Monday, November 26, 2012

A Day with the Rose


Who is Jay DeFeo?  Jay DeFeo (1929–1989) is the San Francisco Bay Area creator of “The Rose,” a monumental picture measuring 129 by 92 inches, with a paint surface 2 to 8 inches thick, weighing in at 2,300 pounds. The rose, archetypal symbol of femininity, lyrical symbol of love, materialized in DeFeo’s studio as a colossal, painterly experiment in the use of mutable media. Under DeFeo’s hand, the rose became a fugitive landmark, formed as she pushed up against the boundaries of artistic expression. Awed by the bold drama of the artist’s feat, intrigued by her ability to finesse the delicate balance between creation and destruction, I recounted Defeo’s obsession with her masterpiece in three narrative poems, which are posted on this website.

Today, Jay DeFeo is recognized not only for her powerful if quixotic masterpiece, but for artwork wrought in a wide range of media. Today, DeFeo’s art is understood through the symbolization and formal qualities that bind the separate pieces together into a visionary whole.

This November, the first major exhibition of Jay DeFeo’s work opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The current SFMOMA retrospective runs through February 3, after which DeFeo’s work can be seen at the Whitney Museum in New York from February 28 to June 2, 2013.

The following statement from the San Francisco museum website illustrates the scope of DeFeo’s accomplishment.

Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective

This retrospective offers a revelatory, in-depth encounter with the work of Jay DeFeo (1929-1989), one of the most important and innovative artists of her generation, but one who until now has not been given her due. A quintessential San Francisco artist who rose to national prominence, DeFeo was at the center of a vibrant community of Bay Area artists, poets, and musicians in the 1950s. Although she is best known for her massive, visionary masterpiece The Rose (1958-66), DeFeo created an astoundingly diverse range of works; her unconventional approach to materials and her intensive, physical process make her a unique figure in postwar American art. Presenting close to 130 works, including collages, drawings, paintings, photographs, small sculptures, and jewelry, this definitive exhibition traces DeFeo's distinctive vision across more than four decades of art making.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The museum website offers multimedia features such as a video of DeFeo describing the Bay Area art scene in the 1950s-60s, and an excerpt from Bruce Connor’s film of DeFeo on Fillmore Street, where she created “The Rose.”

As the SFMOMA statement reminds us, DeFeo “until now has not been given her due.” The creator of many other innovative artworks, DeFeo devoted herself almost exclusively to crafting “The Rose” for over seven years. The artist painted and sculpted the massive image from 1958 to late 1964 – until forced to stop when she and husband Wally Hedrick were evicted from their apartment on Fillmore Street. The painting – which had to be removed from a third-story apartment window by a crane – lay neglected for years following the eviction. Perhaps due to her absence from the art scene during her years of work on “The Rose,” DeFeo’s reputation was in abeyance, her notoriety dimmed. In keeping with the dwindling of the artist’s profile, restoration of “The Rose” was delayed, then seemingly forgotten.

Then in 1995, DeFeo’s supporters mounted a heroic, and costly, conservation effort to reconstruct “The Rose.” The result: full restoration of the painting.


In conjunction with the restoration of “The Rose,” which would become the centerpiece of the Whitney Museum’s 1995 show on the Beat Generation, a symposium styled “A Day with the Rose” was held at the San Francisco Art Institute in August of that year. I attended and, fascinated by what I learned about the artist and her masterpiece, wrote a tribute in the form of three poems. The poems, “Deathrose,” “The White Rose” and “The Rose” – each bearing a title DeFeo bestowed on her masterwork at a certain point in time – are named for different aspects of DeFeo’s artistic production. In addition, the poems relate details of DeFeo’s life to her creative process.

The ‘Day with the Rose’ symposium featured a panel of DeFeo’s friends and colleagues, as well as writer Greil Marcus, poet Michael McClure, and curator Walter Hopps. Among DeFeo’s associates, former husband Wally Hedrick and artist Bruce Connor in particular expressed deep admiration for her talent, and for her devotion to “The Rose.” Hedrick and Connor also expressed sadness at her early death, perhaps caused by exposure to lead paint. Did she have a death wish? A resounding “No!” to that question. DeFeo was a phenom: her dedication, her energy, manifested the life force.

 ‘Jay didn’t want to die,’ said Hedrick, describing the disciplined way she would line up an armory of pills and vitamin supplements on the table in front of her and swallow them one by one while she taught her classes. DeFeo’s close associates also related – with loving exasperation – some of her eccentricities: sending messages to the Fillmore Street neighbors on the clothesline, painting the telephone green. There was a sense that the artist’s eccentricities were just this side of sanity; a sense that full-blown craziness was never far away as DeFeo courted her obsession with the Rose.

‘A Day with the Rose’ included a look at the in-progress conservation project, and a screening of Bruce Connor’s film of the removal of the painting from DeFeo and Hedrick’s apartment in 1964. Connor’s film, called “The White Rose,” showed multiple shots of DeFeo smoking, and presented sequences in which DeFeo curled up on the wrapped painting and dangled her legs out of the empty window. The film also offered a glimpse of a DeFeo alter ego: the beatnik mom with a beehive pushing a baby carriage on the sidewalk below.

Connor is an artist, and his film presents a melancholy, almost tragic portrait of the artist as a young woman. Compelling as Connor’s film is, however, it was not to be Connor who would have the last word on Jay DeFeo’s legacy.

DeFeo would have the last word on DeFeo. And that word resides in her retrospective, in her body of work.


Today there is no need to raise awareness of DeFeo’s work. The artist is finally receiving her due.

Now is the time to celebrate the recognition of Jay DeFeo’s range of work, her single-minded devotion to art, and the narrative of modern artifact and imagery that resulted.

If you want to learn more about this intriguing Beat Generation artist, explore the menu of video and audio features on the San Francisco museum website. If possible, attend the retrospective. In addition, you can read about Kevin Killian’s play on DeFeo,“Wet Paint,” at:

Some might argue that poetry about art is a form of mediation, allowing the reader to see art, but only through a veil, or in a glass darkly. Yet poetry written in the spirit of the art it portrays can offer, at best, a clear translation of a foreign language into the reader’s native tongue. In “Three Poems for Jay DeFeo,” I give an intimate account of the artist’s changing relationship to her work over time. This one version among many possibles is, in the end, a story with cadence. It is a story built out of factual details and insights provided by DeFeo’s associates who gathered at the symposium that day to honor her, and to remember one of the most representative talents of their time. My version of Jay DeFeo may be a faithful record of events, or it may represent reality in a parallel universe. It is a history as much as it is a story, a myth as much as a truth.

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