I hopped the BART train for the short ride under the bay from Fremont to San Francisco. It was 1995 and the newest incarnation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had recently opened. I had heard that the masterwork of my former painting teacher was now on “permanent” display there. It was Jay DeFeo’s The Rose.
I made my way through the galleries revisiting, admiring, and drawing inspiration from the works, and climbed to the top floor gallery. There, across the vast room, was her masterpiece. Ten or twelve feet high, it weighs 2,300 pounds. The paint, a foot thick, took her over seven years to apply. I sat on a bench for a few minutes taking in the magnificence. Then I just wanted to see her name on the little label that was dwarfed by the gargantuan painting.
I drew a sudden breath. “Oh my God,” I realized, “she has died.” I withdrew to the bench in the center of the gallery. Tears were streaming and I cried like a child. I would never have anticipated such a reaction, yet I was unashamed. I calmed down, looked over my right shoulder, and saw Wally Hedrick’s work facing The Rose. Another flood of anguish came over me: they were married back in those Beat days.
In 1977, I took a painting class at Sonoma State University in the bucolic county north of the greater SF Bay area. I was an undergrad in psychology and philosophy. The campus was a sprawling lawn littered with ugly plain cement buildings. The art building had just been completed. The painting studio was vast and sterile. During the first day of class I was greeted by a diminutive woman in her late forties who mostly dressed in black, had jet-black hair, and wore a lot of mascara and dark red lipstick. Down in LA punk was all the rage, but Goth had not yet emerged. She must be a beatnik, I thought. Her teeth were not teeth but dentures. Seemingly a bit odd for someone her age yet made sense once it was revealed that she had the habit of holding the ends of the paint brushes between her teeth. Eventually the lead paint destroyed the gum line’s ability to hold onto teeth. She was easy-going but maternal and wise. I was twenty and she was like the coolest mom in the world. And she was a real artist; I didn’t know how much so at that point.
Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Charles Mingus played on a crappy little turntable – the anthem of the Beats. Once in a while she would gather us around a freshly completed painting. She would ask her student to give insight into the work. She would invite the class to explore deeper meaning and symbolism. When it came time to review my work, I drew from Frank Stella’s “What you see is what you see.” Vestiges of Abstract Expressionism, emerging Pop Art, Neo-Dadaism, Photo Realism, not much of it displaying much talent, yet in safe haven there. My God she must have thought us a bunch of little hacks but she never showed that. She was always positive and encouraging. “Class, listen to teacher – use your mistakes,” she once exclaimed. She meant to literally push the paint until mistakes transformed into elements essential to that canvas. However to ‘use your mistakes’ for me became transformed by metaphor into a pragmatic adage applicable to many situations in life.
Although she was in a relationship, she never spoke of him. Sometimes, though, she made mention of someone from her past, Wally. It showed on her face that she still carried a torch for him, or at least very fond memories of him, whoever he was.
She had been a teacher most recently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 1980 she would go on to teach at Mills College in Oakland. But during 1977 through 1979 she was at SSU, which proved to be my good fortune as I kept one or two of her classes in my curriculum each semester. Somewhere in that period, she took us on a field trip from Sonoma to The City to see her old stompin’ grounds. God the insight. I learned more that day than in the previous two years of poring through art book after art book. On the way back, over the Golden Gate, we stopped at her house in Larkspur, in Marin County. There was The Rose, between exhibitions. Paintings, drawings, sculpture, memorabilia, photographs, and fetish pieces were everywhere. She shared her space with us, inspired us by example. Yet I still didn’t realize how prestigious she was as a Bay Area artist, let alone that this one ton block of old school paint that had traveled all the way to New York City and back, and was destined to repeat that feat. The Rose would live on but the artist would perish in only ten years. But what about the inception of the work?
In 1958, on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, not far from The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, lived Jay DeFeo and her husband, Wally Hedrick. He was actually a more renowned artist than she; he had hosted The Six Gallery Reading there (well eight blocks up Fillmore) three years prior. It was there and then that Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl.” Jay was there. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was there. Neal Cassady was there. There is an account of that evening in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums.” Shameless name dropping or merely history? More like the punch line. Jay began work in that second story Victorian Era flat on a rather large abstract painting in oil. In 1959, Jay DeFeo had her first major solo exhibition in SF’s Dilexi Gallery. That year her work traveled to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, along with that of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. Oh what company ah-um. Also in that year, she became an original member of Bruce Conner’s Rat Bastard Protective Association.
In 1965, Jay and Wally broke up and were evicted from their Fillmore Street pad. Eight movers and a crane precariously moved The Rose to the Pasadena Art Museum. Bruce Conner filmed the undertaking and released it as The White Rose. It now hangs in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art on Madison Avenue in New York City. The restored version, bolstered from ruin, weighs 3050 pounds. There are many incarnations of Jay DeFeo displayed in many venues across the country as well as overseas. She died at age 60, the same age I am now; very young after all.