PRINT October 2021


Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, 1958–66 (known at that time as The White Rose), San Francisco, 1960–61.

IN 1981, Jay DeFeo was newly ensconced in a loft in Oakland, California, her largest work space in sixteen years. Her last had been the flat she shared with then-partner Wally Hedrick from 1955 to 1965. It was there, at 2322 Fillmore Street in San Francisco—amid a circle that hosted Robert Duncan and Jack Kerouac at the Six Gallery and showed at Dilexi (where Dorothy Miller, of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, encountered DeFeo’s work and curated it into the 1959 exhibition “Sixteen Americans”)—that she strove for eight years on The Rose, 1958–66, the one-ton, nearly eleven-foot-tall canvas with which her name became synonymous. She carved its ever-denser paint encrustations into concentrated relief, a vertiginous topography of grooves and gashes radiating from the center. In the late 1950s, photographs documenting its ever-penultimate stages began circulating in catalogues, including the one for “Sixteen Americans,” and in art magazines. That she refused to part with it for Miller’s show would seem to later commentators an act of incorrigible insolence; in fact, it confirmed her commitment to her work’s durational becoming irrespective of the exhibition calendar. Similarly, the career-defining if apocryphal story of DeFeo’s refusal to go to New York for the show’s opening frames an anti-institutional stance contradicted by archival letters instead detailing her financial distress.

View of Jay DeFeo’s studio, Oakland, CA, 1986. Left: Alabama Hills No. 4, 1986.

By the late ’60s, The Rose had become something of a cultish marvel, duly mythologized in her friend Bruce Conner’s seven-minute film THE WHITE ROSE, 1967, which shows the massive structure recumbent, wrapped and harnessed as it is lowered from the front of DeFeo’s second-floor apartment through a doleful choreography of man and machine. On view this month in BRUCE CONNER & JAY DEFEO: ("we are not what we seem”), a two-person exhibition devoted to DeFeo and Conner at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery, THE WHITE ROSE bore witness simultaneously to the monolith’s apotheosis and to DeFeo’s eviction. Impelled by a prohibitive rent increase, DeFeo left San Francisco for Los Angeles. There, she was received by Walter Hopps, then director of the Pasadena Art Museum, where she continued to work on the painting in early 1966. Once it was provisionally finished, she moved to Marin County, commencing, in advance of the wanton theatrics of the Summer of Love, what she later called her “dropout” period. She stopped working until late 1969 and continued to engage less often and intimately with her peers even after that. She turned away from the art world and, eventually, toward making new art.

Bruce Conner, THE WHITE ROSE, 1967, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 7 minutes. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, © The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Never look at just one of Jay’s paintings,” Billy Al Bengston advised in these pages in 1969, noting that DeFeo “produced a large amount of art that should be and should have been seen but wasn’t and isn’t.” He was right. In much writing on DeFeo, The Rose has supplied a structuring narrative, becoming ever more imposing in absentia. Exemplifying Robert Smithson’s contemporaneous accounts of decay as coeval with production, The Rose upon completion needed significant and costly conservation. Buried beneath a protective plaster coating, it remained hidden behind a false wall at the San Francisco Art Institute until 1995. After 1974, DeFeo would not see it again. As Dana Miller detailed in an essay accompanying the 2013 DeFeo retrospective she organized at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, it has subtended rather queasy, gendered interpretations, portraying the artist as either too fervent or too passive (e.g., analogizing DeFeo’s visionary purpose and conviction to that of Joan of Arc and the entombment of The Rose to the suspenseful dormancy of Sleeping Beauty).

In much writing on DeFeo, The Rose has supplied a structuring narrative, becoming ever more imposing in absentia.

Nearly a decade after the Whitney presentation, DeFeo remains an artist circumscribed by a single work. This is true despite the abundance of production—from jewelry to collage, drawings to paintings—on display in that show, which took seriously DeFeo’s own belief that The Rose generated a lexicon of compositional possibility that might spread across other supports rather than layer successively on a single site. This is to say nothing of the numerous presentations—of her post-hiatus work at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York in 2014; of her iterative formal logic at Galerie Frank Elbaz in Paris in 2016 (also in evidence in the Centre Pompidou’s concurrent “Beat Generation” survey); of her ’70s painting, photography, and works on paper at Gagosian in San Francisco in 2020—that have further expanded public knowledge of her oeuvre. And DeFeo herself labored in the ’80s, even before she learned she was ill with lung cancer, to address posterity by planning a trust and presenting a range of her efforts. Already in 1974, amid preparations for a solo show at San Francisco’s Wenger Gallery dedicated to her recent art, DeFeo felt “the necessity of returning to older works—some even 25 yrs ago—& again ahead to new ones,” writing, “The total view of all I’ve done is always a presence—at any given moment on current painting.”

Jay DeFeo, Tuxedo Junction, 1965/1974, oil on paper mounted on painted Masonite, three panels, overall 48 3⁄4 × 97 1⁄2". © The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It took the Oakland space to literalize this chronological confluence. There, she hung things retrieved from storage, where they had languished, and set them against pieces just underway. She posed her art with an array of art books and postcards from her vast collection, spanning from Lascaux in France to Isfahan in Iran and featuring astronauts, Utah’s Bryce Canyon, and breaching whales. In some of her studio photos from this period, a reproduction of Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece), 1982, anchors a tabletop strewn with sources that build, image upon image. Votive-like assemblages with open bookplates and broken ceramics, among much else, cover tables or spread out on the floor, yielding associative meanings. These props migrate into DeFeo’s compositions. Though a better-known work embodying such a process is her Tuxedo Junction, 1965/1974 (an homage to reprisal, it makes over shards of the unfinished painting on paper The Estocada, 1965, which she had hastily salvaged from the Fillmore apartment and stored for years under her bed, into a spare triptych), she also reused found images. One undated piece pastes a cracked layer of silver paint over a vintage photograph of a snowy alpine vista, redoubling its crests even as it occludes them.

Jay DeFeo, untitled, ca. early 1970s, paint on paper fragment on vintage hand-colored photograph, 7 × 11". © The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

DeFeo returned to oil paint in 1982, after a decade of using acrylics. And she put it to work to render altitudes of her own, revisiting an interest expressed in her “Mountain” series from 1955–56, begun when she first moved to Fillmore Street and was taken with Sir Edmund Hillary’s recent summit of Mount Everest. These mountain scenes are also oil paintings, thick and white, their surfaces impassive and obdurately material. One failed attempt is concealed beneath The Rose, which extends these works’ concentrated physicality. In 1989, the last year of her life, DeFeo lectured at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she described the mountain as the closest thing to “a symbol” in her art, an emblem of “striving.” She had climbed Mount Kenya in 1987, yet these paintings did not come from firsthand observation; even her series of oil-on-paper works, sometimes with collage, titled “Impressions of Africa,” 1985–86, anticipated rather than recollected the experience.

Jay DeFeo, Mountain No. 2, 1955, oil on canvas, 46 × 36". © The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

By contrast, DeFeo’s evocations of the geologic formations of the Alabama Hills in California were the direct result of a 1986 road trip to Mount Whitney, the fabled, photogenic end of the John Muir Trail and the highest peak in the contiguous United States. I think these searching, small-scale paintings from 1986 to 1987 are some of her best, marked by borders and edges of landforms, where—with patently nonobjective smears—she divides space from itself. Tense and vital, many of these works flatten triangular planes into silhouettes that frame amorphousness, less uninflected than deliberately standing for atmosphere. The viewer is granted no obvious position, only a peculiar sense of elevation. DeFeo’s ashen palette modulates granite tones, now pitched to the edge of visibility under smoldering skies. At stake here is not an examination of vision or embodied experience but an attempt to distill ineffable ideation into a kind of substance. In one of her final interviews, with Moira Roth in 1989, DeFeo acknowledged her divergence from the phenomenological model performed in Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings, flagging, by contrast, her “imagination”: Hers were “a fantasy kind of landscape.” 

Jay DeFeo, Alabama Hills No. 14, 1986, oil on linen, 11 × 13". © The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It is unclear when DeFeo acquired it, but her foundation maintains an edition of Muir’s writings, edited by Richard F. Fleck and published in 1984. These eleven mountaineering essays elide the physical and symbolic climb in a manner common to the genre, from Petrarch’s letter on his 1336 ascent of Mont Ventoux on. The only underlined passage in the text appears in “The Tuolumne Camp” (1869), which narrates Muir’s first summer in the high country and the sort of conversion experience that psychologist Abraham Maslow would famously characterize in his 1964 treatise on self-actualization, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, as comprising “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment.” This is psychic integration by another name. Muir describes the morning sun through crystals of frost on pine needles in the August cold in a gorgeous if mawkish passage that anticipates the late-romantic mysticism of Richard Bucke’s “cosmic consciousness” (available, misogynistically, only to men). In any case, DeFeo marked the next sentence: “Well may the Sierra be named, not the Snowy Range, but the Range of Light”—a pun on environmental and chromatic variation. (Not for nothing did Marc Selwyn title a Los Angeles gallery show of these works in 2018 “The Texture of Color.”)

The vagaries of sensation, the “Alabama Hills” paintings show us, are conditioned by the deep time of sedimentation. They spatialize desire as pictorial distance and hold forth the possibility of arriving somewhere. Made during a midcareer that became an unwitting culmination, these late works admit the boundary as a mortal longing, its approach an ethic if also inevitably an aspiration.

Suzanne Hudson is an associate professor of art history and fine arts at the University of Southern California.