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Three Poems on Art

by Yxta Maya Murray

The Rose (1958–1966)


Jay DeFeo looked at her painting and accepted the verdict.
The rays misaligned, as if a hub had broken.
Its navel gaped off-center.
Could anyone understand how serious this was?
Already, people were looking at her strangely.
But she knew: She made her mistake at the beginning.

She called it Deathrose, though soon sprinkled quicklime on the first
beat of that name
as it showed too many teeth.
The painting would not be finished for eight years, while she
birthed and killed it in a loop, like anxiety.
Even now, the first stages of her perfection had commenced,
the infection lightly grasping her sinews and thoughts.
She pawed at the skewed whorls, the dark mouth that she had misplaced
like a negligent god.
It needed to be straightened.

She called on her husband, Wally, and their crew—
Michael, Craig, Bruce, and Jean. They stood around, laughing,
while drugs crumbled in their blood.
Swinging around the Fillmore apartment,
everyone helped her cut into the crust.
They lifted the baby out, the white lead of its misshapen body
dissolving in their hands.
They glued it into a massive canvas where it suspended,
like a spore about to tear itself open
to release the next generation.


Standing alone in the studio, poison clung to
the trees in her chest
and the long fingers of her mind.
Meanwhile, she loaded the cloth with whites and grays.
No red. In San Francisco, back in ‘54,
she had crouched in a jail cell
after stealing paint that she could not afford.
The shame had stained through to her ribs
and bleached her will to live.
The red paint really did me in.

Building it up, she made flowers, rivers, and mountains
that were also a star.
The painting bulged with fruit and limbs until it writhed.
When the balance tipped
she hacked it with a trowel,
scraped it down with sand,
thinned it with her nails and teeth,
until the canvas once again gleamed through.
Then she would
start over again.

Sisyphus and Prometheus said her name in Hades
as if uttering a sacred verb.
For a while, “again” became the path out.
As her employers scattered
and she shed her friends like cells,
time flowed out beneath the baseboards of the apartment
and curled back.
She raised the Baroque and the Rococo with her hands and hacksaw,
she conjured the Renaissance and the space age:
That is, a crush of petals in the breast of a milk maiden
followed the geometry of Ibn al-Haytham
which blossomed into a UFO,
before she carved off the rock,
unresponsive to offers of food or
questions about her health.


It did not “end.” She did not “finish.”
The thing heaved against the wall, cracking and radiant.
Twenty-three hundreds pounds of oil paint.
It blazed as thick as Mars.
She would have stayed there
tending it
and dying forever like Vishnu
but for the landlord: He kicked her out for nonpayment.

The sounds she made in the hall when she received her eviction notice
should not be documented.
In later interviews, she did not like to detail the unpersoning
that happened during this period of her life.
We will draw a veil over her long mouth.

Movers came in and broke
the front wall.
A blank panic stabbed while they removed the painting
with the tenderness of sappers.
Wally stood to the side and clenched.
He saw the trash and poverty the strangers
skirted as if it contaminated,
a daintiness that clashed with their rough faces,
and whose insult he could not share with his wife
because she was a witch, flitting.

The painting rested on the ground outside,
a mislaid storm
and an induced birth
making a tomb out of the sidewalk.
Men in overalls walked back and forth, smoking and
talking logistics.
She wrapped herself in her coat and lay down
upon the hard swells,
the spirals, the spaceship, and the eye at the perfect center.
She curled up on the sparkling mound of erasures
as if it were her bed.

  • Jay DeFeo is quoted from Paul J. Kalstrom, Oral History Interview With Jay DeFeo, 1975 June 6-1976-January 23, Archives of American Art. This interview also recounts the difficult first stages of the creation of The Rose.
  • Details of The Rose's extraction from DeFeo's Fillmore apartment can be found in Bruce Conner's short film The White Rose (1967).

Small Worlds

Ink and acrylic on canvas. Shards of orange-pink, green, blue
and shadow scatter across black scribbles.
White ghosts float through.
The white ghosts are skeletons and a Māori warrior
according to the museum copy.
The Māori warrior dances an exorcism rite called the haka.
This cleansing forms part of the painting’s title:
Haka (and Riot)
Julie Mehretu.

If you stood here for ten seconds eyeing the blue and pink
you would feel good.
Ten seconds is over the average according to the studies.
Don’t you want art to make you happy it has been such a shit year.
They died and your ideation hemorrhaged red but you toughed it out
by sleeping.
Move your mental arms in the way of the warrior and clear out the bad energy.
Admire the mark-making
which reveals the inimitable hand of the artist.
Abstraction can be anything
and there are some tasty Thiebaud cakes waiting in the café.
Run to the café before Julie Mehretu destroys you.

Julie Mehretu has broken form.
She previously used maps and architectural plans as her foundations
and layered pigment and images over.
In this way she commented on war and colonialism
so that you could either enjoy the confetti prettiness of Stadia II (2004) like you
smile at Rothkos
or realize that it is about American imperialism generally and
fascism as a global and perpetual

But Haka (and Riot) 2019 is about a particular group of people
whom U.S. government officials abused so badly that they are likely to suffer
anxiety disorders well into adulthood
and their parents will need the rare judge whose conscience can be shocked.
Julie Mehretu takes a risk by making a specific accusation
depicting one of many kleine welten as opposed to the panorama of bad
which most liberals can agree on as opposed to open borders.
Actually, something universal and pre-cake is more to your taste now
because you read about the kids in cages and wept
but there was a fire coming over the hill
and your protest sign has some blood on it from when the police came and you fell
and later you took so many drugs that you hallucinated.

Okay, no: The images underlying Haka (and Riot) are of the barracks in a detention
and a pay phone that was there, too.
On the beds the kids urinated silently
and parents clung onto the phone as if it would keep them from sinking into the
the earth.
Julie Mehretu blurred these pictures and meshed them with
other specters of indeterminate origin and content
and the pink and the blue and the white dancing.
She makes them disappear is what I’m saying.
You have to look them up on the web, in the arcana that has the explanations.
There you learn that even the photographs that are the original source material
don't have any people in them.
You have to project the separated families into the snapshots with your
the exact filth and shock
the abomination.
In this way Julie Mehretu advances her abstraction so that it
slays ICE but avoids exploiting the victims
and indulging in abjection.
Instead of affixing suffering to a black body, Ligon emphasizes the atmospheric
qualities of anti-black violence, what Christina Sharpe describes as “the weather”

as Amber said once, about another body of work.

But there remains a problem.

Below Mehretu’s blurred evidence and colors sleeps Wassily Kandinsky.
Fumble under the scribbles and tap him awake, whereupon he will gasp
beautiful ideas.
Kandinsky believed in utopia as an inevitable process even though
in the last few years, the frontiers between countries have not only not
disappeared, but have been given a stoutness, strength, and impregnability
scarcely approached since the middle ages.

He painted references over perfect small worlds
in a process some have described as veiling
though perhaps today we could call it masking.
The viewer had to look at his work longer than ten seconds
to bring about their spiritual eureka.

Do you want to be spiritually awakened really
what does that even mean
do you want to lift the veils
I want to drink and take more drugs
or go to a party and experience collective effervescence
after picking at myself in my bedroom for the past eighteen months.

So that is going to recuse about ninety-five percent of the viewing population
from the truth of Haka (and Riot) 2019.
I’m fine representing that tribe except I fucked up and looked longer.
I saw that we need to uprise an exorcism without getting dead
cause they’re not going to treat us like the insurgents.
Is nonviolence outdated, Balin Brake lost an eye in Fort Wayne
and CJ Montano’s skull saw daylight in Los Angeles.

Stand in front of the painting for a whole minute.
A minute makes me a hero.
Beneath the pastels is 18-month-old Mariee Juárez
who died of viral pneumonitis six weeks after being released
from the concentration camp in Dilley, Texas.

See also:

  • "A Guide To Slow Looking," The Tate. ("Studies have found that visitors to art galleries spend an average of eight seconds looking at each work on display.")
  • Ms. L. v. U.S Immigration & Customs Enf't ("ICE"), 310 F. Supp. 3d 1133, 1145 (S.D. Cal. 2018), modified, 330 F.R.D. 284 (S.D. Cal. 2019) (quoting County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 n. 8 (1998) (“This practice of separating class members from their minor children, and failing to reunify class members with those children, without any showing the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child is sufficient to find Plaintiffs have a likelihood of success on their due process claim . . . . A practice of this sort implemented in this way is likely to be ‘so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.’”)
  • Yazmin Juárez described the death of her daughter Mariee in Emma Platoff's report: "Toddler Died After Contracting Infection At ICE Family Detention Facility," Texas Tribune, August 27, 2018.

Portrait Parlé

The brown man gazes at his observer and so changes art history. He looks down, as we are below him, dancing. The revelation shines in his eyelids, and his shirt gleams like Christ’s shroud in Raphael’s The Transfiguration. Note the man’s fists. They clench against the dangers of gazing and visibility.

Criminologist Alphonse Bertillon invented the portrait parlé in the 19th century. The subject’s safety escaped through the pupils and entered the trap of the large format Kodak. Bertillon wrapped marked tape around the suspect’s head, his middle finger. He bent down to measure an outcast’s foot, cupping the bare heel in the palm of his hand. Portraits parlé required the police to tell inmates’ stories using the methods of the Oulipo, as Bertillon was a race hysteric. Age height hair head beard. Forehead eyebrows eyeballs eyelids.

Jesús Torres’ eyelids glisten, as we have mentioned. Harry Gamboa said, look at me, and so we find ourselves rejoicing from beneath, reaching past the shroud to touch the place where light strokes the hero’s lashes. In the annals of white American photography, Latinos turn away as if ashamed, unless a booking officer tells them to face the camera. But Jesús Torres’ fists squeeze tighter as he steps forward like a kouros. His stare measures.

In Renaissance painting, only Christ regards us straight on. The damned fix their attention on hell and the apostles defer in profile. Both African-Americans and Hispanics were significantly less likely to maintain eye contact with officers than Caucasians. Researching The Transfiguration, we shudder beneath the ascendant, who is as white as his burial cloth. Meanwhile, Gamboa reloads film and checks his meter. Two shadows darken the Los Angeles street where Jesús Torres stands, as if they are guarding him.

See also:

  • Afroxander, "Harry Gamboa Jr.’s ‘Chicano Male Unbonded’ Highlights Diversity of Chicano Male," KCET, Sept 15, 2017. (“If you look at the history of mass media and the way Chicanos are portrayed, they were never allowed to gaze or look directly at the camera. The only time you would see that is in mug shots. If not, the photographs were always taken from above in a downcast eye as though they were in a subservient position or, in some way or another, to intimate some negative characteristics.”)