In the Heat of The Rose
In the Heat of The Rose
By Bill Berkson
Poet, art critic and San Francisco Art Institute Professor Emeritus Bill Berkson wrote about the seven-plus years Jay DeFeo spent creating her masterwork The Rose for Art in America magazine in March 1996. A shortened version of this piece appeared in the catalogue for the 1996 exhibition “Jay DeFeo: Selected Works 1952-1989.”
Some time in 1958, Jay DeFeo propped against the sliding double door of her back-room studio on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street a roughly seven-by-nine-foot canvas that bore the scraped-down green, pink and orange marks of one of her discarded “Mountain” series paintings and, under those, faint traces of another, still earlier picture on the theme, prophetically enough, of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Onto this surface she began loading piles of mostly white and dark gray oil paint in sharply divided, deeply grooved segments radiating from a recessed point slightly more than four inches to the right of, and slightly less than four above, the canvas’s center. (People who saw the work as it progressed have reported the presence of other colors — reds, ocher and blue; of these, only a few flecks of very pale ocher remain visible on the face of the picture today.) DeFeo later told the archivist Paul Karlstrom that initially her only guideline for the painting was “an idea that had a center to it.” There was, she said, “no notion of ‘the rose’ about it.” Months would go by before DeFeo assigned even a working title to her picture; finally, after eight years — and an eternity’s worth of bedraggling vicissitude — she called it The Rose.
For a while, starting from about the time she committed to her seemingly harmless idea, DeFeo attracted a considerable following as the painter to watch in a group of young West Coast artists that included Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman and DeFeo’s husband at the time, Wally Hedrick. The three-story building at 2322-24 Fillmore, where DeFeo and Hedrick lived and worked, was the unofficial epicenter of the small San Francisco art world; in the years 1955-65, other occupants of the four shotgun flats into which the building’s upper two floors had been divided were Michael and Joanna McClure, Craig Kaufmann, Ed Moses, James Kelly and Sonia Gechtoff, Joan and William Brown, and Jim Newman, the founder of the Dilexi Gallery. In late summer of 1959, going on six months after her thirtieth birthday, DeFeo had her first major solo show at the Dilexi’s upscale new space on Union Street, and on the strength of works seen both there and in the studio, Dorothy Miller chose five pieces by her for the “Sixteen Americans” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art — a country-wide (albeit mostly New York-parochial) gathering that, during its midwinter run at MOMA, also introduced to the museum-going public the likes of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson and Frank Stella. In January 1961, Miller featured DeFeo again in a “New Talent, U.S.A.” survey article for Art in America. The next year, a color photograph of DeFeo crouching on a ladder as she worked on a painting easily twice her height (it was The Rose in one of its intermediary phases) appeared in a Look magazine spread on “Creative America” with a text signed by then-president John F. Kennedy. Overtures from collectors and New York’s prominent Stable Gallery ensued. J. Patrick Lannan, the Chicago banker-turned-philanthropist and grand acquisitor, who visited DeFeo’s studio in 1959, just before Miller arrived on her scouting mission, bought a total of six works from the Dilexi and MOMA shows.
What followed amounted to both everything and nothing. From the mid ’60s on, DeFeo continued as a legendary figure in local art circles — indeed she epitomized the unbuttoned approach, at once achingly earnest and appositely reckless, that was Northern California’s big contribution to mid-century art making — but eventually her larger reputation faded. Although she had visited New York both before and after a fellowship trip to Europe in the early ’50s, the importance of being on hand for the “Sixteen Americans” opening eluded her: She and Hedrick, who was also in the show, took the pair of airplane tickets MOMA had sent and gave them away to friends. DeFeo had another one-person show, of abstract pictures from her European sojourn, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1960; after 1963, she withdrew from exhibiting and didn’t resume until 1971. With opportunity knocking, she had something else in mind. The “big gray painting,” as she referred to the work-in-progress she had shown Lannan and Miller in her studio, was getting bigger in both conception and literal size, and a pattern of refusal was beginning to emerge: Lannan offered at first sight to buy the picture (to DeFeo’s delight, he nicknamed it “The Endless Road”); Miller wanted it for her show; DeFeo demurred, declaring the work, by then titled “Deathrose,” to be unfinished. Miller eventually settled for a reproduction of the first phase of the painting in the “Sixteen Americans” catalogue, where its eruptive, quasi-symmetrical image still strikes up an engaging, if fundamentally uneasy and inconclusive, structural chat with such coeval emblematic works as Frank Stella’s Die Fahne hoch! and three of Jasper Johns’s target pictures. (In hindsight, DeFeo’s work at the time, although she herself couldn’t have been aware of the extent of its connections, ranks more pointedly with the types of metapainting — in high or low relief or with otherwise challenged pictorial surfaces — then practiced by, say, Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein in Europe, by Kazuo Shiraga and others of the Gutai group in Japan, and, in America, by Rauschenberg, Ronald Bladen, Lee Bontecou and, among DeFeo’s own San Francisco friends, Joan Brown and Jess.)
As it happened, the momentum of DeFeo’s career stalled around the demands of a single picture that held the promise of telling all and that finally swamped all else, to the point that, for people not privy to the range of her art, she would register as a one-work artist. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, once DeFeo had embarked fully on The Rose, she produced only one other picture, the stunning and even thicker, narrow escarpment called Incision, 1958-61, now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For four years — between 1966, when she let the painting go, and 1970 — she stopped working altogether. At the end of the ’60s, when The Rose emerged briefly in public from what had come to seem a process of its own devising — beyond the artist’s power to sustain, its accumulated mythology had already become something of an albatross — it measured over a foot larger in its height and width than the original canvas and, alarmingly, bellied out eight inches at the highest relief of the strange cement-like mix of pigments and other substances that made up its surface. When tested for probable impact on a trucking company’s forklift, it was estimated to weigh a menacing 2,300 pounds. (A more accurate recent estimate puts it at closer to one ton.) Its dense yet fragile crust also had begun to break apart. During the two months it was on view at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1969, it was observed to be shedding debris daily, and a chunk had already disappeared from the lower right corner. Clearly the question in 1969, and for twenty-five years after, was where to put it. Among the various museums and private collectors approached, there were no takers. Out in the world, visibly glorious yet homeless and in bad physical shape, The Rose was inappropriate.
Fittingly, the lead sentence of DeFeo’s statement for the “Sixteen Americans” catalogue read: “Only by chancing the ridiculous can I hope for the sublime.” Sublimity was built into the tremulous body language — “organic” and full of “growth forms” in the parlance of the time but with supra-organic, and dashingly clear, cosmological overtones — that characterizes the paintings, outsized drawings, collages and other mixed-media constructions DeFeo made from about 1954 on. The ridiculous, too, was ever at hand. At even her most obsessive, DeFeo was gifted with a sprightly sense of play that allowed her to follow her intuitions and yearnings without hammering them into theses. As early as her student years, she later told Karlstrom, she had conceived of making an image “about being on an edge . . . I wanted to create a work that was just so precariously balanced between going this way or that way that it maintained itself.”
Why DeFeo began The Rose illogically off-center in the first place has never been addressed. It may have had something to do with the strange, razor-sharp, focus-shunting markers that vertically divide The Eyes, the large 1958 graphite drawing that DeFeo always said pointed her directly to The Rose’s more compendious, abstract image. Neither is there any clear evidence as to exactly when she revised the “Deathrose” format, but after putting it aside for a while to focus on its convex companion picture, The Jewel (1959), she decided “that the canvas should be symmetrical and it wasn’t really the right proportions.” Balancing the painting on a couple of paint cans and two plywood shims set atop a footstool, she placed it above and to the left of its customary position and drew elaborate extension lines on the door and wall moldings around the support; a photograph of this arrangement served as the prototype for a new version of the work which wouldn’t sacrifice the image that was already there. Assisted by Hedrick, McClure, Kaufmann and Bruce and Jean Conner, DeFeo then cut away the initial canvas, lifted it into the squared-off window bay of the front room, and there glued it onto a larger, nearly eight-by-eleven-foot, unprimed canvas stretched to just fit the dimensions of the two middle windows and wall. The point was, as Hedrick puts it, “to center the center” while expanding the parameters of the whole design.
Over the next six years or so, the painting heaved its way through a whorl of transformations. DeFeo later told Rebecca Solnit: “It went through a whole cycle of art history: the primitive, the archaic, the classic, and then on to the baroque . . . All those stages were interesting and complete in themselves, but just not what the final version was or what I intended.” Photographs taken in DeFeo’s studio between 1959 and 1965 confirm her account. With paint troweled on then carved and hacked away in what DeFeo came to consider “a marriage of painting and sculpture,” the original fanned-out geometry tightened by 1960 to a more rigidly crystalline net. To this DeFeo began adding rough-textured redwood slats and small clusters of pine dowels to improve definition and bolster the paint against sagging. The files of Bay City Paint, where DeFeo bought gallon cans of black and titanium white and a dense, chalky texturing foundation called Prime-Rite, show that between 1960 and 1965 she paid a total of $5,375.51 for materials, most of which went into The Rose alone. DeFeo also introduced metallic powders into the mix for a mica-like sparkle, and there are rumors of other additives — bits of copper wire, beads and pearls from her mid-’50s jewelry-making period. (“I think I saw a barrette go in there once,” McClure said recently.) A 1961 photograph shows the artist posed lithely before a nearly all-white version in which the rays have been subsumed in an allover glacial slump. By around 1964 the straight ridges buckled to accommodate “an interweaving of organic shapes” — outcroppings of (again) gray pigment which, according to Conner, resembled giant acanthus leaves, and which soon after, in what DeFeo called her “super-baroque” or rococo phase, became a system of blowsily plumped-up loops. “I really wasn’t aware of how flamboyant it had become,” she told Karlstrom. “I had been so involved . . . and suddenly I walked into the studio one day and the whole thing seemed to have gotten completely out of hand. I felt that it really needed to be pulled back to something more classic in character.”
Conner has likened the atmosphere in DeFeo’s studio during the making of The Rose to that of “a prehistoric cave.” Thick with wads of discarded paint, the floor sloped away from a six-inch rise directly in front of where the painting stood cross-lit by daylight coming through the side windows. Traversing this encrusted space was, Conner says, “like walking on the back of a whale.” A typical Christmas or birthday gift from DeFeo in those years would consist of a shoebox containing a slice of the painting laid out on black velvet. Entertaining often consisted of restretching parties at which friends helped DeFeo unfasten and then secure the canvas more tightly on its strainers. The building’s air well served as a dumping chute for an ever-mounting collection of empty paint cans. Hedrick remembers: “It was driving her crazy. She would line up these radiating lines and get them where she wanted them and would come back the next day and go berserk. She fought this by working harder and drinking a quart of Christian Brothers brandy a day and smoking two to three packs of Gauloises. It was like a lubricant. Her hands would be covered with white lead. It killed her.”
Whether or not “lubricant” abuse in combination with continual exposure to oil paints and other materials caused DeFeo’s eventual death from lung cancer at the age of sixty in 1989, such excesses certainly had an immediate impact upon her condition. As early as March 1965, Walter Hopps was trying to get DeFeo to let the painting go and allow it to be exhibited (with its new title, “The White Rose”) at the Pasadena Museum of Art, where he was then the director. According to James Demetrion, the Pasadena curator who eventually succeeded Hopps in 1967, “Walter was concerned that the picture be released and not botched up.” True to form, DeFeo kept putting off the show and, with it, the removal of the painting from her studio — a daunting proposition which Hopps had offered to manage and use his Pasadena resources to pay for. The fateful process, Conner says, “needed an uncontrolled event to make it stop,” and the sudden termination (due in part to DeFeo’s excesses) of DeFeo’s and Hedrick’s lease at 2322 Fillmore toward the end of 1965 provided just that.
Shot over two days in early November 1965 and finally completed in 1967, Conner’s seven-minute film The White Rose documents rapturously the last look of the picture as it existed in the Fillmore studio and the events over seven hours of its removal “by Angelic Hosts” (as the subtitle indicates, referring to the team of Bekins movers in their white coveralls) from the otherwise bare apartment to a van on the street below. By way of jagged cuts, blinks and flickers, in six loosely defined movements, Conner communicates the stress of the immediate occasion and a great deal of the ardor surrounding it. For the soundtrack he chose the elegiac first half of Gil Evans’s extended orchestration of the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, with Miles Davis in the lead on trumpet. “The Great Rose Transplant,” as DeFeo called it, involved sawing away a two-foot section of windowsill to allow the painting to make its exit to the forklift outside. “All that day I wondered if Jay was going to go out the window herself,” says Conner, and two images from the film support his apprehension. In one, Conner and the Bekins crew, returning from their lunch break, find DeFeo stretched out across the painting, thus lending the recumbent assemblage with its paper wrappings and packing crate the aspect of an open, makeshift coffin. In another, with the van having pulled away and footage running out, she sits forlorn on the carved-out sill, legs adangle in midair; when Conner comes around the corner of the adjacent window, she briefly indulges the filmmaker’s camera-eye with a brave little smile.
Within a couple of days, DeFeo’s picture arrived at the Pasadena Museum, and shortly afterward, she followed. Off and on for three months in Pasadena, with a chronic case of flu and no place else to go (once she and Hedrick left Fillmore Street, they lived together only sporadically and their marriage soon ended), she stayed with Hopps and, finding The Rose installed in a darkly painted storage gallery, struggled to make the refinements she envisioned for the work. Mostly, it seems, she set herself to sharpening the edges toward the center and adjusting the highlights along the rays, illusionistic touches that clinch The Rose as the marvel of complex visuality we see today. She told Karlstrom: “They gave me a little room directly to the right of the entrance. It was my little cell of solid black. The only light was a little grate. If you peered up you could see the sidewalk or . . . light coming through. It reminded me of being interred in medieval days.” After Hopps convinced her she had given the painting all she could, she abandoned it to his and Demetrion’s keeping and retired alone to a country house in Ross, outside of San Francisco. Three years later, in the spring of 1969, The Rose passed in rapid succession from Pasadena, where Demetrion finally exhibited it in March, to the San Francisco Museum (spreading its charms there before a black backdrop) and then across town to the conference room in the newly completed wing of the San Francisco Art Institute, where it remained, bolted to a concrete wall, and eventually hidden from view, until last year.
In 1972, DeFeo commented in a letter to Conner on the myth that had formed around the painting’s creation — “the poor painting,” she wrote, “is the physical symbol of that myth.” Asked by DeFeo, also in 1972, to examine the painting and propose a way to secure it, the conservator Thornton (Tony) Rockwell quickly identified its structural essence as “an unnatural act . . . the attempt to suspend [a ton] of paint in midair supported only by a thin sheet of cotton canvas.” Rockwell remembers: “Jay was worried that the painting was on the verge of collapse. Her fears were indeed justified. The canvas was not up to supporting the massive weight of the paint. Small tears had started to develop along the tacking edges at the left and right. Draws were developing. The painting had sagged over the bottom edge of the stretchers and along the top edge, as well, in an arc. Deep cracks were developing in the paint film due to shifts in the canvas. Chunks were detaching, and other chunks were in danger of doing so.”
Over the next couple of years, DeFeo and Conner, in his role as DeFeo’s “manager,” redoubled their efforts to place The Rose in one or another permanent collection. At one point, the San Francisco Museum, where Rockwell was then chief conservator, proposed a public conservation exhibition, with The Rose as centerpiece, to raise funds for treatment, but there was no commitment to acquire the work and the museum soon backed away from the project. DeFeo’s own funds were running low — she had $1,500 from an NEA grant plus a friend’s $500 donation to put towards conserving the work — so that, in 1974, Rockwell could set about completing only the first phase of his prescribed two-phase campaign. He and his assistants managed to clean the surface of grime, including coffee and nicotine stains, and to fill the many undercuts and cracks with a temporary wax and rosin adhesive. They then applied a complex, multilayered facing that would act as a truss to both reinforce and protect the surface. Held in place by wire mesh stretched across a top layer of white casting plaster, this support system — similar to the kind used for archeological items — brought the object’s overall weight to well over two tons. Not long thereafter, the already mummified Rose went into deep storage, virtually entombed in its schoolroom setting behind a partial wall of fiberboard.
The epic engineering feat that allowed The Rose to reemerge last October from its suspended life had its beginnings in 1992 when Leah Levy, a trustee of DeFeo’s estate, commissioned the archeologist and conservator Niccolo Caldararo, who had worked closely with DeFeo on examining and treating her works in the 1980s, to make a preliminary diagnosis of the painting before creating a plan for its full-scale conservation. Working in the conference room over the next two summers and the winter break in the Art Institute’s 1993-94 academic year, Caldararo gathered data from a range of testing devices — spectrographic analysis of paint samplings, microwave and ultrasound scanning, gas chromatography and fiber-optic “lipstick” camera views — to determine the consistency and state of the pigment and how well the canvas was holding on its strainers. For close inspection of the surface and the taking of paint samples, Tony Rockwell worked with Caldararo to cut three square “windows” into the facing. The paint had early on sagged in two huge bulges to the rear of the lower half on either side of the central strainer, and there were many air pockets and fist-sized voids within the pigments DeFeo had spread in uneven gobs across her canvas. Given those prior conditions, the conservators’ examinings, together with the ultrasound imagery and fiber-optic views, showed no further signs of collapse.
In October 1994, the Whitney Museum of American Art committed itself to acquiring the painting once the extraordinarily elaborate and risky steps toward its conservation had been undertaken. (The decision was prompted by the curator Lisa Phillips’s initial researches for the Whitney’s current exhibition, “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965,” in which The Rose holds pride of place.) By early 1995, Caldararo and Rockwell had joined with mural conservator Anne Rosenthal to form the Rose Conservation Group, and the three of them finalized a treatment proposal as well as a plan, worked out with art-handler Scott Atthowe, for lifting and lowering the painting in a steel carriage from the conference-room wall and, when the time came, out the wall-sized window for transport to Atthowe’s warehouse in Oakland and thence to New York.
In June, with The Rose in its protective facing and new carriage hoisted by a pair of gantries into a face-down position on a deeply padded platform, the group started excavating from behind. They stripped away most of the canvas wide of the center (where some slices between rays go clear to the support) and the top and side edges (where the paint layers often thin out to a mere smudge). The back surface that they exposed appeared shot with inconsistencies. Anne Rosenthal observed that the paint itself was “hard and brittle, but with ‘osteoporosis’ throughout.” The cavities in thickly painted areas, where some of the paint remains uncured in malleable, cheese-like clumps, were seen to be arrayed like catacombs. Tapping on the exposed paint revealed still more cavities to be opened for filling. Occasionally, a small pine needle — presumably from one of the many defunct Christmas trees DeFeo tended to collect at Fillmore Street — would be found nestled in the pigment. By early September, Caldararo, Rockwell and Rosenthal had proceeded, after shielding with a polymer the more delicate areas of canvas and thinly applied paint, to consolidate the backside with a thick spread of epoxy putty, “fingers” of which were pressed into the air pockets and voids. With structural and aeronautical engineers and consultants from Industrial Light and Magic’s fabrication studios, they devised and put in place a heavy-duty backing structure built up from multiple fiberglass and epoxy laminations. On top of this blanket they contoured (and further laminated) a plywood grid attached by ninety-two threaded stainless steel rods, hooked at one end over the wood and set with epoxy into holes drilled in the thicker paint masses of the painting itself. The steel pins, Rockwell remarked, “make a good mechanical bond with the back of the thick paint masses and provide structural support to prevent the downward creep or cold flow of the paint in response to gravity.” A hollow steel-bar frame was set into notches inside the perimeter of the grid to accommodate handling rods and hanging fixtures, and a similar but detachable lift frame was built to ease transporting the picture and setting it up for exhibition.
With its new backing — the entire structure now weighs over 2,600 pounds — the painting was hoisted again on the gantries and turned belly-up. (Seen this way, with its fabled “pregnant” profile raised skyward, it suggested the contour map of an ancient, partially collapsed ziggurat.) The conservators spent the next six weeks undoing Rockwell’s protective facing: they chipped away at the plaster molds, plucked out excelsior stuffing, peeled back the pads of cotton muslin and tosa (mulberry) tissue and slowly warmed and extracted wax-and-rosin fillings from cracks and undercuts. They injected a synthetic resin emulsion into fragile areas of the paint and reaffixed many small chips that had come loose. They found the front mostly intact, firm, but with spots of mold and darkened areas of white paint (since any white will discolor when left in unbroken darkness over a long period). They cleaned the surface and performed inpainting with a removable acrylic resin on salient fractures, including one horizontal hairline crack that curved just above the picture’s center point like a Madonna’s smile. On October 12, The Rose was lifted by a crane off the balcony outside the conference room and lowered onto a flatbed truck. For another week, cleaning and inpainting continued at Atthowe’s warehouse, and a few people were invited to view the picture there, at last upright in its lift frame. On November 9, flood-lit at the far end of a gallery corridor, it was brightly greeting visitors at the Whitney’s “Beat Culture” opening.
DeFeo seems to have considered her paintings habitually in sets of twos and threes, or multiples thereof. She often worked in pairs but conceived of many of her paintings in triads. Of the numerous works leading up to The Rose, The Eyes and Doctor Jazz (also from 1958) occur as rare one-shot images; another, Apparition (1956) finds its companion piece many years later, in After Image (1970). The Rose had its spiky, many-hued counterpart in The Jewel but also, DeFeo said, formed “a triptych” with two earlier, impasto-strewn paintings, Origin (1956) and The Veronica (1957), because they all deal with plant forms. A more telling factor about The Rose, however, is that the number of rays in the image (eighteen) correspond in kabbalistic numerology to the Hebrew word Hai, meaning “life.”
No mistake about it, The Rose is a creation picture. In a talk on her work at Mills College in 1986, DeFeo likened its kaleidoscopic memory process to “a pinwheel where everything gets swept into it on one side [and] then, on the other, were things spilling out.” In The Rose, “things” also spill out in a fair pictorial account of the unity of divine light caught in the cosmogonic act, the effulgent issue of which — the changeable universe — is that light’s self-shattering. Of course, what distinguishes The Rose from other kindred, mandala-like images is its paradoxical, palpitating meatiness. Taken at face value, the thing is imposing. At a glance, the sheer mass flares into visibility of the kind to induce gulps in the unwary viewer, and its staying power — both as you look and as you call it to mind days afterward — is equally immense. It’s that sort of head-on collision with ineffability locked into earthy stuff that had the intimates of DeFeo’s process recalling the work, as George Herms did last year, as “the ultimate living being.” If The Eyes is about sentience and The Jewel pinpoints in a flash the splendid irritability of matter, The Rose concisely summons up the subjective life of the infinite. It makes tumultuous creation look variously sociable and moody. The suspended image burns the near air, an incandescence that feels both related and alien to the muddy substances producing it.
Look closely, and you see the care DeFeo lavished on her project, and how well she knew what she was doing: how the reverse illusionism of highlightings on the bottom flattens the sculptural effect, bringing the outer flarings to sit optically in the same dimension as the central point, smooth and light-reflective and tender as a doily. And how regular one-point perspective is turned accordingly, switching the centric focus outward in the perceiver’s direction. (DeFeo apparently conceived of plotting the center at her own eye level, but since she was only about five feet tall, the five-and-a-half-foot-high midpoint jibed only when she stood on the mound of shavings that accumulated under her as she worked.) Every painting must make its pact with gravity. This one hinges, and rocks, from the median span, with wings (or flippers) scalloped at the extremities on both sides. The wide angle of the span, a sort of sprung horizon, makes a buoyancy while deep clefts in the rays below effect a shudder as if a gong had gone off at a depth behind the paint. The gross weight lifts from an inspissated, crotch-like fold about three-quarters of the way down the middle. Given the proper viewing distance, the elusive colors suffuse among themselves. There are obsidians across from charcoal blacks, and lambent whites next to grays that abruptly scintillate out of their leaden slurries. In the slurries are gouges and more delicate marks, like engravings on bone.
A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in ghastly and inappropriate splendour.
— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
A peculiar Gothic strain, typified by what Greil Marcus calls “a precious intensity,” in the works of DeFeo, Conner and others of their immediate circle links those California artists’ mystic leanings — so often mordant or languid — with Poe. Thus, in a 1969 review, Alexander Fried said that seeing The Rose is analogous to “looking into a long, long tunnel . . . From the tunnel’s glowing heart emerge bursts of . . . clouds or fallen volcanic stones and clods.” The obvious parallel is with Poe’s conjuring of one of the “pure abstractions” and “phantasmagoric conceptions” over which Roderick Usher’s elaborate fancy brooded, and whose relative smallness is no underqualification. (Not all of DeFeo’s works were big; indeed, many of the best ones of her later years — the photo-collages she made with Conner in mind in the early 1970s and the exquisite oil paintings that mark her return to the “mountain” theme in the late ’80s — are of modest dimensions.) Gothicness in its medieval guise historically held that the job of imagemaking was, as Roger Bacon put it, “to make legible the spiritual sense.” DeFeo’s own divinations have a hunt-and-peck candor: she pledged herself to a higher reality without much of a clue as to its contours or even at what elevation it might be found. She granted that Romantic touchstone, negative capability (in Keats’s formula, “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), a permanent green light.
How much did DeFeo get in the way of her own picture? The work took her over for more than seven years and might well have destroyed her. (Consulting Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, as she did, she must have mused wanly over the passage beginning “the single rose is, in essence, a symbol of completion.”) But the destruction had to have been, at least partly, reciprocal: compelled to heap everything onto the successive versions of the same surface, she very likely lost the definitive image in the process. The same could be said — indeed has been said —of de Kooning’s Woman I, another abandoned work that achieves the improbable status of “failed” masterpiece. Like de Kooning, DeFeo was attempting a symbol that would be at once comprehensive (what else is artistic greatness but a terrific amplitude of vision posed outright for anyone to see?) and accurate. As it looks now, she very closely succeeded both ways.
Thank you to Connie Lewallen, co-curator of Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and The End, for facilitating this week’s essay and accompanying images.