The strange, wonderful oeuvre of Jay DeFeo springs from a few indelible forms, a handful of shapes and objects that thread through her career. The handle from a cracked teacup, a pair of eyes, a fake tooth, the whorl of a flower’s petals, a rotary fan – these forms obsessed her, and they keep reappearing in her oils, photographs, drawings, collages and even jewellery. They’re visual leitmotifs that lie dormant for a while, then rise to haunt again.
DeFeo, now the focus of an incandescent and humane retrospective at the Whitney, is known chiefly for “The Rose”, a massive object, part painting, part sculpture, that weighs in at 2,300 pounds. She spent eight years – from 1958 to 1966 – slathering on pigment, then hacking it away and trowelling even more back on. The thing swelled and mutated until it blocked natural light from her window. Its title morphed too, from the morbid “Deathrose” (Death throes?) to the more anodyne “Rose”. But its gouged and pockmarked surface betrays a latent toxicity, recalling the cry of William Blake:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm . . .
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Like Blake’s doomed flower, DeFeo’s abstraction shudders with violent energy. It shoots starburst beams and at the same time implodes towards a churning centre. Some have seen the quasi-abstract image as a coded self-portrait, with the focal point a conflation of womb and volcanic crater.
It took a forklift – and the partial removal of the building’s wall – to get the hulking masterpiece out of her house. After being shown a few times, it mouldered in a boardroom at the San Francisco Art Institute. Chunks began to crumble off, and soon a protective case swaddled it. “The Rose” disappeared from view. The Whitney came to the rescue by acquiring it in 1995. Now, restored to its original majesty, it presides over the great room at the heart of the show, making it clear how DeFeo’s career built to its climax, then slowly ebbed away. She never regained the intensity of those ferociously obsessive years, which was probably a good thing for her mental health.
Born in 1929, DeFeo was a West Coast Beat, part of a San Francisco cohort that included Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner and Allen Ginsberg. She thrived on the scene’s bohemian energy, though the earliest work doesn’t convey much beyond an amorphous yen for the spiritual. It would be impossible to predict her trajectory from these vaguely Ab-Ex slashes and crosses.
Eventually, DeFeo found a way forward through the jewellery she made to support herself. One piece especially points to her later work: a round pendant with concentric rings of beads and wire that looks like the motherboard of some primitive computer. Circles started to appear in her painting. “The Illustrated History of the Universe”, for instance, is a deceptively simple white disc floating asymmetrically against a grey ground. Its complexity lies in how the layered textures convey three-dimensionality. Round forms haunted her work for the rest of her life, as did another line of Blake’s verse: “If you have form’d a Circle to go into, go into it yourself & see how you would do.”
DeFeo’s work in the late 1950s fractured into two distinct styles: meticulous, hyper-realistic graphite drawings and thickly layered improvisational paintings. She built the oils slowly, sculpting pigments with a palette knife, gradually escalating into thicker and heftier apparitions. In the massive “Annunciation”, a livid sea of brushstrokes churns upwards into the titanic beat of angel wings. DeFeo wrote to the work’s buyer that her vision represented “some realization of all that is positive and good in this existence”. But the picture also suggests something big and dead and rotten like a side of beef or a hanging rabbit by Soutine. Even before she turned 30, De Feo gravitated towards decay.
Around the same time, she made a colossal pencil drawing of two eyes floating on a seven-foot sheet of paper and fixing the world with blind intensity. In a photo by Wallace Berman, she poses between them, nude except for black tights and the round, heavy pendant she had made a few years before. In another, she stands in front of “Deathrose”, arms and legs symmetrically extended, like a new Vitruvian Woman. The Whitney has hung the eyes and the rose directly opposite one another, and the space between them hums with energy.
DeFeo was 29 years old when she began “The Rose”, and 37 when she completed it. The project left her in a state of physical and emotional collapse, and she quit making art for almost four years. She re-launched her career in the early 1970s with a series based on the dental bridge, made up of real and artificial teeth. (She lost her own to periodontitis, a disease that, in a triumph of metaphor made flesh, she attributed to noxious chemicals in the materials that went into “The Rose”.) The dentures hover like giant boulders, massive calcified outcroppings that bear a gruesome resemblance to human remains. They appear in photographs and collages too, mushrooming grotesquely into space or nestling in a cap-shaped shell.
The bridge carried her into the next stage of her life. She stopped sculpting in paint, and focused on the illusionistic space she could create with acrylics. She also picked up the camera and returned to some of her favourite forms: the cabbage rose, the shell, the backswept horns of mountain sheep, the disembodied handle of the broken cup. She reinvented herself in spirals, continuously circling back to the old motifs and concentric forms, even as she moved on. “I do believe that, more so than most artists, I maintain a kind of consciousness of everything I’ve ever done while I’m engaged on a current work,” she said.
In 1989, DeFeo, dying of lung cancer, came across an injured dove and tried vainly to save it. Bereft, she was left with the memory of the bird’s dead eye, which became the void at the centre of “Dove One”. A grey mass of feathers, like a single beating wing, whirls towards the dark vortex, a black hole sucking in the bird’s life, and her own.
Until June 2, whitney.org