DANAMILLER: The Rose is DeFeo’s landmark painting. She spent almost eight years working on it, from 1958 to 1966. When she began the work she had really no notion of what she was going to make. She said the only thing she knew was that she was going to create a painting that had a center. That’s what she began with.
She would apply paint using palette knives and trowels, and build it up in this very, very extensive manner and then carve it back and shape it.There were days where she would walk into the studio in the morning and the paint had shifted overnight. While she had been happy with what it looked like when she left the evening before, it had been completely ruined in the course of gravity shifting the paint just because of the thick application.
She would have to, in some cases, scrape it all the way back and start over. It was a sum of its destructions in many ways.
NARRATOR: Jay DeFeo in 1988.
JAYDEFEO: It reached really final stages. You know, kind of like a whole cycle of art history. It went through a primitive, archaic, classic, and all on up to baroque and then I realized how kind of flamboyant the whole concept had gotten and I kind of pulled it back to a more classical stage. All of those stages were rather complete and interesting in themselves but just not what the final version was, what I intended. And I suppose, I don’t know whether it would have all gone on, on one canvas if I’d had the kind of studio that it could have spread itself out in a little bit. But I just had one big painting wall.
NARRATOR: DeFeo didn’t actually hang The Rose on a wall—she set it inside the large bay window in her studio, so the light came in from the two narrow windows on either side of the painting. This raking light was essential to the formation and the appearance of the painting, and we’ve worked to approximate that lighting in this exhibition. Please tap your screen to hear more about the way DeFeo used her studio space while making The Rose.
Audio guide stop for Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66 Level 2
NARRATOR: In 1988, DeFeo and the curator Sidra Stitch discussed the making of The Rose.
JAYDEFEO: You know it was in the bay window of an old Victorian house, and when I say it was in there, it was in there! It had to be edged out with the greatest of care. And one of the great problems of painting it was a lot of broken glass. The windows were not even—we didn’t even have heat or light in that room. I just worked when the sun came up until—sometimes when really compulsive, by street lamp. That’s all I had down there. I turned off the PG&E. It was also very cold—I used to really dress for the cold weather. Part of the great problem of painting that picture—did I tell you this? About later seeing the profile of the painting? [Stitch: No.] Well, it wasn’t until the painting was removed that I was able to see—it does have a profile sort of like a pregnant woman! [Oh my.] There’s not a straight line in the piece. It has the illusion of—people have asked me, did you use rulers, how did you do this. It was all by measuring one curve against another curve in order to get a straight line. And it was complicated by the problem or the fact that because of the dampness in the atmosphere coming in through the back, not only was it bad for the canvas but it also increased the tightening and loosening of the canvas as the seasons changed. And in order to get that illusion of this thing coming out properly from the center, I would build up when the canvas tightened, and then when it loosened I would compensate for that. So even though the form was coming along fine, the depth was not coming along fine, depending on what season it was. And hacking away at one corner, thinking the problem was down there, I’d find out that the problem was somewhere else. That I really experienced as the real hard row to hoe that a sculptor has.
NARRATOR: The painting was wedged tightly into the window—and it was much too large to fit through the door of her studio and go down the stairs. There was no way to get the painting out but to cut through the window and the wall beneath and use a forklift to lower it from the building’s second story. Removing the painting was an elaborate operation—one that was captured by DeFeo’s friend, the artist Bruce Conner, and edited into his 1967 film The White Rose.
Audio guide stop for Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66 Level 3
NARRATOR: In 1958, DeFeo began work on two paintings simultaneously. This one, The Jewel, took her about two years to complete.
She continued working on its counterpart—a work that she initially titled Deathrose—for almost eight years.
In 1959, Dorothy Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, invited her to include the painting, which was still in progress, in the exhibition Sixteen Americans. It was a tremendous opportunity. This was the exhibition that first brought major attention to the artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg, and Frank Stella. DeFeo had five works in the exhibition, but she wasn’t willing to let the unfinished Deathrose leave her studio. Still, its photograph appeared in the exhibition catalogue.
When DeFeo began the painting—which she ultimately titled The Rose —its focal point wasn’t positioned at the center of the canvas compositionally. After she’d worked on the painting for about a year, she concluded that it needed to be both larger and centered.
It took sixteen people working all day to cut the enormous painting off of its stretcher and glue it to a bigger canvas. They then wedged the painting tightly into the bay window in DeFeo’s studio.
DeFeo built up the surface with layers of oil paint and carved it back down repeatedly, resulting in multiple different stages over the years. She described those stages in art-historical terms. The photograph on your screen now shows a flamboyantly curving composition—what DeFeo called its “baroque” phase.
Eventually, DeFeo straightened out the lines, so that the final work took on what she described as a more “classical” form.