This is a tale of unparalleled devotion. This is a tale of inspired vision. This is a tale of heaving beauty, of divine obsession, of possession, of cosmic light embodied.
This is the ballad of Jay DeFeo.
Jay DeFeo in the old country saw color and light, in cruciform, in carmine and ochre and earth. She traveled in the footsteps of monks, perhaps not knowing, yet with her she brought back vivid memories of primal shapes and magic circles, spirals, stars, crosses.
She painted Mountains, Origins, and Apparitions; she painted the universe as a ball of cosmic energy. Yet it was too contained, too rudimentary, too flat. Her colors dissolved into elemental black and white.
It began in her own eyes, a shape taking form out of the static of the universe, in the infinite expanse behind her closed eyelids: a star, a cross, a rose. In the haze of exhaled smoke and the light of a bay window she began to work. Perhaps at first she did not know that this was the work of some higher power passing through her, but as the days and weeks and then years passed it became known that this was a task greater than one person’s ambition, this was some extraterrestrial vision that must be made manifest.
The studio became her temple. With the rising sun, work commenced. Until the last rays of light dissipated into ether, she worked.
The work was her life, and her life was the work. The work became her. And she became the work.
They called her mad. She was unrecognizable. It was an obsession. And many times she questioned why, and the painting gave her no answer, yet compelled her to continue adding paint, scraping, accumulating, shaping. With white lead and black oil and mica she built it. It became as a living thing. It demanded to stretch beyond the constrictions of its canvas and she built extensions for it, until it filled the entire window, and should have blocked out all light, were it not for the two windows at its side. The light and the shadows became part of it. It grew and grew, with heavy layers like foothills stretching thin to the heavens. Its form was both light as cascading crepuscular rays through the clouds, and as heavy as rock and clay, mountain and valley. It was the divine incarnate; it was Christ from God, Shakti from Shiva, the unity of death and life.
Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66, Oil with wood and mica on canvas, 128 7/8 x 92 1/4 x 11 in. (327.3 x 234.3 x 27.9 cm); Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley, CA, and purchase with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation 95.170 © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Ben Blackwell.
It was only through intervention that her work was abated. With force the painting was taken from her, a hole cut in the wall to remove the behemoth. Mater dolorosa, pietà, she lay her body on the crate in which her painting was packed, lying face up, as if wishing to be interred with it. She pensively watched as her gravitational center left her; she watched, suspended on the thin wire of a fire escape, a cigarette clenched between her dry lips. Her center absent, she spoke in nonsense. She marked the sign of the cross in white paint on the surface of Bruce Conner’s glasses and told him to leave her.
Perpetually unfinished, the Rose was entombed behind a wall for twenty years.
Jay DeFeo retreated. She became afflicted with disease. She began to paint her own relics: her dental bridge, her false teeth. She drew talismans. She found echoes of the rose in everyday life and traced them, photographed them, collaged them.
She traveled to the East and then on to Africa. She scaled the mountaintop and returned again. But upon her return, Jay DeFeo prophesied her own demise. She had been slowly poisoned by smoke and lead.
Yet she continued to work, and color returned to her painting: now in blues and soft violets, glimpses of space and cloud forms. Her paintings became smaller. She painted Seven Pillars of Wisdom; her gaze was raised to the heavens.
Jay DeFeo, Blue One, 1989, Oil on linen, 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm), Courtesy The Jay DeFeo Trust, Berkeley © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Ben Blackwell.
After her death, the behemoth Rose, her obsession and masterpiece, was restored and came to life again. It emerged from behind the wall of its tomb, in all its glory.
And now we come as pilgrims to view the relics of Saint Jay DeFeo, martyr to art. We walk with trepidation and held breath toward The Rose, a painting that is life and death, the immaterial made material. And it is spectacular.
“There is no such thing as inanimate matter…there is God or divinity in all matter and it is all living energy.” – Jay Defeo
(Image on top: Jay DeFeo, The Eyes , 1958, Graphite on paper , 106.7 x 215.3 cm; © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the Lannan Foundation 96.242.3 © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /Photograph by Geoffrey Clements.)