Sunday, 13 December 2015

Suzanne Laura Kammin / Jay DeFeo

When I was in my twenties, I wanted to be a man. Not literally but I had a lot to prove and made sure that my paintings were as macho as they could be - big, thick, dark, imposing and heavy. This is not to say that they were not sincere and deeply felt. They were largely about fear and the manifestation of my neuroses and my obsessive and perfectionistic nature. 

I did well in graduate school; after all, people are usually impressed by monumentality.  One day, one of my professors, Franklin Williams, suggested I look at the work of Jay DeFeo, a Bay Area artist who had had moderate success on the west coast but was relatively unknown outside California. Franklin saw a connection between my work and Jay’s that excited him. Coincidentally, Jay’s work, The Rose, was crated up in one of the seminar rooms at The San Francisco Art Institute where I was studying. Due its thickness, the painting was falling apart and SFAI was keeping it safe until the money could be raised to restore the legendary painting. Jay DeFeo’s spirit hovered around me.

Franklin told me the story of The Rose: in the late-fifties to mid- sixties, DeFeo spent almost all of her time secluded in her San Francisco apartment doing pretty much nothing but drinking gin, smoking cigarettes and painting The Rose, obsessing over it and building it up thicker and thicker until the painting became so heavy that the person who lived below her had to prop up the ceiling with pillars to keep it from caving in. In the end, the painting, which measured twelve feet tall by ten feet wide and a whopping thirteen inches thick, tipped the scales at about 3000 pounds. When SFMOMA took the painting for an exhibition, they had to remove a window from Jay’s apartment and use a forklift to get it out. The story mesmerized me in all its romantic, beatnik glory. Here was someone I understood and who I assumed would understand me. At the time, I didn’t see how sad a story the making of The Rose actually was; to me, it was tragic but cool.  At that point in my life, I was not equipped to understand how truly sorrowful Jay’s life must have been. Franklin gave me a reproduction of the The Rose.  I remember it well: a large yellowed foldout card with the image of the Rose on the front and text on the interior. I was fascinated with the image - the massive sculpted painting appeared to stand on its own, it was so thick, yet, despite the obvious materiality, the painting appeared positively transcendent.

Jay DeFeo
The Rose
oil with wood and mica on canvas
327 x 234 cm    

As it turned out, Franklin and Jay were friends and he wanted me to meet her. She was having a birthday party at her home in West Oakland and Franklin invited me to attend. It was an important birthday, not only because Jay was turning 60 but also because she had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous year. I agonized over what to buy her and walked through some of the worst streets of Oakland to get to her loft. When I finally arrived, a young man who seemed quite surprised to see me greeted me at the door. Franklin had given me the wrong date. I had missed the party by one day and therefore missed meeting Jay.  

The next time I saw Franklin, he still seemed intent on my meeting Jay and told me that he would drive me out to her place one day – that he would arrange everything. In the meantime, Jay’s cancer worsened. She passed away on November 11, 1989 before we had a chance to meet.

In 1995, The Whitney Museum held an exhibition called “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965”. It was the first time The Rose had been exhibited on the east coast and the first time it had been shown since it was crated up and stored at SFAI. At the time of the exhibition, I was quite ill and just a few months away from my own diagnosis of cancer; another parallel development in our lives.  It was the first time I had ever seen the Rose in person. It was magical. 

Since then, I have seen the painting at least four times and have seen several exhibitions of her work at SFMOMA and The Whitney which purchased The Rose after the beatnik exhibition. Interestingly, as my own work has evolved and grown exponentially, I have seen that the connection between my work and Jay’s goes far beyond the monumentality of my early work. We share a great love for edges. De Feo’s collages and late paintings have a quiet sparseness and utilize crisp contours as a way of creating figure/ground reversals and pushing and pulling space. She also had a love of technology. There is a peculiarity to her work, something that made her work uniquely hers and not a part of any particular artistic movement. Her work is disturbing yet it is also beautiful.

Jay DeFeo
Loop System: Where the Swan Flies
acrylic mixed media
122 x 244 cm  

There was a time when I had a hard time looking at The Rose. It seemed to me Jay had bared her soul for the whole world to see her psychological flaws. The painting seemed mostly an expression of a tortured woman’s perfectionistic nature and obsessive/compulsive tendencies. It seemed naïve and too exposing. As time has gone on, however, my feelings about Jay’s work have continued to evolve. I still think The Rose is an amazing work of art, in my mind singular in its scale, its presence and it’s spiritual impact. As opposed to when I was younger, however, what is remarkable to me now about the painting is not how big, thick and imposing it is. What I find incredible and unique about The Rose is that while the painting takes the physical form of an utterly exposing manifestation of pure pathological neuroses it manages to transcend that level of expression to arrive at something expansive, infinite and joyously liberating. I like to think that creating The Rose played that same role for Jay in her own life.

Suzanne Laura Kammin, 2015

Suzanne Laura Kammin (US)
Return Of The Master
oil on linen over panel
112 x 124,5 cm

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