Art Nerd No. 3: A Rumination on Jay DeFeo

If you have formed a Circle go into it, go into it yourself and see how you would do.  – William Blake

When she was a kid, Jay’s parents bought her a “how-to-draw” book. Her favorite exercise was how to draw a perfect circle. She spent as much time drawing as she did erasing. More than a few pencil sharpeners perished in her quest for perfection.

DeFeo in her San Francisco apartment, at work on “The Rose” in 1960. Photograph by Burt Glinn / Magnum

“At the end of her life, DeFeo described a waking dream in which, reborn as someone else in the future, she wanders through room after room of a museum and suddenly finds “The Rose,” restored, a person staring intently at it. She walks up to the person. “You know,” she says, “I did that.” ” —“An Obsession, Now Excavated” by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, Friday, October 10, 2003
After college, Jay traveled throughout Europe for two years on a fellowship. When she returned to the States, she settled in San Francisco and immersed herself in the burgeoning art scene that would later serve as a template for the 60s counter-culture movement. In 1954, she married fellow artist Wally Hedrick, a founding member of the Six Gallery. A year later, that same gallery hosted the infamous reading where a young Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” to an exuberant crowd while a drunken Kerouac treated everyone to a free-flowing jug of red wine.

In 1958, a broke but very determined Jay rented a studio on Fillmore Street. She began work on two paintings and finished “The Jewel,” a mystical painting depicting symmetrical radiating facets in white, varying hues of reds and browns against a black background, a year later. This painting held the promise of Jay’s process of admission and elimination, piling on paint then chipping it away until a form revealed itself. The second painting would take Jay eight years to complete.

The Jewel. Jay DeFeo (New Hampshire, Hanover, 1929-1989) 1959. Oil on canvas.

In her seventh year at work, she was evicted from her studio on Fillmore Street. It took eight movers and a forklift to move the work-in-progress painting. Two feet of a large windowsill had to be cut to get the behemoth out.

She managed to find a new workshop for her colossal creation in a storage room at the Pasadena Art Museum.  Perched on a ladder, in a white lab coat and white cotton gloves, she made her final cuts and adjustments while sipping brandy and smoking Gauloise cigarettes. “The Rose” measured 11 feet high and 8 feet across, and weighed more than a ton.

By the time Jay was ready to show off her gigantic baby, the art world had changed. The Ab Ex crowd was out, and pop art was the rage. After a showing in Pasadena and San Francisco, the rock strata surface of her glorified circle painting began to fall apart. Jay would spend the next twenty years trying to save her legacy. But salvation rarely came without a price, and in 1989 Jay Defeo died of lung cancer.  A couple of years later, the Whitney acquired “The Rose” and gave it a $250K facelift.

Object Label from the Whitney Museum of American Art:

“First exhibited in 1969, The Rose was taken to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was covered with plaster for support and protection, and finally stored behind the wall of a conference room. Legend grew about the painting, but it remained sealed until 1995, when Whitney curator Lisa Phillips had it excavated and restored by a team of conservators, who created a backing strong enough to support the heavy paint. DeFeo resisted offering an explanation or interpretation of the work, although she did acknowledge that despite the work’s enormous size and rough surfaces, there was a connection to “the way actual rose petals are formed and how they relate to each other in the flower.” (http://collection.whitney.org/object/10075)

Art Nerd is a series of art exhibition reviews, profiles, and articles written by @gessydigsu.