Jay De FeoHow does a museum display a piece of art weighing in over a ton? One which would easily overpower a small gallery if it could even get through the door. How do the art handlers involved in transporting it handle it? Rather carefully!

The difficulty of displaying “The Rose”, a 3,000 pound work by artist Jay DeFeo, has long fueled its allure.

Jay DeFeo created the piece between 1958 and 1966. In a 1974 conservation effort it was covered with plaster and other stabilizers. Sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute it faded into the background. People carved their initials into its thick protective layer of plaster or stabbed their cigarettes out on it. The Institue eventually built a false wall and hid the work behind it. The “Rose” went unseen for more than 20 years before its first show at the Whitney in 1995.

Ms. DeFeo who died in 1989 at the age of 60, was convinced that the methods she had used creating the “Rose” had harmed her health. She had added layer upon layer of paint–the work is oil with wood and mica on canvas–until it was 11 inches thick in places.

Then she carved and sanded the surface, filling the room with plaster dust. It grew until it filled an entire wall and blocked out a large window which had let in the sun. With 2 small windows on either side however, it gave light enough for her to determine its shading and sculpted surface, visually creating a previously unseen surface.

The Whitney museum is trying to replicate those lighting conditions for its current show, with shafts of light illuminating either side of the work in a darkened gallery. For the first time, curator Dana Miller said that “The Rose” will appear the way the artist wanted it seen. DeFeo would be pleased.


In art, pentimento is the process of old oil paint on canvas as it ages, sometimes becoming transparent.  When that happens it is possible sometimes to see the original lines intended for the painting.   The artist may have had an entirely different idea when he or she began.  A dog may become a child, a building may become the ocean.  It is called pentimento because the artist “repented” or changed his mind.  It’s a way of saying that the old idea, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and seeing again.

I have a herd of caribou marching across the tundra which possibly will change into a high mountain scene when I next pick it up.  They have been marching for several months now and I think they have gone as far as I can take them.

Putting it into a human context, I think people are much like that.  How many of us retain the idealism and energy of youth?  It is Time which is our pentimento.

Our careers change, our bodies change, and even our outlook on life changes.

But is it a bad thing?  Sometimes.  But as in a painting, perhaps the end result is much better.  Or not.

I prefer to think we gain wisdom and patience that wasn’t there in the first attempt.