While on the second floor of the Whitney, I saw that a movie was playing. Bruce Conner’s The White Rose is a short film detailing the removal of Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” from her apartment. I had seen the “The Rose” at the Whitney a few years ago at a Beat art show. I found the sculpture overwhelming. It was at the end of a long hallway and the sight sent a bolt of electricity through me. The plaster sculpture is solid, heavy, fragile and light.
DeFeo worked on “The Rose” (called Death Rose and White Rose at various times) for eight years. The sculpture blocked her front windows and the only light came from side windows. When finished the piece was over 2000 pounds of plaster and Bekins movers had to carefully wrap it and cut out one of her windows to lower it down to a truck and then a gallery. The reason it had to be removed was that DeFeo’s rent was going up and she had to move. Who knows how much longer she would have worked on it?
The sculpture was acquired by the SF Academy of Art and placed in their new conference room. The Academy lacked the money for maintenance so the painting was wrapped and then walled in behind sheetrock for its protection. No one saw the piece for years except for the film. Finally the Whitney rescued “The Rose” and it is part of their permanent collection.
I hurried up to the fourth floor to see the other pieces. In her earlier work there are sculptures of metal wrapped in tape and plaster. Wire jewelry with delicate circles. Paintings and collages of different types crosses. And early drawings of the outside in.
Then you turn a corner and at the one end in a darkened area of the room is “The Rose” still as breathtaking as the first time I saw it. It’s lit from the sides just as it was in DeFeo’s apartment. On either side are works DeFeo did just before, which are layered paintings but the layering is done with oil paints.
Later DeFeo worked with photography, sometimes in collages, in addition to painting. There was a series done with her dentures, which were fun to look at.
This exhibit will be open until June 2nd and I think it is worth seeing.
By Carene Lydia Lopez