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In Full Bloom

Jay DeFeo, one of the 20th century's great painters, is memorialized in two exhibits

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The arduous process of creating The Rose became the stuff of legend. DeFeo built up and tore down the work over and over again. She applied so much paint that The Rose ended up weighing more than a ton. San Francisco's Beat-era poets and artists often visited her apartment and witnessed the extended birth pangs of the painting. When Jay and Wally were evicted, the moving of the painting was an engineering feat, memorialized in Bruce Conner's short film The White Rose.

It's the same apartment at 2322 Fillmore that's paid tribute in the di Rosa exhibit. Consisting of work by DeFeo, Joan Brown, William H. Brown, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner and Wally Hedrick, "Renaissance on Fillmore" captures that most elusive of breeding grounds, the accidental artist's colony. "It wasn't just her and Wally Hendrick painting great work; it was this locus for a lot of really great people," says the show's curator Michael Schwager. "There was a pretty stellar list of people who lived in the building, but I refer to those two as the heart and soul of that particular building, because they were the longest-standing tenants."

Because of the massive SFMOMA retrospective, DeFeo is represented at di Rosa with Songs of Innocence, a 40-by-40-inch painting from 1957, and some smaller works. In gathering material for "Renaissance on Fillmore," Schwager visited the legendary address, still in use as an apartment building today. Though the neighborhood is much nicer these days, a trace of The Rose remains: "If you stand on the street," Schwager says, "you can look up to the bay window and you can still see the outline of the repaired hole where they pulled it out."

The Rose had a showing in Pasadena, and then no one knew what to do with it. At the San Francisco Art Institute, it was covered by a wall of plaster; the work was unseen for two decades until finally rescued and moved to the Whitney in New York.

For many art historians, The Rose is a splendid climax with no second act. But the SFMOMA exhibit documents DeFeo's return to significant art making in a variety of styles and techniques. After Image (1970) is a splendid graphite and gouache drawing of a strange shell form with spiral ridges. DeFeo mounted it with a piece of torn paper on top as if the shell had been hidden for many years and only recently exposed to view—surely a comment on her own resurgence.

"She was a very exuberant person, even when she was struggling," says Moulton. "She just had this ebullience around her. Just a love of what she was doing."

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