It was the late 1970s at Sonoma State University, and Jay DeFeo was not doing particularly well.
“She was struggling to survive,” says Sebastopol artist Susan Moulton, then the department head at SSU. “She didn’t make a lot of money. And at that time, she wasn’t selling a lot.”
Finances were one issue, but something else plagued the famed artist at the time: toxins. In creating her subsuming masterwork The Rose, DeFeo had ingested substantial amounts of white lead, resulting in a loss of teeth and hair. At SSU, she got her first cancer scare—not that it hindered her. “She started eating really well and jogging every day at noon, and taking real control of her life,” says Moulton. “I saw her at Mills College right before she died, and she had just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
DeFeo’s few years teaching at SSU, alongside Moulton, William Morehouse and others, are but a brief brushstroke in DeFeo’s life, which was extinguished by cancer in 1989. But the artist’s biography has taken on a life of its own, sometimes bolstering, other times hampering critical appraisal of her achievements. A new retrospective at SFMOMA brings together for the first time significant examples of her work and makes a powerful case for elevating her to the top ranks of post–World War II American artists; a concurrent exhibit at di Rosa, titled “Renaissance on Fillmore, 1955–65,” gives historical context from the apartment building that served as an incubator for DeFeo’s work.
Starting in the late 1940s, DeFeo established herself as part of the Bay Area abstract expressionism movement. At SFMOMA, early pieces, like Untitled (Florence), 1952, feature dynamic passages of bold colors anchored by simple geometric gestures. Later, she shifted to a monochromatic palette. The large canvas Untitled (Everest), 1955, builds from a smooth gray bottom section into a flurry of blacks and whites applied vigorously in overlapping waves like roiling clouds announcing a storm.
More controlled but just as action-filled is Origin, 1956, a tightly bunched series of narrow vertical strokes of black and gray—the painting is poised between a upward thrusts, like jets in a fountain, and a downward crashing, like a great falls pouring over a rock rim. Her work echoes and equals that of several major figures from the period: early Diebenkorn, Hassel Smith, Clyfford Still and Frank Lobdell.
The exhibit also shows DeFeo’s forays into other media. She fashioned oddly crude wood and plaster sculptures of crosses and primitive totemic creatures (which influenced Manuel Neri). She made meticulous charcoal drawings in which fine waving and spiraling lines course through blank space. She experimented with collages of found images in the manner of fellow San Franciscan Jess.
In the late ’50s, DeFeo embarked on a series of large paintings distinguished by the dense application, with a palette knife, of oil paints. These works take on a 3-D aspect, as much sculpture as painting. In The Jewel, 1952, a vertical starburst pattern of heavily caked paint converges across a spectrum of dark reds to a dazzling white center. Along the vertical axis, the paint has been cracked open to reveal deep fissures, as if bones has been pulverized to get at the marrow.
These major works are mere preludes, however, to the piece that came to dominate DeFeo’s life, The Rose. Beginning in 1958, DeFeo devoted herself almost exclusively to the creation of this immense painting. It took over her apartment on Fillmore Street that she shared with her artist husband, Wally Hedrick.
Taking up again the starburst pattern of The Jewel, she made it rounder. From a concave center point (located at just about eye level), the incised rays jet outward, growing thicker and more clotted until they disintegrate into blobs of gray and black. Carefully positioned in a special alcove at the museum, The Rose is a riveting, transcendent work, a grand vision of creation or universal flux. Photographs don’t do it justice; the scale and physicality have to be seen in person.
The arduous process of creating The Rose became the stuff of legend. DeFeo built up and tore down the work over and over again. She applied so much paint that The Rose ended up weighing more than a ton. San Francisco’s Beat-era poets and artists often visited her apartment and witnessed the extended birth pangs of the painting. When Jay and Wally were evicted, the moving of the painting was an engineering feat, memorialized in Bruce Conner’s short film The White Rose.
It’s the same apartment at 2322 Fillmore that’s paid tribute in the di Rosa exhibit. Consisting of work by DeFeo, Joan Brown, William H. Brown, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner and Wally Hedrick, “Renaissance on Fillmore” captures that most elusive of breeding grounds, the accidental artist’s colony. “It wasn’t just her and Wally Hendrick painting great work; it was this locus for a lot of really great people,” says the show’s curator Michael Schwager. “There was a pretty stellar list of people who lived in the building, but I refer to those two as the heart and soul of that particular building, because they were the longest-standing tenants.”
Because of the massive SFMOMA retrospective, DeFeo is represented at di Rosa with Songs of Innocence, a 40-by-40-inch painting from 1957, and some smaller works. In gathering material for “Renaissance on Fillmore,” Schwager visited the legendary address, still in use as an apartment building today. Though the neighborhood is much nicer these days, a trace of The Rose remains: “If you stand on the street,” Schwager says, “you can look up to the bay window and you can still see the outline of the repaired hole where they pulled it out.”
The Rose had a showing in Pasadena, and then no one knew what to do with it. At the San Francisco Art Institute, it was covered by a wall of plaster; the work was unseen for two decades until finally rescued and moved to the Whitney in New York.
For many art historians, The Rose is a splendid climax with no second act. But the SFMOMA exhibit documents DeFeo’s return to significant art making in a variety of styles and techniques. After Image (1970) is a splendid graphite and gouache drawing of a strange shell form with spiral ridges. DeFeo mounted it with a piece of torn paper on top as if the shell had been hidden for many years and only recently exposed to view—surely a comment on her own resurgence.
“She was a very exuberant person, even when she was struggling,” says Moulton. “She just had this ebullience around her. Just a love of what she was doing.”