Jay DeFeo: Unraveling The Legend Of The Rose

Anne Cecile Surga

California Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo is most renowned for having painted The Rose, a loaded and mysterious work with which the artist maintained an intimate if complex connection throughout the eight years of its production. Yet interest in the myth of The Rose has often detracted from knowledge of DeFeo’s vast and diverse output. Anne Cecile Surga reveals how a knowledge of the artist’s lesser known works can aid in an understanding of her masterpiece.

It took Jay DeFeo eight years to complete her iconic work The Rose (1958-1966). The artwork, at once painterly and sculptural, became famous for its monumental dimensions and heavy weight (almost 2,300 pounds). Although DeFeo refused to sell or exhibit the artwork until its total completion, The Rose was known within the art world even before it was removed from her residence. However despite the artist’s efforts to place the work once finished, it ended up covered in plaster and buried behind a false wall at the San Francisco Art Institute until 1995. The Jay Defeo retrospective at The Whitney in New York City, which runs from February 28 through June 2, 2013, categorises the artist’s work into two distinct periods in her career: those produced before, and those produced after the chimerical Rose.
Faced with accounts of DeFeo’s total mental and physical engagement with her most important painting, discussion her other work is less frequent. One might easily forget that Defeo had already produced a significant body of work previous to this time, and that she continued to make art until her death. Yet recognising those other, less legendary works is key to understanding the significance of The Rose itself.
Born in 1929 in Hanover, New Hampshire, DeFeo attended high school in San Jose, California. Her early passion for drawing was noticed by her school art teacher, Lena Emery, who introduced the young artist to modern masters, took her to museums in San Francisco, and nurtured DeFeo’s interest in art. In 1946, she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley where she completed her Master’s degree. The school taught compositional order, hierarchy of media, and praised European Modernism. DeFeo became influenced by Abstract Expressionism through magazines as well as through contact with friends studying at the California School of Fine Arts.
In 1951, DeFeo was awarded a grant from Berkeley to travel to Europe, a trip that had a huge impact on the direction that her art would take. She went to France, England, Spain, North Africa and finally settled in Florence, Italy for six months. During her European sabbatical, she entered into a period of intense artistic creation, having been given the opportunity to study and copy those prehistoric, medieval and indigenous artworks that most fascinated her from the major European collections. Within a period of three months she had produced more than two hundred paintings. When it came time to return to California in early 1953, she filled crates with her drawings and canvases.
Back in California, DeFeo moved into a large flat, which allowed her to create grand plaster sculptures up to eight feet tall. It is clear throughout her career that the artist’s environment at any given moment had a great impact on the dimensions that her works would take. In June of 1953, she moved to a smaller apartment, where she concentrated on wire sculptures, the scale of which reflected her transition to a more modest space. She began to make jewelry in order to sustain herself, and was quite successful at selling her pieces. In this period, she developed her visual vocabulary: such motifs as the circle placed in the center of another geometric form could be seen across various media, and would be a recurring element in her work.
In 1955, she moved with her husband, artist Wally Hedrick, to a larger apartment in San Francisco, which included a studio space big enough for both of them to use. Among those living in the neighborhood were a multitude of painters, poets, artists and musicians, who inspired a creative energy in the couple. Additionally, Hedrick’s gallery, Six Gallery, which he opened in 1954 with a group of five artist friends, gave DeFeo direct contact to San Francisco’s art world. The couple’s apartment became the center of the bohemian artist community, and frequent parties were held in their home.
Watch a video of Bruce Conner discussing The Rose:
During this period DeFeo began to manipulate paint in a sculptural way, creating fissures and crevices within the material. She reflected upon the gray cityscapes of Europe, where architecture seemed to merge with the land, creating what appeared as a vast terrain. This muted metropolitan palette inspired her shift away from more vibrant colours, as she began to show a preference for blacks, grays and whites.
In 1958 she commenced work on her masterpiece without a concrete idea of what it would become. In response to previous paintings she had done of roses, the artist’s work in process became known as Deathrose, White Rose, or simply The Rose. Through this artwork she demonstrated her new predilection for white and gray tones and interest in thick impasto. Over a period of eight years, DeFeo layered, carved, scraped and molded the paint upon the surface of the canvas in an obsessive manner, constantly changing its overall form. The artist came to identify so strongly with the painting that she prolonged its completion for fear of her separation from it.
The painting was finally left in what would be its final state when DeFeo and her husband were evicted from their Filmore St. apartment, and the painting forcibly extracted from the window. The Rose gained still deeper recognition as a result of artist Bruce Conner’s movie of its removal through the dismantled window of DeFeo’s studio by forklift. The movie, which depicts the artist draped across the painting as it lay flat on the ground, illustrates the strong bond uniting DeFeo to her work.
DeFeo struggled to begin a new project after the completion of The Rose, and did not work for two years. She was now in a new environment away from her artistic community, and in 1965 had separated from Hedrick. As if to signify a new period in her life and in her career, DeFeo became interested in works on paper and photographs, with a particular focus on textures. She took her own photographs and made collages, and became interested in the use of the photocopy machine. In 1971, she completed a series that included photomontage and paintings depicting her teeth, which she had lost through illness and that she kept as a talisman thereafter. Her works on paper continued to influence and inspired her works on canvas, and vice-versa.

When DeFeo learned that she had lung cancer in 1988, she began to paint fervently. Feeling herself fade away, she returned to oil painting, and slowly reintroduced colours to her work through depictions of landscapes and nature. Dove One (1989) was inspired by the artist’s failed attempt to save a wounded dove that she found in her garage. DeFeo identified with the injured animal, and admired the valiance with which it seemed to face its death. The artist’s empathy towards the animal is seen in her depiction of the bird’s massive black eye. Those who look into the eye seem to share the dove’s destiny, and can sense the fate with which the artist herself was faced. DeFeo’s final painting Last Valentine (1989) was finished right before she died of cancer in the same year.
By Anne Cecile Surga

Images Courtesy:

1: Jay Defeo, The Rose, 128 7/8 x 92 1/4 x 11 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, © 2012 The Jay Defeo Trust/Artist Rights Society, Photograh by Ben Blackwell

2: Jay Defeo, Dove One, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm), Collection of Dan and Claire Carlevaro, © 2012 The Jay Defeo Trust/Artist Rights Society, Photograh by Ben Blackwell

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