Gertrude Stein famously said "A rose is a rose is a rose," but with all due respect, she never saw this rose. True, the painting has been called many different names -- Deathrose, White Rose, and ultimately, The Rose -- and yet, it is anything but another rose. Layered with nearly two thousand pounds of paint, The Rose is neatly tucked into a corner of the new exhibition at SFMOMA, Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, but it is the fulcrum on which all other drawings, photographs, collages, small sculptures, and jewelry designs depend on.
The point of a retrospective is to consider the whole oeuvre, and DeFeo herself believed her work best understood when considered comprehensively, and yet The Rose is what dominates any memory of the exhibition, which only brings the viewer closer to the artist's experience: DeFeo worked almost exclusively on the painting from 1958 to1966. When a drastic rent hike on the Fillmore apartment she shared with husband Wally Hedrick necessitated a move, the painting could only be extracted through a dismantled studio window. A forklift was employed. The process was so spectacular Bruce Conner documented it in the 1967 film, The White Rose, which will be shown in the Koret Visitor Education Center through the run of the exhibition. After its completion, the exhausted artist took a three year hiatus, and art historians point to the the painting as a catalyst for major upheaval in DeFeo's life: a divorce, and moves to Marin County and Larkspur.
Of course, The Rose is truly only one out of 130 works displayed in the exhibition, and shares a November 3 opening alongside two other exhibitions on the fourth floor. Amid the interactive video and sound installation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Frequency and Volume, one might be tempted to pause and consider how the international media artist feels about being sandwiched between the Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective and Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye. Then again, moving about as a computerized tracking system projects visitors' shadows on the walls leaves little room for such contemplation.
The position and outline of the shadow determines the frequency scanned, while the size of the shadow controls the volume. The radio emitted could be AM or FM, air traffic control, short wave, cellular, satellite, and even radio navigation. Part of the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial, the Mexican-born, Montreal-based Lozano-Hemmer was inspired by the 1920s poetry experiments by the Mexican estridentista artists: Frequency and Volume, Relational Architecture 9 (2003) was a response to the Mexican government shutting down "pirate" radio stations in indigenous states, particularly the communities of Chiapas and Guerrero.
Lozano-Hemmer offers the only participatory element on the floor, a moment for the visitor to shake off the seriousness that comes from viewing the magnum opus of a late artist who is finally getting her due in San Francisco, to be later appreciated at the Whitney in New York.
Finally, enter the living master to quiet all conversation of others. Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye surveys nearly 60 years of work, the first Bay Area museum overview in 35 years. Gary Garrels, the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of painting and sculpture, is Johns' local advocate and friend, and the two worked together to organize some 90 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints from SFMOMA and other private collections, including loans from the artist himself. Installed chronologically, the iconic subjects Johns is best-known for present themselves, room after room: numbers, an abundance of the color grey, flags, the Crosshatch series, and finally, his Catenary works. The press release promised six decades of restless invention, and it certainly delivered just that: Johns is a prolific artist who is endlessly curious and disciplined.
Johns is a prime instigator of change who has influenced his contemporaries and all the artists who have come after him, Garrels asserted in writing and throughout the exhibition hall. The late DeFeo and the comparatively younger Lozano-Hemmer hold their own as agents of change, and all are in good company on the fourth floor.
All three exhibitions open November 3 (and continue through February 3, 2013) at SFMOMA