I’ve mentioned before my compulsive need to read The New Yorker in order, no matter how far behind I get, and no matter how absurd it feels to see people’s posts or hear things in conversation and file them away for three months later. So there I am, going through the March 18th issue of The New Yorker, ready to throw it across the room because all the thoughts in the world about my own relative privilege in life still can’t make me cope with a book review that’s half about the author’s two kitchens, one on the Upper West Side, (sadly small because it was made for servants), and one in Umbria. But then, in the back pages, in the stuff there really should be no reason but compulsion not to skip (a review of an exhibition now closed), I came across one of the most stunning photographs I’ve seen in a long time.
The photograph shows a woman is standing on a ladder, slightly hunched. She’s wearing a brown coat, dark slacks, and high top sneakers. Her hair is thick, dark, and curled, cropped just below her ears. She’s looking down at the tools in her right hand and dangling a cigarette from her left. Something about her clothes and style say “sixties,” though the overall feel is so ethereal that I’m tempted to repress all my historicist training and call the image “timeless.” Behind her is a giant canvass that fills the frame, a painting-as-sculpture with a center point from which spring thick gray ridges, carved with a palette knife. The center hits just above her head, a giant crushing halo. Apparently, when viewed properly, it generates its own light, a result of the mica spread across it.
The photograph is of Jay DeFeo in 1960, working on “The Rose;” the occasion for its appearance in The New Yorker is the (now closed) show at the Whitney. DeFeo was part of the San Francisco Beat scene and worked on “The Rose” from ’58-’66, stopping only when she was evicted from her Filmore Street apartment. The work weighs more than a ton, so they had to knock out a wall and remove it by crane. When she died in 1989 it was in a conference room behind a protective wall.
I don’t want to say the obvious things: about people who say women aren’t as good at [fill it in] because they’re not capable of single-minded obsessions, about Big Drips and flowers and the problem with flowers, and whether a 2,300 pound gray rose might solve them. I know that power is supposed to come from the work, not the struggle it took to make it. (“DeFeo was not a great artist,” Peter Schjeldahl writes, “But the ferocity of her commitment and the anguish of her frustration make her a totemic figure for people who can understand those sentiments from experience.”)
I’m not sure I believe this anymore, though: that thinking about the struggle or the life is a distraction, a concession to our craven celebrity culture or what have you. I’ve started to think that all real art is in some sense about how it has come into being, how and why it exists, why it needed to. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks, from whence this blog, is all about this. There are four notebooks. The one that contains the novel the protagonist is writing is the thinnest, but it’s compelling because you see how the elements from the others are reworked and, inevitably, reduced when rendered this way. Of the novel within the novel, you think: look at all that went into making this smaller thing. Then, inevitably, of how much more of Lessing must have gone in to the making of Notebooks.
What does it mean to work on a single painting everyday for seven years? Is it a beautiful story, an unfortunate sideline in an otherwise more productive career, or a full-blown cautionary tale?
People talk a lot about how we romanticize destructive obsessions, and there’s something to that. But what about someone like DeFeo? She’s not neglecting her children (she had none) or stabbing her partner or doing any of the things that, when done by artists, lead to tired arguments about whether we can “enjoy” their work. What does it mean to call this kind of obsession destructive? We tell people to find their passion – but what that often means in practice is this. Or else it means, find a way to feel good about your job, despite the fact that even the best ones are “too small for people” as one of Studs Terkel’s interviewees put it. In one of Miranda July’s stories, a character talks about her friends, the ones who work in the arts, who have decently creative jobs with nice sounding names. But none of them, she says, are as good as just singing La.
When I look at that photograph, I don’t think about the things people usually talk about when they talk about a the creation of a Big Important Work of Art: about sacrifice, or selfishness, or even obsession. DeFeo was apparently a beloved member of the artistic circle in San Francisco at the time. But even if she had been a loner, I don’t think I’d see that. The photograph has an obviously religious cast, with the giant “halo” and her body positioned something like Christ carrying the cross, ascending the ladder in front of her artwork as if towards the ceiling of her own chapel. I’m sympathetic to the view that art or writing or any creative endeavor is just work like any other, and we shouldn’t talk about it in such metaphysical terms. But the perhaps manipulative framing of this photograph aside, it’s hard not to see a project like DeFeo’s as a sacred calling.
What is an artist like DeFeo doing, if not constructing a life, the kind of life she finds bearable? The aim is not to create a beautiful object, it’s to live a life in pursuit of beauty. All meaning is constructed: here is where she finds hers. Perhaps this is not unique to the arts; perhaps this is what all unalienated work would look like. But it’s something.