Jay DeFeo’s The Rose (1958–66). © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Ben Blackwell.

NEW YORK - Jay DeFeo has long been known as a one-trick pony: for spending eight years on her undisputed monumental masterpiece, The Rose (1958-66). The terrific work, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was a sort of hybrid between painting and sculpture—its depiction of a rose was more like a trippy, angular vortex—and weighed 2,300 lbs. From 1979 to 1995 it was sealed up behind a temporary wall in a San Francisco art school—buried alive, as it were—and had been ignored for another ten years before that. So when it finally reappeared, the work acquired the status of myth.

Now, the Whitney is showing “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective” through June 2, and hopefully it will expand our view of this Beat-era artist, who was based in San Francisco. “This is a woman who had a 40-year career, and she's only known for that one work, which took eight years—with only five of those totally devoted to it,” Dana Miller, who organized the show, told me. “There is other work that is as deserving of attention as The Rose.”

Jay DeFeo’s After Image (1970). © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Paul Hester.

DeFeo has been cast as a “tragic female artist,” as Miller puts it, because she was included along with people like Frank Stella in the landmark 1959 Museum of Modern Art show “16 Americans,” but never achieved huge fame. The fact that she chose not to lend it to the “16 Americans” show has been offered as evidence that she wasn’t willing to “play ball” with the art world’s most powerful figures. Miller has a simple rebuttal: “She just wasn’t finished with it.”

DeFeo’s friend and colleague Bruce Conner may be partly to blame for her reputation: His film The White Rose was a fictional version of the day The Rose was moved, after DeFeo had finished it, and her cigarette smoking and middle-distance stare gave her the air of post-partum depression.
The more than 130 pieces in the show range widely across media, and it’s my hunch that the striking photographs and collages are the things that will really change people’s minds about DeFeo. She had an eye for a rock-solid composition. I agree with Miller, who told me, like a true fan, “I hope she gets a fair shake. She’s overdue.”


Jay DeFeo’s The Eyes (1958). © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Geoffrey Clements.