B.J. Newton: Depositional Records of the Second Coming in Abomination of Desolation
Organized by Dan Nadel with Cushion Works

Opening reception: Friday, January 27, 6-8pm
January 27–March 25, 2023

SF Examiner

Untitled c. 1969, Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 in.

Burl J. Newton (1926-1994), incarcerated in California for most of his adult life, was free to make paintings that he grouped under the name “Depositional Records of the Second Coming in Abomination of Desolation.” The eleven works on view are thickly painted chronicles of earthly heaven and hell caked with the colors and brushed-in forms of glory and destruction. Some are structured along promising horizons, others are dreamlike agglomerations of creatures, symbols, and landscapes. This exhibition is the first Bay Area gathering of Newton’s work since a 1970 group exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute.

We are fortunate to live with these paintings even for this short time. How they arrived at this place, right now, is a bit of a story: Cushion Works proprietor Jordan Stein is five years younger than I am, but born and raised of the same striving Jewish stock in the suburbs ringing Washington D.C. He attended, as I did, a high school so liberal that my English teacher wept the day Charles Bukowski died. Jordan and I met a few years back in San Francisco, a city that only Cushion Works could make feel intimate and vastly mysterious. One day Jordan was visiting my home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, when he spotted something above the staircase: In all the years I’ve lived with my B.J. Newton painting, Jordan was the first human to actually recognize it. Like me, he had once visited the extraordinary domain of two eminent Chicago artists, and like me he’d been distracted by the mudlark, blood-red images on masonite. What is this?, we both asked. This is B.J. Newton, they said. In fact, long ago, while acting as art agents for Joseph Yoakum and a passel of Martin Ramirez objects, they’d attempted much the same with Newton to less spectacular results.

I’d always wondered about Newton. Then I met Phil Linhares, one of those crucial figures in art history who tends to fall right out of it: an enthusiastic curator possessed of a great eye and deep knowledge but not a great and terrible ambition beyond serving art and artists. Phil had discovered Newton right alongside the Chicagoans, had eleven paintings in his basement, and wouldn’t mind sharing them.

In a decades-old letter to Phil, Newton wrote: “The only real service any planetary humanoid personality could possibly render to the all-mighty is and always has been a sacrifice, my bitter cup is just about consumed, the next cup is milk and honey.” May it be the same for all us sinners.

Phil Linhares has prepared the following narrative statement.

–Dan Nadel, January 2023


Little is known about B.J. Newton aside from his attention to painting during incarceration at Folsom Prison during the 1960s and ’70s. These paintings were purchased at the Folsom Prison store, which offered art and crafts created by the inmates. Newton’s paintings were atypical among the general offerings, which ranged from sentimental overworked graphite portraits of women copied from movie magazines and hand-tooled leather wallets and belts, to a variety of lamps, some in the form of Conestoga wagons designed for placement on television sets.

Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, Chicago-based artists teaching at the time at California State University, Sacramento (“Sac State” for short), and I occasionally visited Adeliza McHugh’s memorable Candy Store Gallery in Folsom and followed that with a trip to the Prison Store, where we eventually discovered and purchased some of Newton’s paintings. Jim and Gladys were two among the six members of the Chicago exhibition group “Hairy Who.” Their early exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center received glowing reviews in Artforum magazine, which attracted my interest, and I eventually contacted the group with an invitation to present their work in the Diego Rivera Gallery of the San Francisco Art Institute, where I was the Director. The exhibition in spring 1968 was enthusiastically embraced by students and visitors, but condemned by some faculty as an attempt – on my part – “to break down the discipline they were trying to instill in their students.” Jim, Gladys, and a third Hairy Who member, Karl Wirsum, attended the opening and were hired to teach at Sac State the following semester.

We easily connected through a mutual interest in what was then called folk, naive, primitive, or outsider art, essentially the creative expressions of self-taught artists, some of whom did not consider themselves artists. Whitney Halstead, the legendary art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, introduced Jim, Gladys, and numerous other students to this kind of work. My interest was piqued as a student at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where many of my fellow painting majors found more interest in the work of self-taught artists (“art straight from the heart”) than the more calculated art-making strategies from New York.

We learned that B.J. Newton was from Modesto, California; he was a light-skinned Black man with blue eyes. We met with him a couple of times on Union Street, where he was a short-order cook for local restaurants between return trips to Folsom for new offenses. He described himself as a “habitual criminal” serving short terms for vagrancy and alcohol-related offenses. He was very shy and didn’t have much to say other than to express appreciation for our buying his paintings. He showed us a few works he created while living in San Francisco, but they lacked the intensity seen and felt in the Folsom works. He once sent us a letter from prison describing a vision he had in which he would become a rich and famous artist, and offered to share his fortune if we were to invest in his future, which we could not do.

Newton’s paintings contain fantastic images of religious content; biblical figures, swirling clouds and other atmospheric visions, and landscapes with tomb-like structures and indications of cross-section views of skeletal remains. He occasionally signed his paintings as “Jesus Newton” or “Backward Jesus”– a flaming crucifix with an entwined serpent is sometimes seen. Figures with blue eyes are assumed to be self-portraits. Whether on canvas, masonite or Grumbacher prepared canvas board, the works are in oil. Several works are finished off with a “frame” band of red or blue tape. All works in the group of eleven were purchased between 1969 and 1975; Jim and Gladys returned to Chicago in 1977, ending our sporadic visits to the Folsom Prison store. Some of these paintings were included in “American Primitive & Naive Art,” a 1970 SFAI exhibition Jim and I co-curated which featured works by Martin Ramirez, P.M. Wentworth, Joseph Yoakum, and Jim Colclough, among others.

Our interest in such art and personal contacts in the greater art world of museums and galleries enabled us to spread the word about these artists to some effect. Gladys was active in the Folk Art Society, which met annually in different cities, and both Jim and Gladys informed their friend and art dealer Phyllis Kind of their discoveries. I once met the prolific collector Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., who acquired one work by Newton for his collection: The Reaper, c. 1972, oil on cardboard, 18 x 24 inches. Signed: “B. Jesus.” The Smithsonian American Art Museum lists three Newton paintings in their collection: Harvesters and two untitled works, all undated, oil on canvas, and signed “Jesus Newton.” The American Folk Art Museum has one untitled work. A work or two occasionally appears at auction. It is possible that local artists and collectors in the Sacramento/Folsom region acquired a few Newton paintings, but until something surfaces, this exhibition constitutes the largest gathering of works by this extraordinary artist since the 1970 SFAI exhibition.

Philip E. Linhares
Oakland, CA

Dan Nadel lives in Brooklyn, NY. His exhibition Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 is on view at the Manetti Shrem Museum, UC Davis. He is currently writing the biography of Robert Crumb.

Philip Linhares began his curatorial career as Director of Exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute. He served for over twenty years as Chief Curator of Art at the Oakland Museum of California.

Special thanks to Phil Linhares and Brian Riedel.