Beside The Rose: Selected Works by Jay DeFeo

Jay DeFeo, "The Rose" (1958-1966), oil with wood and mica on canvas,. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © 2003 Estate of Jay DeFeo/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Ben Blackwell, CA.

Whitney Museum of American Art

Can we compare it with Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp? "A rose is a rose is a rose," expressed the former in her terse, illimitable prose. Her parallel was a case of androgyny who proclaimed himself "Rrose Sélavy" in 1921. Some decades later, Joseph Beuys would articulate his concept of social sculpture by saying, "Without the rose, we cannot do it." But the most personal of all comes from the artist Jay DeFeo, who tells us, "I see ‘The Rose’ as the central effort of my life." Indeed, the twentieth century has delivered many avant-garde roses, some more explicit than others, some more bereft.

As with Duchamp’s "Large Glass" (1915-23), there is much to say, and perhaps less to say about DeFeo’s "The Rose" (1958-66), but whether language is more or less, the qualitative difference is negligible. Both works were eight-year projects. Each holds its container of arcane references, with some more pertinent than others. As art critic Carter Ratcliff calmly asserted on a recent panel at the Whitney: "This is one of the great works!"—not just relative to the late twentieth century, but, indeed, one of the great works.

Seeing the famous Bruce Conner film (1965), accompanied by the famous Miles Davis soundtrack, which documents the dismantling of DeFeo’s painting from the wall on which it had been affixed at 2322 Fillmore in San Francisco, I was struck over and over again by the work’s magnitude. I was taken by its formidable implications, its indecipherable code, bathed in elixir, its shimmering elegance, and exonerating influence, emanating from an artist struggling to define herself as an artist in the early sixties. Here was a woman in love.

And here was a painting made by a person who drank, who smoked, who made love— and most of all— who painted every day without the benefits of corporate sponsorship or obscene promotional forays into the commercial media. She was indefatigable in the throes of her eight-year obsession. "To paint is to live again," said Henry Miller. Precisely for this reason DeFeo painted, and she painted "The Rose"— to make an historical mark, to put her mark on culture, on her culture (which was always a conflicted intention).

Was it the Deathrose, The White Rose, or just "The Rose"? This was the crux of the struggle— how to name it? How to discover the name of the Rose? But it was more than a linguistic inquiry. It was a human one, a conflict every bit as fierce as that expressed in Picasso’s "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon." For DeFeo, the task of completing "The Rose" was literally a life-against-death struggle, a manifestation of a heartbeat, an auditory chamber to hear the pulse every moment, and thus, to defy the odds against death, day by day. She kept to herself, pondering this giant nemesis, refining and revising, opening and closing, building-out and scraping-away, reducing and extending, carving and incising, obliterating shapes, modeling contours, copiously working the fluted tentacles, with a quiet passion, a resplendent desire. "The Rose" became a sign, an evanescence, a tour de force. On another level, it was merely a solitary human act as simple and as great as any artist has produced in the past century.

In this age of acrimonious stealth, this pitiless world of negligence, fraught with contradictions and incendiary denials, amid the sarcastic, persistent, cynical humdrum of the evening news, the nauseating repetition of urban traffic and blaring AM radios, the surrogate images of the virtual world, hovering on a proto-fascist internet, in an era of false accounting and make-believe creatures, cloned to death by digital insomnia, here comes at last a painting, a real work of art, a defiant, compassionate work of art, without hesitation, without embarrassment— a work of art so alive, so grand and lavish, so paradoxical and compelling— so wildly beautiful and brilliantly resolved, so manifest in its harvest of thought, in its tenderness toward the human soul, so magnificent in its form and content— here comes, at last, "The Rose," a painting for our time, a real tactile energy, a gift without the asking.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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