Weight & Gravity, Jay DeFeo's The Rose

DeFeo and The Deathrose. Photo credit: Burt Glinn

Last summer I went to New York City, and I found my refuge from the humidity in the New York Public Library, under the shades of trees in Central Park, and in various art galleries. The Whitney Museum of American Art was where I approached Jay DeFeo’s The Rose–in the way I do with most contemporary art pieces: confused and intrigued by the perceived irrelevance of it. I was drawn in by the vulgarity and stature. The Rose, at nearly 12 ft tall, 8 inches thick in some places, and over 2,000 pounds, looks like a gigantic cement asterix: a mystical geological feature rising out of the rubble, a spiritual aberration from a landslide of small boulders. It made me think of pumice, of climbing and falling, of skinned knees.

Defeo was 29 years old when she started the piece, first named the Deathrose, then The White Rose, and finally as it is known today, The Rose. It took her eight years (1958-66) to complete. According to DeFeo, the piece had gone through “...a whole cycle of art history. It went through a primitive, archaic, classic, and all on up to baroque and then I realized how kind of flamboyant the whole concept had gotten and I kind of pulled it back to a more classical stage.” Not so different from how one’s life evolves, how the years and the experiences pack on layer after painstaking layer. Even so, the primordial and the industrial felt simultaneously present in The Rose. I could feel my bipeds grating on DeFeo’s surface.

DeFeo in her studio. Photo credit: Jerry Burchard

The Rose, in her words is “a marriage between painting and sculpture.” In an interview with Paul Karlstrom in 1975, DeFeo said she began the work simply as an “idea that had a center to it” – what I can only explain, having stood in front of it, as weight and gravity.

The painting’s evolution took place while propped in the bay window on the second floor of an old Victorian house on Fillmore Street, in downtown San Francisco. It was the Beat-era, and she became a figure amongst artists, poets, and jazz musicians of that time. When I think of the Beat movement, having come from a literary background, I think of the writers: Ginsberg’s “Howl” and not caring for any of his other work, of Bukowski’s effusive confessionals and booze, of reading Kerouac for the first time in high school and feeling bored out of my mind – of never remembering anything about any women at all. But for all the fame and infamy that glorified boys club drummed up, it’s DeFeo’s monolith piece of work that feels worthy to be sensationalized and to be remembered.

DeFeo on Fillmore. Image courtesy of New York Magazine

You can hear DeFeo speaking with curator Sidra Stitch in 1988 about the making of The Rose: “...dampness in the atmosphere...increased the tightening and loosening of the canvas as the seasons changed...in order to get that illusion of this thing coming out properly from the center I [DeFeo] would build up when the canvas tightened, and then when it loosened I would compensate for that…” She used palette knives and trowels to work up the white and black oil paint, adding dowels, and then she would carve it back to shape. Mica was mixed in, so that light reflected out from within the painting. She would sometimes work late into the night, using only the street lamps through the window to see. Her PGE was shut off, and, without heat or light