A lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, DeFeo is famous for a single work, a gargantuan painting — nearly 12 feet tall — called “The Rose,” which she labored on exhaustingly for eight years. The piece was, among many other things, a Sisyphean act of self-editing, a process carried out day after day, applying pigment, scraping it off, adding more, all the while carving into an ever-thickening surface to create the equivalent of sculptural relief.
By 1965, when a rent increase forced DeFeo out of her second-floor studio, “The Rose” weighed close to a ton. The only way to move it was to cut out part of the building’s front wall and extract the painting with a forklift. It was stored briefly in a museum and shown a few times before finding a home in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute. It stayed there for nearly a quarter-century, eventually hidden behind a protective false wall, until the Whitney acquired it in 1995.