Jay DeFeo, a San Francisco artist of the Beat Generation, is known for one monumental painting, "The Rose," which she painted and repainted from 1958 to 1966. Close to 11 feet tall by 8 feet wide, the painting, now owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, carries more than a ton of white and gray pigment, built into a pattern of radiating lines that look carved out of a rock face. Born from Abstract Expressionism, it was finished as Pop Art was on the rise, a little late for its time.
DeFeo didn't work at all for a couple of years after she finished that project, and when she did return to the studio, she made photos, paintings, collages, and assemblages that were much more modest in scale. The Nielsen Gallery has mounted a graceful and gripping exhibit of DeFeo's work from before and after "The Rose." It reveals a keen, surprisingly pared-down aesthetic, and themes - the tension between sharp-edged forms and atmospherics, a fascination with torque, an obsession with tripods - that return again and again over nearly four decades of art-making. (DeFeo died of lung cancer in 1989, at age 60.)
Early pieces such as "Untitled (Florence)" from 1952 and "Untitled (Delaware Street series)" from 1953 feature loose, gestural marks made with a paint-loaded brush. The style is Abstract Expressionist but sparer, quietly inquisitive compared to the declarative, trumpeting works of, say, Pollock or de Kooning. The first sports a banner of red and gold tacked to a black vertical, like a spangled tree house nailed to a tree. The second portrays a tripod with a form - a big camera? A fruit-laden tray? - balanced on spindly, pale legs. In each, the artist's hand reaches beyond the object she paints, toward its essence.
After "The Rose," DeFeo picked up a camera. Her black-and-white photos demonstrate her attunement to composition and form. She cropped an untitled shot from 1971 to a narrow vertical, for example, exaggerating the length of an old black shoe.
Her late works combine razor's edge clarity with thrusting rush and ferment. An untitled piece from 1979 has a neatly drawn right angle jutting up like a launched arrow. DeFeo filled its interior with thrashing strokes of paint, red giving way to green and blue. Outside, the sky through which this arrow flies is painted delicately in pale, whispering tones. Then there's "Samurai No. 11" (1987), in which a black arc against a blacker ground contains a riot of bold, black-on-white gestures that carve space out of the painting's surface, turning a circle into a spinning orb of which we see only a fragment.
My favorite piece, the 1980 "Untitled (Eternal Triangle series)," has that same play of internal force and external calm. By opening the triangle into a tent form into which we can barely see, DeFeo suggests a deeper interiority, framed here by the crisp white lines of the tent opening. This, like all the later works in this show, tackles formal and spiritual matters with a Zen-like attentiveness. Her epic "The Rose" apparently cleared the way for these exquisite visual haikus.
Jay DeFeo: Applaud the Black Fact
At: Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St., through Oct. 27. 617-266-4835, nielsengallery.com
David Brewster: Paintings
Nesto Gallery, Milton Academy, 170 Center St., Milton, through Oct. 19. 617-898-1798, Milton.edu
Timothy Andrew Kadish: Rearranging Myths
At: MPG Contemporary, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 27. 617-357-8881, mpgallery.net
Bold expressionDavid Brewster is a practitioner of the oil sketch, executing his works on site in a single session. His show in the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy features the interiors of Vermont barns and landscapes of California deserts and Irish seas. But despite the picture-postcard topics, these works are not sweet and kitschy canvases made to appeal to art-buying tourists.
Brewster's a gutsy painter who builds each scene one rapid gesture after the next into a restless dance. There's a sense of the barely contained; sometimes the tension gives way to explosions.
"Emerging Emerald Machines" sets a tractor and a trailer, swiped with a series of diagonal marks in lush greens and blues, beneath a scaffolding of strokes that add up to a barn's ceiling. This and Brewster's other paintings clatter with surprising glints of color. In his world, everything seems in the process of either coalescing or dissolving; even when painting old machines in a barn, he catches a moment that will not come again.
Intelligent creationTimothy Andrew Kadish, who has a promising show up at MPG Contemporary, just this year got his fifth year certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, after receiving his bachelor's degree in 2006.
In most of his works (there are a handful of gaudy Expressionist paintings that should not have been shown), Kadish deploys little hieroglyphs that sometimes charmingly morph into children's book characters, such as Waldo from "Where's Waldo?" and Harold with his purple crayon.
These wander and squiggle against grounds that range from natural linen to slate to vaporous passages of paint, which become almost Turneresque in "Rainbows and Grenades," in which Harold joins a platoon of rifle-wielding soldiers. Setting these little protagonists against backdrops that engage art history and social comment could be coy, but Kadish's work is more intelligent, and his canvases more ambitious, than that. His works burst with ideas. Ultimately, he'll need to edit and hone, but for now, his youth excuses him, and his work suggests he's going somewhere.