A New Musical Homage to Jay DeFeo’s Monumental Painting, “The Rose”


In the 1950s, Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo was a pivotal figure in San Francisco’s lively and ultimately influential community of artists, poet, and jazz musicians. Distinct from the Abstract Expressionist art made by her male contemporaries, DeFeo explored the dualities of representation and abstraction investigating the play of organic rhythms with geometric form and the tension between refinement and expression.

The apartment DeFeo shared with her husband, artist Wally Hedrick, at 2322 Fillmore Street, became a hangout for those in San Francisco’s emerging Beat scene. And it was in the third-floor apartment that DeFeo began work in 1958 on what would become her best-known work, the monumental painting, “The Rose.”

What began as “an idea that had a center,” DeFeo once said, turned into artist’s sole focus for eight years (1958-1965) eventually blooming into a 12-by-8-foot colossus that was over a foot thick and weighed more than a ton. DeFeo referred to “The Rose” as  “a marriage between painting and sculpture,” and its layers burying earlier drafts under hundreds of pounds of sculpted paint.

Scraping away and rebuilding the work year after year, the chain-smoking DeFeo became consumed by “The Rose” and prolonged her work for fear of being separated from it. She turned away interested curators and buyers of her work. Gradually, the art world stopped calling.

By 1965, DeFeo could no longer afford the $65 rent in her Filmore Street apartment nor could she afford to move her monumental artwork. With the financial assistance of friends, “The Rose” was forklifted out of DeFeo’s apartment. It transported to the Pasadena Museum of Art, where it was briefly exhibited before it was eventually placed in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute. It stayed there for nearly a quarter-century, eventually hidden behind a protective false wall. In 1995, “The Rose” was acquired and restored by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“The Rose” being removed from 2322 Fillmore Street in 1965.

Now, inspired by the physicality with which DeFeo “The Rose,” New York-based composer and violinist Dana Lyn, Lyn has written a musical piece “A Point on a Slow Curve.”

Says Lyn: “To use DeFeo’s own words, this piece has become ‘an opera situation’ — a marriage of music and text as a personal response to an artist whose work transcends all categorization. The text is at times spoken, at times sung, and at times sculpted into fugue-like conversations; it is woven throughout the piece, which is now in eight parts and about 60 minutes long.”

A frequent collaborator of performance artist Taylor Mac, Lyn describes her musical style as “somewhere in the Venn diagram of contemporary classical music, traditional Irish music and 70’s art rock.”

“A Point on a Slow Curve” features Lyn’s band Mother Octopus as well as Austin-based singers Leah Hollingshead, Keely Rhodes, Adrienne Pedrotti, and Page Stephens.

“A Point on a Slow Curve” lands at the Museum of Human Achievement for three performances Jan. 31 through Feb. 2 courtesy of new music presenting organizations, Fast Forward Austin and Church of the Friendly Ghost.

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). 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; photo by Ben Blackwell)
“None of (DeFeo’s) story makes sense in our career-driven, goal-oriented world, which is why I am so happily drawn to it,” says Lyn.

“(DeFeo) had a belief in the communicative power of art so strong that she let herself break down to her most vulnerable, for the sake of birthing a one-ton painting that some critics called “inappropriate” due to its size and weight.”

“Some words to live by from Jay DeFeo: ‘Only by chancing the ridiculous can I hope for the sublime.’”


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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