On September 11, 2001, Dana Schutz was an MFA student at Columbia University. She was already making the first of the paintings for which she would soon become well-known: images of a man she called Frank constructing a life for himself as the last survivor in a postapocalyptic landscape—the last, that is, except for whoever was painting him. After the towers fell, Schutz told Robert Enright of the Canadian magazine Border Crossings a couple of years ago, she thought about abandoning the painting. “At that time any kind of representation felt up for grabs and I didn’t know how it would land,” she recalled, “or if I could deal with certain subject matter.”

History shows that Schutz did continue work on the painting, which the next year became part of her first one-person show, “Frank From Observation,” held at the now-defunct LFL Gallery in New York. What captured her imagination, she noted at the time, was the idea of “a world without anyone to check reality against.” This unverifiable world was what Schutz called “an open space for painting.” It allowed for an art neither naturalistic, since it can’t be measured against the standard of a visible model, nor abstract: a kind of painting in which speculative ideas could be followed through logically and experimentally. As Enright points out, Schutz’s idea of the painter is of someone “who has to figure out how to imagine and then render a world.” But, to paraphrase Marx, she can’t render it just as she pleases. It’s in the gap between what can be imagined and what can be represented that art’s capacity for surprise is revealed, which is always related to what Schutz calls “some problem within the subject.”

“Subject” is a funny, ambiguous word—I think Schutz was using it there in the sense of “subject matter,” but it also means something like “self,” the bearer of subjectivity. That ambiguity was apparent in her statement for “Frank From Observation” 15 years ago, where she observed that in her work “the subject is composed and decomposing, formed and formless, inanimate and alive” and added that her interest was not in narrative but “in the man as a subject.” And that ambiguity is also entirely the point of Schutz’s work, which looks for problems in the realm of painting—problems about how a painting is made and what it is made out of—that are also psychological problems: ones not necessarily specific to the painter as an individual, but that might be encountered by anyone trying to construct a life out of the ready-made materials of the world we’ve been thrown into.

None of those early “Frank” paintings are included in Schutz’s current show (through November 26) at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Curated by Eva Respini with Jessica Hong, this concise selection includes 17 paintings and four drawings made between 2009 and this year. But it’s still true that Schutz’s subjects (in all senses) and the paintings themselves are simultaneously constructing and dismantling themselves, amalgamated from disparate parts and consuming themselves at the same time.

This becomes most obvious in the 2012 painting Building the Boat While Sailing, which is what in the 19th century they used to call a grande machine, an elaborate multi-figure composition of impressive scale. But unlike the grandes machines of the old Parisian salons, this one isn’t meant to give an appearance of plausibility to a thing of extravagant visual rhetoric, lending verisimilitude to fantasy. On the contrary, Schutz puts the accent on the contradictions and disjointedness she’s built into the work. She could just as easily have called it Disassembling the Boat While Sailing; a painting on that theme might have looked much the same. The crew hardly seems to be engaged in a single coordinated endeavor: Some seem to be just dreaming of the boat they’d like to fare on, while others appear frustrated in their attempts to achieve something of use. There is a blueprint being examined somewhere, but one suspects it has little to do with whatever construction happens to be taking place. Nor do the boat’s pieces connect in any coherent way—and yet this ramshackle vessel does seem to be staying afloat. So it’s just possible to imagine it, with its unruly personnel, eventually reaching port.

Then too, as poorly made as the boat may be, the painting that it allegorizes is actually quite securely constructed. (“Making a large painting could feel like you’re building a boat,” Schutz once observed.) It’s hard not to be impressed by the way she has arranged so many disparate elements while maintaining the clarity and legibility of the whole. A dozen times over the painting seems to undermine itself, but it refuses nonetheless to be undermined. The boat doesn’t sink; the painting holds. What might seem like messy improvisations proceed according to an implicit logic that only becomes apparent in time.

Though rarely as explicitly spelled out as in Building the Boat While Sailing, this idea of painting as something that makes and unmakes itself at once is recurrent in Schutz’s work. Another piece from 2012, Getting Dressed All at Once, shows what you might think would be a less complicated situation, but the painting’s single figure has caught herself up in the storm of her own simultaneous motions. Come to think of it, trying to put all of your clothes on at the same time would be even more destined to end in failure than setting out from port with your boat unfinished. In this case, it seems that attempting it would demand many more hands than you have arms for them to be attached to, as well as a body fragmented and recombined, like a parody of Picasso.

The Boston exhibition’s second grande machine is Shaking Out the Bed (2015). Like most of Schutz’s more complicated compositions (and many of the ostensibly simpler ones), it combines multiple viewpoints, but the main one is from above, looking down on what one gradually makes out to be a snuggling couple twisted up in their covers. But did that slice of pepperoni pizza really spend the night in there with them? That webbed flipper-like thing reaching toward a colorful disk to the side must be a hand grasping for a coffee cup on its saucer. (Schutz has always seemed intent on disproving some high-school drawing teacher’s admonition that artistic skill shows in the correct drawing of hands.)

Others among the strangely flailing elements shaking out of the sheets are less easily named, perhaps thankfully. It’s the confusion of being half awake, half asleep, and you don’t know yet which half is which. Schutz points out that the composition opens up from the center like the pages of a book. It’s as if being asleep were something like being folded up inside a pop-up book, and the process of waking is when you’re still half in, half out, not yet a fully three-dimensional being. And then it turns out, as she imagines, that “you just missed the alarm and the world is coming back to you in pieces.” Even waking up is another way of building the boat while sailing. Slow Motion Shower, also from 2015, might be the sequel to Shaking Out the Bed. No number of scrubbing hands can wash away nighttime’s murky consciousness altogether, it seems. The body still can’t quite pull itself together.

Schutz’s idea of paintings and people as entities pulled together out of fragments that don’t quite match—and, to the extent that they do hold together, it’s only because of their incompatibility—reminds me of one of the stranger poems by that strange poet, Wallace Stevens. It’s called “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” and it speaks of “This husk of Cuba, tufted emerald,” this “double fruit of boisterous epicures,” as “An object the sum of its complications, seen / And unseen,” asserting: “This is everybody’s world. / Here the total artifice reveals itself / As the total reality.” Schutz’s sense of a painting that, though made out of disparate elements, “starts to become a real thing in the room,” and in which “if you can see something then it exists as fact,” shows her to be an inheritor of Stevens’s poetics.

Even so, plenty of her works are relatively more direct. The earliest piece in the show is Swimming, Smoking, Crying (2009), whose title—through an evident nod to Philip Guston’s 1973 masterpiece Painting, Smoking, Eating—suggests, albeit more indirectly, that this is another of Schutz’s allegories of painting. The three self-evidently incompatible activities are not juxtaposed as broken fragments, but synthesized into an expressive whole that is at once funny and tragic—though, in the end, more tragic than funny, especially since that pathetic little hand straining agonizingly over a massive head that’s mostly submerged in the water barely looks like it could propel even the lightest body forward.

Piano in the Rain (2012) shows a straightforwardly depicted figure—long-haired, bell-bottomed, barefoot, of ambiguous gender—hunched over her instrument outdoors during a downpour. What makes the painting work is how the static quality shared by the figure, monumentalized by her weighed-down posture, and the piano, perched there on its rickety legs but holding fast, contrasts with the dynamic patterning of the diagonal lines representing the falling rain. It’s like two paintings superimposed and miraculously making sense as one. But an achieved simplicity is a tenuous thing in Schutz’s world: In Big Wave (2016), for instance, the two girls solemnly playing with the sand in the painting’s foreground remain oblivious to the tsunami that’s about to cover them like a dark curtain, and which has already engulfed any number of hapless swimmers and sea creatures.

I went to the ICA with high expectations—I’ve been an admirer of Schutz’s work ever since I first saw it—but also with a bit of trepidation. Would it be possible to see the show—which I knew would not include her now-infamous Open Casket representing the murdered corpse of Emmett Till—without having my view of her entire oeuvre tinged by the controversy that flamed up when that piece was exhibited last spring at the Whitney Biennial? What I hoped was that the context offered by the show would help clarify Open Casket as a painting, and that this, in turn, would give me a deeper understanding of Schutz’s art—both its strengths and its limitations—as a whole.

That’s something that the ICA show mostly couldn’t do for me, as it turns out. The selection of works on view, which would have been planned out well before the Whitney storm broke, doesn’t include those that I suspected might be apt comparisons to Open Casket. For one thing, it doesn’t include any of her earlier depictions of real people, among them Viktor Yushchenko, then president of Ukraine (Poisoned Man, 2006); Bill Gates and Ted Turner (both in Men’s Retreat, 2005); and the musician PJ Harvey (50 ft Queenie, 2003). Neither did it feature The Autopsy of Michael Jackson (2005), another depiction of a black man as a corpse, though in this case the painting’s subject was still alive at the time. Autopsy seems to have been Schutz’s speculative approach to the idea of self-construction. She was fascinated, she told Enright, by how Jackson “had such a hand in the making of his own physical image and his own body that you’d never know how he would look when he died. So he felt like a hypothetical subject.” But it had an unexpected effect on her: “I didn’t realize I would feel so horrible when I was painting it.”

Nor does the show include any of the few paintings in which Schutz has physically manipulated the canvas rather than simply painting on it—especially a group from 2007 with holes cut into them, including one of a white man with his eyes closed, who might look dead if it weren’t for the title, Day Dreamer. These would be important to reconsider because, in Open Casket, Schutz also manipulated the surface of the painting in an unusual way—one that’s worth looking at in more detail.

But the ICA show did shed some light on a facet of Schutz’s practice in general that connects to Open Casket and the rest of her work: The curators’ wall labels point out how she uses paintings from the past as clues to the construction of her own work. Big Wave turns out to be based on Max Beckmann’s Lido (1924)—though no one is playing in the sand in Beckmann’s painting—while, in a more obvious way, Building the Boat While Sailing takes a hint from Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19). Schutz, for all the seeming brashness of her way with paint, is erudite in the ways of painting—and learned enough that she never needs to stick very close to a given source, knowing (with Stevens) that art is “where the truth was not the respect of one, / But always of many things.”

Much of what was written in the heat of the moment about Open Casket missed some of these aspects of the painting. In “The Case Against Dana Schutz” in the New Republic, Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye described how “The paint of Till’s face dances like it is alive; he is made decorative when he was brutalized.” But at the Whitney, what I saw was a face rendered in harsh and uningratiating tones; it was hard to look at. I thought of the inscription on plate 26 from Goya’s The Disasters of War: “No se puede mirar“—“You can’t look.” Of course, as with Goya, one looks anyway, and the disquiet of that looking is amplified by the way Schutz has, perhaps with modeling paste, built up the surface of the painting in the passage representing the face. Both the face and the painting itself look battered and gashed, and the effect is hardly decorative. Livingstone and Gyarkye also observed that “The colors of his coffin are bright and pretty when in reality only a black-and-white photograph of him survives.” Pretty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but to my eye the painting’s palette (though it’s obviously not the grisaille of the photographs, of which there are several) is also sober and subdued, mostly shades of white, brown, and black, laid on with a kind of exquisitely tender lyricism: The pillow on which the young man’s head rests is yellow and might make you think of the golden halos around the heads of saints in Renaissance art; a single red rose lies at his waist.

But there’s something even more important that distinguishes Schutz’s painting from a photograph: Its composition doesn’t resemble any of them. The best-known image, in The Chicago Defender, was shot at an angle that puts Till’s head at the top of the picture; Schutz shows him horizontally. And there’s no rose in the photograph.

Where did that rose come from? Although Schutz had Till in mind as she was painting Open Casket, her visual source (as the painter Maya Bloch pointed out to me) was completely different: Alice Neel’s 1946 painting Dead Father, which agrees with Open Casket in every significant detail, including the rose—actually a pair of roses, in Neel’s case—except for the treatment of the face. In order to translate her feelings about the death of Emmett Till onto the canvas, Schutz had to eschew the language of photography and find a guide through the language of painting. Who better to turn to than Neel? This enabled Schutz to risk broaching a theme that didn’t come easily to her and to treat it with a solemnity rare in her work: a man who was violently prevented from becoming the person he might have wanted to be. It’s not a work of assuagement, let alone of irony, but like most of Schutz’s work, it encompasses contradictions. It contains ugliness and beauty in equal measure—enough ugliness to register the horror of what happened to Till, while paying tribute to him as a human being who deserves to be surrounded by beauty even in death. To understand Open Casket, and how it makes its uneasy meaning known, one has to see it as a painting in person. And there are worse ways to start looking at paintings than to study Schutz’s work at the Boston ICA.