et al. 2020 | Megan Whitmarsh on Jay DeFeo | Rose is a Rose is a Rose: A Meditation on Jay DeFeo’s The Rose

Jay DeFeo in front of early stage of The Rose. 1961 gelatin silver print. JDF Reference no. R0511. Photograph: Marty Sacco (San Francisco Examiner). © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jay DeFeo (1929–1989), The Rose, 1958–66, oil with wood and mica on canvas, 327.3 x 234.3 x 27.9 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Jay DeFeo Foundation and purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation 95.170. Photography by Ron Amstutz. © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Megan Whitmarsh, Art in American/JayDeFeo, 2018, embroidery thread, pencil, wonder-under, fabric and foam, 76.2 x 101.6 x 5.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
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"Life is a process of becoming,
 a combination of states we have to go through. Where
people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
" 
— Anaïs Nin

 

“Maybe I’ve been absurd about wanting to do a big flower painting, but I’ve wanted to do it and that is that. I’m going to try. Wish me luck,” wrote Georgia O’Keeffe in 1934 to a friend regarding a commission for Elizabeth Arden. She had painted her first large flower painting in 1924. “I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” O’Keeffe had no theories to offer on her paintings: “The painting is like a thread that runs through all the reasons for all the other things that make one’s life.”

Jay DeFeo started The Rose in 1958,
working almost exclusively on it until 1966 when eviction from her apartment (which also doubled as her studio) forced her to stop. Friend and fellow artist Bruce Conner filmed the extraction of The Rose from her workspace, which necessitated the removal of a window and the use of a crane and forklift. He speculated that without the eviction she might never have stopped working on it.

The Rose needs to be seen, but here’s a description anyway: the painting is a foot thick, over ten and a half feet tall and weighs more than one ton. It is a star-like shape with radiating rays carved into thick layers of paint and mica. It is mostly white and gray with bits of blackish green.

 

Jay DeFeo in front of early stage of The Rose. 1961 gelatin silver print. JDF Reference no. R0511. Photograph: Marty Sacco (San Francisco Examiner). © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

 

Throughout the 1950s, DeFeo had supported herself by making jewelry and taking odd jobs. In 1953, she was fired from her job as an art teacher after being convicted for shoplifting two cans of red paint. “Maybe that’s why I finally went into black and white,” she said in an interview with Paul Karlstrom in 1979. “The red paint really did me in.”

The Rose was just a painting like any other when she started it; all that she knew was that it was going to have a center. From the perspective
of her friends and family it became a personal vortex. She did not see it that way while she worked exclusively on it for almost eight years.
In that same 1979 interview, she said the images for her work were sensed, like ESP. “I had an inner core of faith that this thing would emerge into an ultimate form, of which I had no knowledge. I just kept reaching for it intuitively.”

 

Jay DeFeo (1929–1989), The Rose, 1958–66, oil with wood and mica on canvas, 327.3 x 234.3 x 27.9 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Jay DeFeo Foundation and purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation 95.170. Photography by Ron Amstutz. © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

 

She recognized that the painting may have led
to her divorce, and she understood the concern friends had for her mental well-being. Comparing her life to the act of painting, she said, “You have to destroy a little bit in order to build a little bit.”

The painting went through a series of titles, recorded in various brochures and interviews. Initially she called it The Death Rose. She decided that title was too negative, so she changed it to The White Rose, which symbolized life. In the end she settled on The Rose, which she felt represented a unity of those opposing ideas.

It is impossible to separate the creation of The Rose from the completed work. It speaks beyond the realm of painting, reflecting both the futility and beauty of life and of the creative cycle. It is a Kali-like action, a sort of primal cry. It steps off the path of being primarily about paint and abstract expression, and speaks to the larger themes of being an artist: of making, of cyclical gestures, of death and decay.

DeFeo quit making art for four years after finishing The Rose. She spent this time “freaking out, mainly.” She described it as her ‘happening’ period. “Everyone else was staging happenings during that period.” She was having them.

For years, the painting seemed forgotten, hidden behind a fake wall while the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art figured out what to do with it. It had started to fall apart from its own weight almost immediately after being removed from her apartment, and was set into plaster to preserve it. The Whitney Museum of American Art acquired it in 1995 and, since its restoration, the work has been exhibited only a handful of times.

In 1989, DeFeo died of cancer at the age of
60. It is likely that the materials she used—in addition to her smoking habit—shortened her life, though her health had always been fragile.

 

Megan Whitmarsh, Art in American/JayDeFeo, 2018, embroidery thread, pencil, wonder-under, fabric and foam, 76.2 x 101.6 x 5.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

CODA
I first saw a reproduction of Jay DeFeo’s
The Rose in art school. During those years, I learned about many artists that I had never heard of; some stayed with me, some I was determined to find out more about, some I promptly forgot. The story about the The Rose intrigued and lingered within me. Having since seen the painting in real life—in 2013, some
24 years after I first saw its reproduction—my appreciation has not dimmed. My regard was never simply for the painting itself but for the woman who painted it; for her belief in the painting and for her inability to let it go until she had to. Such fidelity to one’s vision is rare and potent. It seems somehow to transmit a sort of radiance, which inspires.

 

"Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death." 
— Anaïs Nin

 

Jay DeFeo, born in 1929, was a visual artist working in the San Francisco Bay area from the early 1950s until her death in 1989. She left behind a diverse oeuvre, but is chiefly remembered for her monumental painting, The Rose (1958–66).

 

 

 
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