Adventures in Extreme Making: The White Rose

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For reasons I can’t fully articulate, I often think about an obscure film by the artist Bruce Conner called “The White Rose.” Conner’s film documents the moving of a huge and mysterious painting by the artist Jay DeFeo. The painting is so large that the moving company had to cut a hole in the wall of DeFeo’s second second floor apartment to get it out.

Perhaps the appeal of this film is the problem solving or the obsessiveness of DeFeo. Or maybe it’s the shots of the much more gritty San Francisco streets I remember from childhood visits to see my grandfather.

The painting now lives at the Whitney in New York. Here’ how the Whitney tells the story of the painting:

Jay DeFeo began this monumental work simply as an “idea that had a center to it.” Initially, the painting measured approximately 9 x 7 feet and was called Deathrose, but in 1959, the artist transferred the work onto a larger canvas with the help of friends. She continued to work on The Rose for the next seven years, applying thick paint, then chiseling it away, inserting wooden dowels to help support the heavier areas of impasto. Now nearly eleven feet tall and weighing almost a ton, the work’s dense, multi-layered surface became, in DeFeo’s words, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”

First exhibited in 1969, The Rose was taken to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was covered with plaster for support and protection, and finally stored behind the wall of a conference room. Legend grew about the painting, but it remained sealed until 1995, when Whitney curator Lisa Phillips had it excavated and restored by a team of conservators, who created a backing strong enough to support the heavy paint. DeFeo resisted offering an explanation or interpretation of the work, although she did acknowledge that despite the work’s enormous size and rough surfaces, there was a connection to “the way actual rose petals are formed and how they relate to each other in the flower.”

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Conner’s film documents moments familiar to any “maker” such as the “how the hell do we do this moment?”

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And the “I can’t believe we’re doing something this crazy moment.”

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Lastly, Conner shows the “I’m having a hard time calling this finished” conundrum via a shot of DeFeo dangling her feet off the fire escape. She began the panting in 1957 and the move took place in 1965 when she was evicted from her Bohemian hangout at 2322 Fillmore Street. As Conner put it, she needed an “uncontrolled event to make it stop.” I think anyone who does anything creative can relate to the problem of letting go and calling something done.

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Thankfully, “The White Rose” has a place of honor in a darkened room at the Whitney. You can watch Conner’s film with its haunting Miles Davis soundtrack here.

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2 Comments

  1. From the looks of the apt. and the fact that she had been evicted, I guess the big hole in the wall of the 2nd story didn’t matter much. Very interesting.
    I have heard that for artists it is hard to just say STOP-DONE. I once heard that Leonard Cohen wrote over 80 verses for his famous Hallelujah song. And that it took him something like 15 years? Talk about obsessive! It’s a good thing that DeFeo had that ‘have to stop’ moment. The movie make me want to hire Bekins if I ever moved again! Such patience and dedication…what do you think they would say now? “Nope, sorry, no can do??”
    By the way how is Kelly?

    • Kelly is doing great, thanks. We had a good report from her doctor yesterday. I’m hoping to have Kelly tell her story on an episode of the podcast for next week. And, no kidding, Conner’s movie does double as an ad for Bekins. Apparently DeFeo’s apartment was quite the Beatnik party scene. That combined with living in a neighborhood that has always been pretty upscale probably led to the eviction.

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