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, she would continue to paint.

According to a 2013 Huffington Post article that covered the retrospective exhibit of DeFeo’s work at The Whitney, the process of the The Rose was an obsession that in the final years was finished upon a backdrop of DeFeo’s fragile physical and mental state, as well as her failing marriage to painter Wally Hedrick. In 1966, the painting had grown so large that it no longer fit through the door. The bay window and the wall beneath had to be taken out, and a forklift was used to lower it from the second floor onto a flatbed truck. The process was captured on film by DeFeo’s friend, the artist Bruce Conner, in his 1967 film The White Rose. It was said that she almost followed The Rose right out of the window.

Getting ready to move The Rose. Image courtesy of ARS New York and Jay DeFeo Foundation

I have written about in poems and stories, and dreamed frequently about jumping out of windows (and also of flying, but that’s commonplace). The significance of jumping out of a window versus leaving through a door, is the (s)urge for an unconventional kind of freedom–and from what, you might ask. For me, it’s a myriad of impossible things, with mild depression as the easiest, most-generalized answer. When I went about researching The Rose, I did not expect to find the girth of obsession, bordered by depressive mania, to match the materiality of the object itself – weight and gravity.

From San Francisco, The Rose was transported to the Pasadena Museum of Art, where DeFeo continued to work on the piece for another three months. It was on display once in 1969, but was unable to find a permanent home. The San Francisco Art Institute offered to house it, and to ensure its preservation, the mammoth was enshrined behind a plaster mold and a temporary wall for the next 25 years.

DeFeo at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1969). Photo credit: unknown

DeFeo would pass in 1989 due to cancer, before knowing what would ever happen to The Rose. Six years later after her death, in 1995, her magnum opus would be excavated, and displayed at The Whitney. Ten years later, in 2015, I would come upon it, gravitating toward DeFeo’s “center” as if discovering the hole of her psyche: the heaviness and largeness of a life in which a window had to be removed, and a forklift had to be used to set it free.

Stay Backwords,

Jenny M. Chu

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