Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Jay DeFeo and The Rose

Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective will leave the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Feb 3, 2013 to move on to the Whitney Museum of American Art - the institution central to reviving the name of local artist, Jay DeFeo. This not-to-be-missed exhibit is the most comprehensive gathering of DeFeo’s work to date, and includes examples of her repertoire in several media displayed together for the first time in over fifteen years. Painting, drawing, sculpture, jewelry, photography and photo-collage are featured, as well as the work that has been referred to as "a marriage between painting and sculpture", her career-defining piece, The Rose.

So much has been written about The Rose, it is steeped in such lore, that one expects to be disappointed upon seeing it for the first time. Worry not however, the work is as powerful and mammoth as its background story:  DeFeo began the painting in 1958 in her apartment at 2322 Fillmore and worked on it almost exclusively for eight years until, when evicted, she was forced to "finish" it. The painting has been called her Frankenstein, for as she obsessively painted it grew to weigh one ton and measure 11ft x8ft and 11 inches deep. The painting blocked all sunlight from her bay windows except that flooding in from sides, leaving the rest of the studio in near darkness. To remove the painting from the apartment required a crew of eight professional movers and the removal of a section of the building's wall--as famously documented in Bruce Conner's film The White Rose. The gargantuan work was then taken to The Pasadena Museum of Art (DeFeo followed it for some additional touch-ups) where it showed, then to the San Francisco Museum of Art, both in 1969, the only year in DeFeo's lifetime that the piece was exhibited.

image source:Whitney Museum of American Art

Across eight years, the artist declined several offers to purchase or exhibit what she considered to be an "unfinished" piece. The Museum of Modern Art hoped to exhibit the work in 1959 and during the same year a private collector offered $10,000 for it. At one time, The Rose had a waiting list of thirteen individuals and institutions interested in its purchase upon completion. In the painting’s infancy DeFeo gained a national reputation, through articles in national magazines and photographs taken by her contemporary art peers, but by the time the work was finished potential buyers had vanished as interest in the Beat Scene waned and, moreover, it became evident that The Rose was in need of a difficult, costly, and imperative conservation.

Raising funds for such conservation became a new preoccupation for DeFeo, and a concern for conservators. Local papers ran articles on the subject in the early 1970s, but funds were elusive. In the meantime, The San Francisco Art Institute offered their McMillan Conference room to house The Rose, but what began as display turned into long term storage. To protect the piece from already evident structural degradation, Tony Rockwell, conservator at the San Francisco Museum of Art, proposed an unconventional treatment— enshrining the painting within a layer of protective wax, mulberry tissue, chicken wire and white-plaster stabilizer. This left the work unrecognizable but safe until a future date when conservation could be undertaken. The Rose waited in this mummified state, eventually becoming even further entombed by a wall erected in front of it for classroom purposes. Twenty-plus years would pass with DeFeo's hidden masterpiece going all but unnoticed.

DeFeo passed away in 1989. In the last years of her life, her attention again returned to conserving The Rose. Several art institutions also contemplated the expense and feasibility of restoring the piece, but unfortunately none were capable of committing. It was a high stakes gamble--putting a hundred thousand dollars on an unconventional painting, preserved by unconventional methods for a work that had been unviewable for over twenty years. The Whitney was the institution to make the gamble. When planning their 1995 exhibition Beat Culture and the New America, 1950 -1965, their Director learned of The Rose's suspended state and leapt at the opportunity to rescue what he considered to be one of the great post-war American artworks. The treatment cost over $250,000 and the painting gained an additional half ton in weight, but as the San Francisco Examiner art critic David Bonetti stated in a 1995 article, “The salvage of The Rose and the Whitney exhibition are two events in DeFeo’s slow rehabilitation. Like so many Bay Area phenomena, hers is a legend that fades east of Sacramento and south of San Jose. But unlike most of them, she deserves greater fame.”

The current exhibition Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective ensures the artist's legacy beyond the Bay Area.  

Select Bibliography:

San Francisco Public Library Artists Vertical File and Scrapbook - DeFeo's vertical file  chronicles the painting’s history through newspaper articles from the 1970s to present.

Sixteen Americans, edited by Dorothy C. Miller, with statements by the artists and others (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1959) - Jay DeFeo’s inclusion in this landmark 1959 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, curated by Dorothy Canning Miller, launched the artist’s national reputation. DeFeo was one of only two women included, the other being the older and more established Louise Nevelson, among a set of male soon-to-be art luminaries such as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Miller tried to persuade DeFeo to show The Rose, but had to settle for including an image of the work in the exhibition catalog. Interestingly, DeFeo's work would not show again in New York for another thirty years.

Jay DeFeo: Selected Works, Past and Present; text by David S. Rubin (San Francisco Art Institute, c1984) - An exhibition catalog is for DeFeo's 1984 retrospective at SFAI. The show was her largest to date and included, 44 paintings, drawings and mixed media pieces, including a companion piece to The Rose, The Jewel, which had not been displayed up until this time.

Jay DeFeo: Works on Paper by Sidra Stich (University Art Museum, University of California at Berkeley, 1989) - A retrospective exhibit of drawings, photo collages and paintings on paper.

Greatest Works of Art of Western civilization, selected by Thomas Hoving (Artisan, 1997) - the former director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, choose The Rose as one of his greatest works of art of Western civilization. Of the selected artworks, The Rose is both the most contemporary and only one by a woman.

Jay Defeo and the Rose, edited by Jane Green and Leah Levy (University of California Press; Whitney Museum of American Art, 2003) - the most complete collection of essays on the painting, including an account of its restoration.

Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era by Rebecca Solnit (City Lights Books, 1990) - a study of six artists of the Northern California avant-garde that places DeFeo in a broader artistic community.

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