Letter from New York
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art

by Brett Baker

Known primarily as the author of the mythic painting The Rose, Jay DeFeo (1929-1989) was an enigmatic artist whose fierce devotion to a single work became her claim to fame. It also damaged her career, and in doing so delayed exposure of her work to a wider public. This damage is only now being undone by the first retrospective of her work, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until June 2.

DeFeo’s reputation peaked early in her career. In 1959 curator Dorothy Miller invited DeFeo onto the great stage of MoMA to exhibit alongside Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, and Robert Rauschenberg in the seminal show Sixteen Americans. DeFeo agreed to participate, yet refused to send The Rose because she wished to push the work further. The painting would occupy her continuously until 1966.

Exhibited only twice in DeFeo’s lifetime, The Rose (1958-1966) became legend. A foot thick and weighing more than a ton, the painting languished in storage at the San Francisco Art Institute for decades until it was acquired and restored in the mid 1990s. The only other major exhibition of the painting was also held at the Whitney in 2003.

Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958-66; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


The current retrospective, however, is not only about The Rose, though it is the heart of the installation. Ten years later, this show provides a broader view of the artist and demonstrates the range of DeFeo’s considerable oeuvre. Her early work, The Rose, and her late work, when seen together, argue persuasively for her inclusion in the Abstract Expressionist canon.

The exhibition opens abruptly with the revelation that DeFeo was a natural talent from the outset. She worked with inspiration and purpose from the beginning. Her early work, on view in the first gallery, suggests an innate religiosity, a penchant for mixing media, and a Picasso-like facility with forms – natural skills she cultivated throughout her career. A series of early painted cruciforms morph into birds and kites. These “kites,” are freely painted with a joyful touch, yet they are also un-flyable and foreboding.

The second gallery shows another aspect of DeFeo’s artistic personality – relentless experimentation. Although a strength, this also made DeFeo’s work difficult to categorize; critics and collectors prefer a signature style. Her work here is flat and hieratic in one piece, spatial and carefully observed in the next. She also mixed media easily. There are paintings, drawings, and photo-collages. The drawing Apparition (1956) reminds one of Leonardo da Vinci’s minutely detailed studies, yet its subject remains ambiguous, most closely resembling a head of hair or grass-like vegetation. All of this puts her at odds with the other great Abstract Expressionist painters, the majority of whom worked primarily in oil paint on canvas.

By the mid 1950s, when DeFeo began her great series of canvases that would culminate in The Rose, New York painting was dominated by the all over gesture. DeFeo’s paintings of this period are gestural, too, but her gestures add up to palpable forms. The resulting discrete imagery sets her apart –  waves, wings, cliffs, water, the cruciform, all ultimately merge into the flowering form of The Rose.

The third gallery brings these paintings together in proximity to The Rose, perhaps for the first time. The curators have arranged these tall, vertical works in a chapel like formation. Except for The Rose, these are DeFeo’s greatest works. In Jewel (1959), DeFeo begins in earnest the sculpting in paint she would take to the extreme in The Rose. With high ridges and deep wound-like fissures, Jewel is both a landscape and a religious image – one of deep suffering.

In the adjacent painting, Incision (1958-61), a shale colored work, DeFeo’s materiality exceeds that of Clyfford Still. The upper right corner of the painting resembles Still’s earth-like surfaces, yet in DeFeo’s painting a flow of pigment more than a foot thick cascades out of the painting – as if the earth itself were erupting to life out of its painted double. The effect is close to that of Still, yet more intense. This work also anticipates the scorched field paintings of Anselm Kiefer by decades, down to the small metal items hanging from string embedded in the thickest, lowest surfaces.

Directly opposite, the painting Annunciation (1957-59) shimmers, its twin forms rising dramatically. Constructed of thousands of similarly shaped marks, it synthesizes gestural abstraction with the Leonardo-esque scrutiny seen in drawings like Apparition.

The opposition of these two paintings leads viewers to an apse-like gallery, designed by the curators to hold The Rose. The small gallery is painted a dramatic black. The Rose is side-lit, both to recreate the light in DeFeo’s San Francisco apartment where the painting was made, and to emphasize the surface of the work. As great as the painting is (and it is one of, if not the, greatest Abstract Expressionist painting of the late 1950s) the chapel metaphor goes too far.

The setting is overly dramatic. It is unclear whether the room is off limits or not (it is not) and though it has a desirable effect of thinning the crowd, it also cuts The Rose off from the other paintings. The Rose has always stood alone, as a mythical object. The opportunity to see it together with her other large paintings is not lost but is diminished by its staging. DeFeo clearly venerated The Rose, holding it close, shepherding it (or perhaps the painting led her) for more than seven years. Her legendary efforts will forever hold it apart from her other works, but it grew out of them as well.

The Rose took a toll on DeFeo’s health. She did not return to the studio until 1970, four years after it was completed.  She changed her focus primarily to drawing and photography. Yet, the mystery of The Rose clearly stayed with her. In Unknown Image (1971), the handle of a cup is isolated and transformed into an abstract form – the familiar rendered unfamiliar through selective visual attention. Likewise, Crescent Bridge II, 1970–72, an image of a dental bridge (the artist’s own) is abruptly and unexpectedly presented to the viewer, rendered as an unsettling landscape.

For a painter whose works on canvas were so forceful early in her career, DeFeo’s later work is dominated by her drawings. She subjected a variety of items at hand to her formidable draftsmanship. If her earlier paintings proved she was as good as any abstract painter, her graphite drawings of ordinary items – swimming goggles, her camera tripod, a tape dispenser – are as accomplished as any contemporary realist. She scrutinizes each item with zeal.
Her paintings from the late 1970s on, however, leave one with the feeling she was trying to “paint up” her drawings in an effort to work again on a grander scale, and they suffer for it. This strategy constricts the gesture that flowed so naturally from her pencil. The exception is found in two large diptychs: the primarily white Cygnus and the dark Masquerade in Black (Loop System No. 4) (both 1975). These succeed, in part, because they are more dynamically spatial. They share a painterly atmospheric depth lacking in her other paintings from this period.

In her last years, DeFeo worked on a small scale with mixed results; nevertheless there are standouts until the very end. The drawing Pink Cup (1989) is haunting, and the small painting Room with a View (1989) successfully translates the magic of her drawings into paint.

One leaves Jay DeFeo’s retrospective startled at how flawed the first draft of art history can be. It is heartening, however, to know that with this exhibition a great painter will begin to receive the attention she deserves. DeFeo and The Rose live up to the myth.

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