Jay DeFeo worked solely on a single painting, The Rose, for eight years straight, from 1958 to 1966. That prodigious expenditure of labor and devotion necessitated an equally epic outlay of materials, and the finished work, which occupies the heart of the Whitney’s survey of the San Francisco artist’s career, is an absolutely massive concretion of oil paint. Standing more than ten and a half feet high, and measuring seven and a half across, The Rose is 11 inches thick in places and weighs in at approximately 1,500 pounds. With its surface literally carved by the artist into a series of rounded facets radiating from a central point, The Rose is a monumental sculpture as much as it is a painting.
As a composition, the piece recalls an unremarkable starburst, but as an object it incites wonder. Cracked and riven by deep fissures, ashen gray at the edges and marmoreal white in the center, The Rose evokes a geological formation, as well as an archaeological one, an immeasurably ancient artifact that seems only half-excavated. The exhibition isolates the work in a black-painted room under theatrical lighting raking it from the sides, apparently in an effort to reproduce the conditions in DeFeo’s studio. It feels a little hokey, but it works. The Rose has an undeniable presence, inviting contemplation, but it is awesome, implacable and rather alien, sort of like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Still, a work as singular and powerful as The Rose can overshadow everything else that an artist produces. Janet Cardiff’s utterly transporting disembodied soundscape, The Forty Part Motet, from 2001, may constitute a recent example. And how will Christian Marclay ever top the unbridled success of his 2010 masterpiece, The Clock? In DeFeo’s case, The Rose has long dominated all discussions of her oeuvre, its legend enhanced by the fact that it disappeared for 20 years, immured behind a wall at the San Francisco Art Institute, until it was rescued, restored and acquired by the Whitney in 1995.
We should expect this retrospective to redress the imbalance in our view of the artist, and, as judiciously curated by Dana Miller, the show attempts just that. Yet despite admirable intentions, it fails. In the end, there is just no hiding the fact that, outside of the unearthly grandeur of The Rose, DeFeo was a very minor artist.
She got an early start, fresh out of art school, making timely, if unpromising, works in the vein of Abstract Expressionism, especially its West Coast variations, at the beginning of the 1950s. She moved in the circles of the Beats, and Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl took place in 1955 at her husband’s Six Gallery, where she often worked. She was not a gifted painter, but by the middle of the decade she had hit upon a means of making passable canvases with repeated gestures of the palette knife, striving for a feathery quality but actually remaining mired in a muddy spectrum of grays or reddish browns. The Annunciation, of 1957–59, for example, ends up recalling one of Soutine’s sides of beef far more than any angel.
After the interregnum in her practice caused by her single-minded dedication to The Rose, DeFeo never again made a large painting of any note. Her works from the 1970s and ’80s, often in white paint on black grounds, essayed a kind of generic Expressionist style—dentist-office abstraction, one might call it. She fared better with works on paper, particularly in several series of drawings based on everyday objects—her camera tripod, a pair of swimming goggles, a broken Scotch tape dispenser, an old plow—that combine delicate gradations of tone with precise line and a beautifully allusive preference for unfinished forms. Her modest photographs, many seeing the light of day for the first time in this exhibition, also display a love of the overlooked and the intimate, along with an interest in the chaotic forms and contrasting textures of the natural world, as well as a Surrealist predilection for juxtaposing disparate objects.
In the very last year of her life—DeFeo died tragically of cancer at age 60 in 1989—she did again achieve a kind of wonder in her paintings, this time at the small and intimate end of the spectrum, instead of the gargantuan and mythic. Last Valentine, from a series of 16-by-20-inch canvases, features a central image, a heart, but invokes a quiet meditation with its subtle and unassuming brushwork—a Rose by other means that smells as sweet.
—Joseph R. Wolin