Jay DeFeo (1929–1989) is best known for the her obsessively reworked, giant abstract painting, The Rose, which she completed between the years of 1958 and 1966 until it had to be removed from her home with a forklift. It’s a striking, sublime amount of labor—it’s also a strange monument to a woman artist spending extreme amounts of time isolated in her home. DeFeo is one of the few women associated with the California Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s: It’s rumored that she changed her name to Jay so that people in the art world would mistake her for a man. As The Rose might suggest, DeFeo was a prolific producer—but in a surprising variety of media, including photography and drawing. Her work was often abstract and emotional, but show evidence of DeFeo’s meticulous and compulsive process. Here are the facts on DeFeo:
After studying painting at UC Berkley from 1946–1951, Jay DeFeo was at the center of the West Coast Beat movement, although the artists associated fervently shunned that label. The artist was a friend and collaborator with such notable figures as Wallace Berman, Jess Collins, Bruce Conner, and Allen Ginsburg and married to Wally Hedrick, a seminal artist of the time, the co-founder of the Six Gallery, and teacher to Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead at the San Francisco Art Institute.
The home she and Hedrick shared (a three-story building at 2322-24 Filmore in San Francisco) was the “unofficial epicenter” of the San Francisco art world from 1955–1965. It was in this home that DeFeo labored for seven years with little interruption on her most famous work, The Rose. By the time it had to be removed from the house (due to the couple’s eviction), the painting was 11 x 8 feet, 11 inches deep, and 2,300 pounds.
The Rose was so thick and layered with paint that even after having been stored under plaster from 1974 to 1995, it was still not dry. Now owned by the Whitney and held in storage, it requires a forklift, a truck, dollies, and about eight art handlers—not to mention a large chunk of change for conservation—to display.
After completing the massive project and taking a three-year respite, she returned to art making through a newfound photography practice. In these works, the artist combined biomorphic shapes and natural elements with mutated man-made objects in haunting still lives. In a print from 1971, DeFeo photographed her own dental bridge extremely close up with a label that stated, “my model… out of my own head!”
JAY DEFEO, UNTITLED, 1972. COPYRIGHT 2010 THE JAY DEFEO TRUST/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
WORK BY JAY DEFEO WAS RECENTLY ON VIEW AT NICOLE KLAGSBRUN GALLERY. THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART WILL HOST A RETROSPECTIVE OF HER WORK IN 2012.