Weighing nearly one ton, The Rose by Jay DeFeo is one of the most complicated works in the Whitney’s collection to install. On February 15, the work was installed at the Whitney Museum as part of the exhibition Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective (opening February 28). The work arrived in New York from California, where the Whitney’s exhibition had finished a successful run at SFMOMA. Photographer Paula Court documented the installation that day from start to finish.
“The rose is, in Greek mythology, associated with Aphrodite, who is often shown with roses garlanding her hair. It is the flower that most readily stands in for the female body, for female sexuality. But DeFeo’s Rose is not the bloom of purity, not the blush of first desire. It is more vagina dentata, an alluring but dangerous trap, a pleasure and a menace.”
For the next eight years, The Rose took over her life, as she painted and repainted it.
“It’s going through a whole cycle of art history, the primitive, the archaic, the classic, and then on to the baroque but still not the final version. I just want to create a work that is just so precariously balanced between going this way or that way that it maintains itself,” she said.
To keep herself going, Jay drank a quart of Christian Brothers brandy a day and smoked two to three packs of Gauloises. At some point, she began adding metallic powders into the mix for sparkle, and inserted copper wire, beads, and pearls. By 1965, she had paid a total of $5,375.51 for painting materials. Today it resides in the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Despite all those Gauloises, it was the painting that was the death of her. Constantly licking her brush to get a point, Jay ingested huge amounts of lead from the white paint, and died of cancer in 1989. Ironically, Jay’s first title for her painting has been Deathrose.