Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective

Reviewed by David Gilbert


It seems insulting to write only a few paragraphs about a painting that took eight years to make. So, at first, I wanted to write about Jay DeFeo and not even mention The Rose. Brutal and thick, it weighs somewhere between 1500-2300 pounds and looks birthed by an alien. DeFeo applies layers and layers and layers of paint, just to scrape it away, reclaiming what lay beneath. The canvas is Penelope’s loom, made, built upon, and then undone in the still of the night. The painting is a body, ripe with raw muscles and spilled guts. Such visceral messes can be found in contemporary artists from Paul McCarthy to Joyce Pensato. Superficial skins peel away to reveal all the unseen strata; flayed, sensitive, alive.

The body of The Rose is DeFeo’s: there are the legends of how she lost her eyebrows and fingernails while working on this colossal piece. There’s the romance of toiling over one thing for an insanely long time, that urge to get it right. The Rose retains a certain wrongness in its embarrassment, its earnestness, its ungainly body. This is precisely what makes it compelling and right. The Rose is the ultimate example of the famous Valery quote; “Poems are never finished, merely abandoned.” This painting was only finished (we can imagine wrested from her hands) when DeFeo was forced out of her studio. A window had to be knocked out, and a crane hoisted it from her building. After that DeFeo continued working on The Rose for three months at the Pasadena Museum of Art where it was shown, then it was briefly exhibited at SFMOMA before being stored in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1979 a protective wall was put in front of the painting, and it was to remain unseen until the Whitney acquired it and set about restoring it in 1995. DeFeo had died six years earlier.


At her retrospective in San Francisco, The Rose was displayed in its own altar-like room, reverentially framed and lit. I found it hard to engage with the painting in front of me. How can you really look at something so steeped in myth and legend? What I found most interesting about The Rose was how its story of creation engaged my imagination. I imagined the multitude of paintings that existed on this very canvas: effaced, private paintings that I will never get to see. I think you could describe the piece as performative, but that seems more self-conscious then the artist’s devotion. After eight years, it’s more like DeFeo had an ever-evolving (dare I say unhealthy?) relationship with The Rose.

And, it’s happened to me too. I’ve been consumed by The Rose. This was supposed to be a book review, and it became a meditation on just one painting. I wrest The Rose from my thoughts, and turn to the tome that accompanies the recent exhibition. Funnily enough, the book is a little too big and clunky, a little like The Rose itself. The book’s illustrations fail to convey DeFeo’s brilliant use of scale and texture—she was a true master at both those things. I’m not sure exactly how a book would convey those qualities, but maybe it’s another example of how important it is to experience art like this in person.
Butflipping through the book, looking at the images, I do a lot of sighing. DeFeo is able to convey a vulnerability that provokes involuntarily reactions. Her work is visceral and immediate, yet also well-crafted and deliberate. She is able to maneuver from medium to medium, from sculpture to collage to jewelery-making to painting to photography to drawing. And, her idiosyncratic way of engaging with each medium and her fluid ability to work between them seems to presage the way many artists strive to work today.
The final plate in the book is Last Valentine, one of DeFeo’s small paintings made right before her death. Just off center (a little up and to the right) is an almost heart-shaped form, made up of daubs of purple, mauve, and brown paint. The background is an off-white creamy color, venturing into light beige, which is thickly applied like icing. Here is a narrative less epic and grand then that of The Rose, yet it still feels intimate and devotional. A painting of a heart (also titled Last Valentine) risks being cheesy, but the central shape never fully coheres, it does look like a heart but also resembles a formation of feathers or rocks. On the flip side, there’s an ephemeral quality to the painting that comes from the colors: the heart threatens to blend into the background. So, DeFeo almost presents us with a symbol like the heart and all that it connotes: love, life, the body, the primary organ, but at the same time, that symbol threatens to fade away, into the background. As one of the last works made by a prolific artist, the painting serves as a reminder of the delicate nature of the heart—both in life and in art.


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Dana Miller, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective (Whitney/Yale, 2012) 
Images: Cover and interior of Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective