Hamilton-Wells Collection; © Estate of Roy De Forest/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Roy De Forest with Ratu and Dido, Port Costa Studio, California, 1980.

Roy De Forest with Ratu and Dido, Port Costa Studio, California, 1980. Photo by Kurt Edward Fishback

Roy De Forest’s paintings, drawings and sculptures invite the viewer into mythical terrains of mountainous vistas and overgrown foliage. Set within those landscapes are mysterious figures, boats, planes and animals, particularly dogs. With titles that often suggest a journey or a quest, De Forest’s works are densely composed, complex mélanges of textures, colors and shapes … phantasmagorical universes where humans and animals wander in awe.

The artist, who died in 2007 at the age of 77, had a long and successful career. His visionary creations drew comparisons to folk and aboriginal art, and to the fantastical works of Henri Rousseau and H. C. Westermann. A life-long dog-lover, De Forest favored squat working types, particularly the hearty Australian Cattle Dogs who shared his life (along with his wife, Gloria, and their children) in Northern California.

De Forest’s love of dogs began in childhood. Born in Nebraska in 1930, the son of migrant farm workers, he grew up in Yakima, Wash. As a young boy, he had several dogs in succession, each of whom he named Hector. The rural landscape, his affection for pulp adventure magazines, model planes and local Native American crafts would all influence his art.

Beginning in 1950, De Forest studied on a scholarship at the San Francisco Art Institute, deeply immersed in Abstract Expressionism and exposed to the burgeoning Beat movement. He went on to teach art at the University of California, Davis, from 1965 to 1992. Art created by De Forest and his eclectic group of UC Davis art department colleagues— among them, Robert Arneson, William Wiley and Manuel Neri —was dubbed California Funk. Other monikers include “Dude Ranch Dada,” which referenced the works’ humorous, anti-authoritarian nature. De Forest, who didn’t like these labels, supplied his own: Nut Art. In the catalogue for a 1974 retrospective mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, De Forest identified himself as an “obscure visual constructor of mechanical delights.”

The image of naïve outsider, however, belied De Forest’s vast knowledge of art history and interest in a wide variety of disciplines, including poetry, literature, philosophy, psychology, science and mathematics. He enjoyed slipping obscure historical references into his work: animals assume postures found in Medieval art, and his compositions draw from sources as diverse as mid-19th-century romantic landscape painters to modern geometric abstractions.

This summer, the Oakland Museum of California is showcasing a comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s oeuvre. Titled Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest, it is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue written by the show’s curator, Susan Landauer, and published by University of California Press.

Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest
The Oakland Museum of California,
Oakland, CA
On display through August 20
museumca.org