San Francisco

Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, 1958–66, 
in her Fillmore Street studio, 1960. Photo: Burt Glinn.

Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, 1958–66,
in her Fillmore Street studio, 1960. Photo: Burt Glinn.

Jay DeFeo

Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, 1958–66, 
in her Fillmore Street studio, 1960. Photo: Burt Glinn.

Jay DeFeo labored obsessively over her legendary painting The Rose, nearly exclusively from 1958 to 1966. The work became so dense with pigment during those eight years that when she and her husband, Wally Hedrick, were evicted from their Fillmore Street apartment in 1965, a hole had to be cut in the side of the building to extricate the enormous canvas. The painting was thought to weigh almost a ton. (In The White Rose, a short, lyrical film from 1967 by Bruce Conner, a forlorn DeFeo is shown dangling her legs over the fire escape as a moving truck drives her painting away.) Formally exhibited only twice during the artist’s lifetime before being stored in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was sealed off by a layer of “protective” plaster that was soon graffitied and ultimately hidden behind a temporary wall, the painting was finally exhumed in 1994, five years after DeFeo’s death. An artwork with so romantic a backstory compels us to ask whether, as with other lost or destroyed art (Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting, 1974; Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917), The Rose would be of equal or even greater significance had it never been rediscovered. The answer is no.

One of 133 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, collages, pieces of jewelry, and photocopies on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this past fall (currently joined by some twenty more at the show’s organizing venue, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York), The Rose took center stage in this first—and long overdue—DeFeo retrospective. The last in a trilogy of paintings in which the artist used a palette knife to create tactile, sculptural surfaces (Origin, 1956, a cascading waterfall of impasto, and The Verónica, 1957, a dramatic choreography of brushstrokes inspired by a matador’s pass, were the first two), The Rose is mesmerizing in person. The quasi-mystical experience of encountering the auratic original is in some sense thematized by the painting itself, which might be said to take the form of a halo of light. Equal parts ether and earth, this white and gray mandala relief radiates energy from its delicate starburst center to its bulging, fissured edges, which appear to be on the verge of collapse. (The painting is, in fact, sagging from gravity.) Incision, 1958–60, is even more startling than The Rose in its wound-like rawness.

Somewhat ironically, given the monumentality of the painting and the amount of time DeFeo spent making it, The Rose was likened by the artist to a flower in “full bloom,” suggesting, in the manner of a Dutch vanitas, the organism’s impending death (indeed, DeFeo initially named the work “Deathrose”) and the ephemerality of life and beauty. By so profoundly exploring the material properties of paint, DeFeo ended up exceeding its conventions as a medium. Yet her abiding interest in texture found expression not only in oil paintings but across her oeuvre—for example, in the translucent membrane of paper, torn to display a small drawing of a shell in After Image, 1970; in the pearly, enameled finish of Crescent Bridge I and Crescent Bridge II, both 1970–72; and in the velvety surface of charcoal and metallic powder coating Seven Pillars of Wisdom No. 3, 1989. DeFeo defied modernist notions of medium specificity as well as of opticality, recognizing vision as inherently haptic. Yet this artist, marginalized by gender and geographical distance from the New York art world, was not included in Donald Judd’s 1965 essay “Specific Objects” (though her work fit the bill perfectly) nor did she receive a place in Lucy Lippard’s groundbreaking 1966 exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction” (the curator later acknowledged DeFeo’s affinities with other artists in that show).

Another revelation in the exhibition was DeFeo’s use of the camera and the photocopier to indulge her fascination with the ephemeral. Through these devices she attempted to capture the energy of peculiar, often grotesque everyday objects—swim goggles, her own dental prosthetic, a cardboard tissue box, her dog’s discarded leg cast—cropping her images and shifting their scale and orientation to defamiliarize them further.

DeFeo didn’t so much finish The Rose as simply stop working on it—appropriate, perhaps, given that, for this artist, the act of representation (no less than that of perception) never ended. DeFeo sought not to freeze the visible world but to heighten its exquisite instability, beckoning us to return to it again and again.

Gwen Allen