The Return of Defeo’s Rose Evokes Its Determined Maker


The San Francisco-based artist Jay DeFeo spent the years from 1958 to 1966 in her Fillmore Street studio at work on a single painting. The Rose (as she came to call it) was painted, scraped, and painted over incessantly; nearly a ton of pigment went into its creation. DeFeo was evicted from her studio before the painting (by then immensely weighty) was completed; a window had to be enlarged and a crane hired to remove it. For decades, as the artist’s reputation languished, the painting lay entombed in plaster behind a wall in the San Francisco Art Institute, buried alive like a figure out of Edgar Allen Poe.

DeFeo died in 1989, before The Rose resurfaced. Now gloriously restored, it beckons from one wall of the marvelous small show of her work currently on view at the Whitney Museum. Its grotesquely beautiful volumes of cascading paint, radiating from a single center, exude the lure of some ecstatic vision or extraterrestrial. Few works of art seem so imbued with the life of their creator. A record of time passing, accreted like some geological formation, The Rose is an autobiography whose main story was taken over by its own making.

Other works attest to DeFeo’s close identification with The Rose and the price she paid for it. Her drawings of strange, striated creatures and ocular forms often concern sight and its limitations (not surprising, perhaps, for an artist whose major oeuvre had disappeared). DeFeo lost her teeth to gum disease brought on by exposure to paint toxins; her dentures show up in two large canvases, magnified to become craggy Western landscapes. The art world has traditionally been unkind to mid-career women artists; near or after death, they become ripe for reconsideration. Yet we’re grateful that once again DeFeo and The Rose have risen.