Friday, March 22, 2013

Jay DeFeo's Rose -- and the Lesson We Should Learn From It


How powerful is a story?  An article in the New Yorker about the artist Jay DeFeo sent me to the Whitney yesterday, to the first comprehensive overview of her work and life. 

In brief:  DeFeo was recognized as an artist of brilliance straight out of art school.  Her stuff was good from the git-go.  It got better and better, culminating in a group of large encaustic religious abstracts -- Veronica, The Jewel, Annunciation, and Incision -- which, for my money, established her as a great artist.  Go and look at them, if you doubt me.

Then she started painting Deathrose (later The White Rose and finally The Rose), a culminative work which was meant to express something profound and spiritual.

She worked on it for nine years, building up boulders of paint and scraping them back down, sometimes right to the canvas.  The only reason that she didn't keep on working on it until her death was that her landlord raised the rent, forcing her to move out.  Also to have a wall torn out so her masterwork could be removed by crane.

This was an emotional time for DeFeo.  She lost her husband, contracted gum disease, and stopped working.

For four years.

DeFeo  eventually pulled herself together and proceeded to create work that was consistently  interesting and often profound to her dying day.  But consider this:  She was a peer of Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg a other artists who are household names today.  Yet she is not.

The Rose is good, but overworked.  The oils leading up to it are great. If DeFeo had refrained from obsessing over it, she might have produced a great work.  At worst, it would have been a flop, which would have been quickly forgotten.

But DeFeo forged on, obsessively, trying to create something better than she was capable of, and in the course of it destroyed her career.

The moral, as it applies to writers, is, I hope, obvious.



Fin Coe said...

That it's worthy to sacrifice your career for the chance to make something perfect?

Tim_W_Burke said...

It's not worth obsessing over one piece of work.

Michael Swanwick said...

There's no such thing as "perfect" in art, Fin. Guernica isn't perfect -- and Picasso not only spent three months on it but he also, for possibly the only time in his life, solicited advice from other artists.

The tragedy is not that DeFeo sacrificed her career but that she sacrificed her art. Nothing that she did after Rose was as good as what she did immediately before. Though the small oils she made as she was dying come close.

DMcCunney said...

The lesson applies to more than art. There's an old saying "Sometimes you have to shoot the engineer and put the thing into production", and the landscape is littered with the corpses of products (and companies) who tried for perfection. Another saying is "Perfect is the enemy of good enough".

Recognizing when something is good enough is the challenge.