Sunday, April 7, 2013

the rose in my wall

Jay DeFeo (1929–1989), The Rose, 1958–66. Oil w/wood and mica on canvas, 128 7/8x92 1/4x11 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; gift of The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley, CA, purchased w/funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation 95.170. © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph by Ben Blackwell

 jay defeo
 at the whitney 

I went to school at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-70s. By the time I arrived, Jay DeFeo's legendary painting, The Rose, had long been entombed behind a sheet rock wall, placed there for protection and because at the time there was just nowhere else to house it. I studied history in the conference room where it was stored, and all the while I envisioned it throbbing behind that wall, just inches from my professor. 

Back then, few of us had seen Bruce Conner's 1967 film, The White Rose, which documents the removal of the work from DeFeo's 3rd floor San Francisco apartment. We scarcely knew what form it took or what it really was. But we knew it was there, and a powerful legend swirled around the painting as well as the artist, its only rival the hammer and sickle rumored to have been painted out of Diego Rivera's famed mural, also at the Art Institute.

DeFeo working on Deathrose, 1960. Photograph by Burt Glinn. © Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

The 1970s were a dizzying time to be a painter, let alone a young woman maturing in the dawn of feminism. While we blithely passed judgement on rich and famous female artists or those that seemed to wear their feminism on their sleeves, I'm not sure we really understood that female role models were in such short supply.

On the other hand, there was a special place for the artists we revered -- and we did, on the whole, respect and exalt many women artists -- especially the visionaries, the tragic and the hard-living ones like Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell and Meret Oppenheim. But the Bay Area's beat artist Jay DeFeo had, by this time, earned a category all her own. 

Removing The Rose from DeFeo's apartment at 2322 Fillmore Street in San Francisco

You've heard all the stories -- DeFeo's obsession with and grim devotion to the painting, variously called Deathrose, The White Rose, and finally, The Rose -- an apartment-consuming, light-blocking, one-ton object massing over a seven-year period in the artist's Fillmore Street apartment. When she and her husband, the artist, Wally Hedrick, were evicted, the painting was removed along with the wall it had colonized. Months later it would be interred at the Art Institute, left to repair underneath layers of wax and plaster. And there it remained for some 25 years.

For me, being a young female artist in San Francisco at that time meant being haunted by Jay DeFeo. Her legacy, albeit one that was inflated with inaccuracies, was that of madness, delusion and crushing obsession. It was said the painting had consumed her; that it had pillaged her mind and destroyed her marriage; and that -- and this is perhaps the most romantic notion of all -- she had never worked again.

This, on top of the unfair and untimely death of Eva Hesse at just 34, and the power and sadness of Frida Kahlo whom, even in our midst seemed to be both a better painter than Rivera and perhaps the most overlooked artist of her generation, it all seemed to be a mighty and somewhat intoxicating conflation of our shared (and feared) destinies. Why we were so drawn to these women goes, I think, beyond their talent. That's another, and most interesting, conversation.

The Eyes, 1958, graphite on paper, 48 x 96", Whitney Museum of American Art, gift of the Lannan Fnd

For DeFeo, maybe it was the toxins from the near ton of lead paint in her living room that drove her into frailty. Or that, in concert with her daily intake of tobacco and booze. Or the fumes inside the creative mind. She was a good painter -- in fact, her early works, if uneven, reveal a deft and muscular hand and an elastic sense of composition. But she would never again create a work of the magnitude or focus as The Rose -- a work that is, in a word, sublime. 

The later works fall prey to various artistic pitfalls -- a touching but academic reliance on draftsmanship and compositions that seem chiseled out of a sort of calcified corner of the Ab Ex tradition. Still, she soldiered on. Looking at the body of work now on view at the Whitney, it's clear why Dorothy Miller, MoMA's pioneering curator, selected DeFeo for the seminal exhibition, 16 Americans, in 1959.

Crescent Bridge I (1972) synthetic polymer and mixed media on plywood

But the reason I wanted to write about this work is not only my direct history with it, but the idea of the Masterpiece. What is it? Does the idea or the possibility of creating a masterpiece exist in the 21st century? Are there absolutes required for a work of art to achieve such status? And, if and when we encounter a masterpiece, what is it that allows us to apprehend it as such?

Whitney Museum of American Art
At the Whitney, The Rose  hangs in its own chamber, recessed behind partial walls, something like the chancel of a cathedral. Surrounded by blackness, the painting is staged with lighting that rakes across its radiating fissures like The Raising of Lazarus. It's affecting, with everything in the exhibit leading up to this crescendo. Turning the corner into the gallery, the mica-infused surface glimmers with intent, artfulness, and sorrow. 

The painting, far too heavy to hang on a wall, is raised up on a sort of art-pontoon where it holds court close to but separate from works of the same period. I'm not sure why, but I kept thinking of Francis Bacon's Popes -- the centrality and perspective, and the gravitas -- to be sure. 

All the lighting and drama aside, I'm guessing The Rose could slay dragons from the side of a road.

After Image, 1970,© 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: by Paul Hester

I felt sad after leaving the Whitney, and while I acknowledge that there are sorrowful elements in DeFeo's work, I'm not entirely sure why I was so deflated. Is it that in the end, genius requires a greater sacrifice from women than it does from men?  Is it that madness -- even temporary madness -- is one of the requisite skill sets for greatness?

The post-The Rose works were competent but fractured, the vision disparate and the joie de vivre in her hand was now tempered -- circumspect. Still, she could push paint around, and in a few small works the oil paint rushes to corners and structural edges with a quality that is so tactile you can almost feel it between your teeth.

Still -- competence, beauty and steadfastness are worthy attributes, but a masterpiece they do not make.

Is madness required? 

Whitney Museum of American Art
through June 2, 2013

1 comment:

Steve Miller said...

Great piece of writing that touches on so many issues of an art practice. Does the myth sustain the viewing? That application is more relevant than ever.