For starters, we picked up some clues at the Whitney Museum's press preview, where Director Adam D. Weinberg said:
In the early 1960's, Dorothy Miller selected work by DeFeo for a prestigious debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but this did not, as most would expect, lead to subsequent exhibitions in New York. American critic Jon Yau attributes this snub to the rise of formalism in his essay "The Rose Is Not A Rose". It took DeFeo an unparalleled 8 years to complete her monumental and iconic painting "The Rose". By then, a belief system was in place which ultimately rejected paint’s capacity for metaphor.
Since the formalist lens regarded metaphor as something of the past, art managers did not know how to recognize her work. Over time, this was exacerbated by the fact that her work didn’t fit into any of the stylistic designations commonly attributed to postwar artists, such as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, Pop Art, Painterly Realism, Photorealism, Minimalism, Funk, or Bay Area Figuration. Because DeFeo did not fit into an easily understandable pigeonhole, her work was not often shown. Even "The Rose" was only shown twice during her lifetime, both times in 1969.
Today, DeFeo's works can be compared to phenomenological artists such as Robert Smithson and Richard Serra. Consciously or not, these artists share a goal to marshal space and transform it into the unavoidable experience of art participant. With "The Rose", the paint is built up and reaches up to 11 inches thick in some places. DeFeo plastered 2,300 pounds of paint onto "The Rose" over an 8 year period as it stood in the bay window of her apartment. All that simultaneous building up and decaying away is an example of the consequence of so much time and so much material. As the viewer, we experience the effect of time on the experience of space. The relationship is reciprocal to our very own existence in the universe.
DeFeo's works also portray a tension between compositional order and sensuous response to her materials. Again, this parallels the human experience of our always competing, oppositional human desires. This duality and juxtopostion is what I find most interesting and also most breathtaking. DeFeo's works, regardless of size, somehow maintain monumentality while still evoking intimacy.
The expansive retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art demonstrated in an unprecedented manner the captivating sweep of her work, which included painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, photography, and jewelry. It illuminated her extraordinary vision and the experimental nature of her art which was groundbreaking. This quote by DeFeo herself, proves now more than ever, to be prophetic: