Elizabeth Murray

American Painter

Born: September 6, 1940
Chicago, IL
Died: August 12, 2007
New York, NY
My paintings are often strange, and sometimes show me a part of myself - a violence and physicality that scares me. It's not always pleasant or easy. I don't always like it, and really when I do them it's a journey.

Summary of Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray's paintings are fun, cartoonish, and also deadly serious in their commitment to the medium and its boundless possibilities. Murray is famous for expanding painting's dimensions by working across multiple canvasses, and fragmenting the picture plane by breaking up not only the image, but the painted object itself.

Murray's work plays between abstraction and recognizable imagery, using bright, garish colors to portray objects, people, relationships, and emotions: in particular the works express a joy in painting alongside a healthy disrespect for the hallows of painting's serious histories and, later in her life, a frank acknowledgement of her own mortality and illness.

Accomplishments

Progression of Art

1975

Pink Spiral Leap

This is one of Murray's self-labeled 'transitional works', where she was "being playful in [her] choice of color," increasing the size of the work, and endeavoring to open up the canvas in innovative ways. On a thickly painted teal background she takes a thin line of creamy pastel pink and moves it in swoops and circles, barely picking the brush up while she does so. A few tiny squares dot the canvas, but the overall impression is one of a child-like simplicity.

Murray, whom critic Nancy Princenthal lauds as a "fractious formalist," engages in a dialogue with her artistic predecessors in this piece, but there are glimmers of her future exploration of moving beyond the strictures of painting as she perceived them. She explores the indexical mark of Pollock with her line, the depth and dimension of Clyfford Still's painterly fields, the playful and sinuous organic shapes of Miro, and the quirky whimsicality of Stuart Davis. However, the pink line is deliberately curving and playful - Princenthal calls it "unleashed" - and it refuses to take the form of the Minimalists' grid or the hard edges of the Cubists. She is not yet arrived at the shaped and fragmented canvases for which she would soon be celebrated, but Pink Spiral Leap's boldness in size and gesture hints at what is to come.

Oil on canvas

1980

Join

Join is comprised of two conjoined canvases; organic shapes in red and green resembling the halves of a heart or two faces in profile dance towards each other, filling the entire picture plane, which is a saturated hot pink, their undulating edges not quite fitting into the other's form. A diminutive string of purple globules arcs up from the top of one and rests on the other. The colors are mildly discordant but their effect, coupled with the space between the canvases, is of syncopation and vitality.

Murray's choice to paint on two canvases "represents the beginning of [her] original and increasingly complex way of deconstructing objects on separate canvases." Like medieval and Renaissance diptychs, the piece features images on each panel that also work in concert with each other. Form isn't Murray's only concern here; color occupies a central role in this piece. Fellow artist Carroll Dunham notes, "her use of color has tended to be sexy and aggressive, bespeaking a healthy appetite for the primaries and a substantial need for variety. The powerful mechanics of desire underlie all these choices..."

"Sexy and aggressive" is also an apt description of this composition as a whole: two organic forms face each other, one penetrating the other's canvas; a purple string of pearls or spit or insides sparks off their bodies and the use of complementary red and green maintains a simultaneously oppositional, but synchronous energy. Here, Murray reinvigorates the possibilities for formal play at the level of the built canvas, as well as producing an effecting and emotive abstract composition.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

1981

Painter's Progress

Painter's Progress is a painting of an artist's palette and brush, made up of 19 individual canvases of various shapes, arranged in a fashion that allows the viewer to see the discrete pieces but also the painted image. Murray's colors are bright and cartoony; the three brushes draw the eye with their brilliant orange hue, and the palette is in shades of pistachio, pink, and teal.

Murray described this piece as "so psychologically satisfying because I finally realized the meaning of shattering and of putting an image inside the shattered parts that would make them whole again." There is an intense feeling of pushing and pulling, of the outside edges of the canvas now just as active as the painted image within. The image of the palette and brushes is not a capricious one; it is art turned back on itself and "a symbolic escape from the usual boundaries of art." Carroll Dunham explains, "by bringing the most sophisticated painterly strategies to bear in the representation of such a hokey icon, Murray neutralized volumes of self-perpetuating theoretical cant." The work is intentionally unserious in its subject matter, while engaging with the formal questions and strategies of abstraction, fragmentation, and perspective, which had defined much of modern painting up till and including the 1980s. This piece is an affecting mash-up of the Pop sensibility (as in Warhol's instantly recognizable coke cans) and Minimalist obsession with the formal qualities of an artwork (as in Donald Judd's grids and shelves). This is an example of the way Elizabeth Murray expanded the field of painting, which means she opened up the possibilities for what painting can be by working beyond the flat surface of the picture plane and integrating sculptural elements into her works.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

1981

Wake Up

Wake Up, one of Murray's first multi-part, shaped works, is a recognizable object: a teacup, split in two by a jagged lightning shape. Rendered primarily in shades of blue - cerulean, teal, and navy - the liquid sloshes out of the cup, the plate splinters into three parts, and the cup seems to wobble awkwardly. While it first looks as if the canvases could fit together again, they actually cannot; they are just a little off, and now ossified in their placement.

Murray acknowledged that she liked to paint elements of ordinary life but eschewed the claim that it was somehow about the fraught relationship between woman and the domestic. Instead, she highlighted the "symbolism and metaphor...and sexuality of the cup" (in Murray's words) - more Meret Oppenheim than Mary Cassatt in its insouciance. Additionally, the use of a quotidian object as a means by which to explore the fragmenting of form is reminiscent of the Cubists, and Murray deemed the Cubists the first Pop artists, commending their use of "the ordinary, the humor" and what "cubism does to the surface of a painting, to a flat surface. It shatters the space." (Murray quoted in Brooklyn Rail article) Wake Up heightens the viewer's sense of the flatness of the picture plane but also reveals how the mind assembles a three-dimensional image out of color, form, and line.

Oil on canvas

1984

Can you Hear Me?

Painted in garish shades of cerulean, chartreuse, and red, Can You Hear Me? is comprised of multiple panels attached to and layered over each other. There is a central circular panel, two tentacular shapes arcing out from it like arms, several triangles forming the base, and, emerging from a tiny painted figure in the central circle, a large, cartoony speech bubble.

This is a contemporary reworking of Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893), with the visual elements, as Robert Storr said, "[coalescing] to make the work a raucous contemporary memento mori." It can be viewed as an homage to the death not of painting overall, but to the death of medium specificity -the death of the flat picture plane, of the canvas placed flush against the wall, of painting devoid of allusion or expression. This piece is specifically sculptural, encouraging the viewer to move around it to ascertain the particulars of its construction. In its uniting of physicality and process with reference to the existential anguish of Munch, Can You Hear Me perfectly encapsulates Murray's own description of her art as a method that "starts physically, but ends intellectually." As with her post-cubist rendering of the kitsch symbol of the artist's palette and brush, in Can you Hear Me, Murray lovingly parodies and pastiches the idea of the deadly serious painter and painting so dominant in historical, avant-garde art.

Oil on canvas - Dallas Museum of Art

2005

Do the Dance

Murray's works became extremely visually complex towards the end of her life. Do the Dance, painted while the artist was struggling with cancer, is only five panels but appears to be made of at least a dozen more; it is less of a traditional painting and more of a "construction," the word Murray chose to describe her late works. It is a bright, busy work full of meandering shapes and tracks, squiggles and squares. Her palette is varied and jazzy like that of a Stuart Davis or Keith Haring work, incorporating sunny yellow, violet, orange, lilac, brown, various blues, and highlights of pink, neon green, and white.

Do the Dance is a vibrant and effervescent depiction of movement, music, and life. Named after the Ray Charles/Betty Carter song Murray listened to while working on the piece, it reverberates with humor. Artist Joan Jonas explained, "I see how experimental she was with form and color and shape and the canvas itself, and it's very funny...the forms are dynamic."

Nevertheless, there is darkness in this work, manifested in the estrangement of the purple and yellow figures, and what critic Roberta Smith sees as allusions to the sick body - an attenuated brown figure in the bottom left as "apparently [a] patient, attached to a light-green IV, lying on white and yellow sheets whose red-flecked patterns discreetly evoke blood." Similarly, Robert Storr acknowledges the subtle threat in her visual puns, in her elision of the word "love" from the full title of the Charles song, in the way in which "alienation and death stalk her goofy polyps" and how "her raw, ungainly constructions don't just approach us like amiable strangers but crowd us like intimates we may have been trying to avoid."

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Biography of Elizabeth Murray

Childhood

Elizabeth Murray was born in 1940 in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. Her parents were Irish immigrants and her mother took care of the family, while her father worked as a lawyer. Despite her father's job and a few good early years, the family often struggled financially and experienced some bouts of brief homelessness. Murray admired her mother's artistic abilities; particularly her painted miniatures, but saw her as "a typical woman of the thirties. She didn't have the whereabouts to make herself have a career." Despite her parents' traditional background, they didn't pressure her to get married and have a family; rather, they expected she would become a commercial artist due to her love of drawing.

Murray adored cartoons and animation, and once wrote to Walt Disney offering to be his secretary. She stated, "All my ideas about art came from looking at comic books". As a young person she drew animals, children and adults, and 'Cowboys and Indians', sometimes selling the drawings for a few cents a piece.

High school was an unhappy time for Murray, who spent her time reading and drawing, mostly concentrating on faces like those of her father and grandmother. The financial support of a high school teacher and her parents' well-wishes then allowed Murray to enter the Art Institute of Chicago.

Early Training and Work

At the Institute Murray studied lithography and began to familiarize herself with the Institute's holdings. She received a traditional training in painting but what was truly impactful on her was the fact that "to get to the art school in these days, you had to walk through the museum... I gradually began to absorb the art - the masterpieces - around me." She marveled at the Picassos and the Cezannes, and was particularly interested in the work of the Surrealists and Willem de Kooning. When she started painting herself, she was "terrified of the idea...but something drove me to stick with it. There were a thousand times in art school where I said to myself, I'm getting out of here, I can't do this."

In graduate school at Mills College near San Francisco, Murray worked as an assistant in the printmaking department, but the head of the department taught her very little and left her alone with students; she remembered, "it was just a wreck, but I did learn something about the process." She immersed herself in the bohemian milieu of the Bay Area and was exposed to West Coast Funk and Pop Art.

Murray moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1965 after attainting her M.F.A., and got a teaching job at a Catholic women's college to support herself. She married the sculptor Don Sunseri she had met in Chicago and remained close to fellow artist Jennifer Bartlett, whom she'd befriended at Mills. Murray and Sunseri had a son named Dakota Sunseri.

Murray finally made it to New York City in 1967 and met local artists there. She and her husband had a daughter, and though the demands of motherhood began to compete with those of artmaking, she told an interviewer that having children "enhanced my work. I think children bring out the love inside of you, and I found it really emotional and very rewarding."

Mature Period

In New York Murray painted bright, abstract works that gradually grew quite large. She visited art shops frequently, deriving inspiration from the variety of paint colors.

The art world first took notice of Murray in the Whitney's 1972 painting show. Martha Tucker, then a curator at the Whitney, reviewed Murray's slides that the artist had sent her. Dakota Red was exhibited, though it did not sell; Murray ended up trading it for dental work later on.

Her first major sales came later in that year, however. Jim Duffy, a Detroit manufacturer, visited her studio and bought three paintings for $800. Murray supplemented her sales by working in bookstores and waiting tables.

Her confidence grew following the Whitney show, and she began to show her work to more dealers. She was particularly impressed with the quiet, elegant style of Paula Cooper and chose to exhibit at Cooper's gallery (she remained with Cooper until 1995, when she moved to PaceWildenstein).

After splitting with her husband, Murray wanted to get out of New York and thus accepted a teaching position at Cal Arts. Everyone there was "doing conceptual things and earthworks" while she was painting. She didn't think it was an accident that "I started shaped canvases at that crisis time in my life."

She returned to New York in 1980 after a year that was "jolting but also strengthening" and started to create some of the large, three-dimensional pieces she is best known for. She admitted, "I was in therapy to remain a member of the human race, but I had been holding back so much. So I pushed myself further...because out of the shattered pieces, I believed I could make myself whole. This applied to my art and life."

Late Period

Murray married Bob Holman, a poet, proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, and performance artist. She had 2 daughters with Holman: Sophia Murray Holman and Daisy Murray Holman. She enjoyed both curating and teaching as well as making art. Teaching at places like Yale, Princeton, and Bard helped her sharpen her critical eye; she explained, "the studio discussions kept me on my toes." She also enjoyed working with young artists, and commented that she "really feels for younger artists. So many good ones get lost. They can't push their own work, not according to the art world's rules." A highlight of her late career was curating an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996 that focused on the work of women artists; she jokingly said she would call it "Mamas at MoMA."

Death

Towards the end of her life Murray suffered from both brain and lung cancer. She underwent brain surgery and found it difficult to get back into painting. She told an interviewer, "it was hard because I was exhausted...But you have to keep at it, because you have to, and gradually things start to sort themselves out."

Murray died at age 66 due to complications from lung cancer at her home in upstate New York.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Murray

In the wake of Minimalism many artists and critics deemed painting dead, or at least moribund. Elizabeth Murray found this claim amusing and piquing, and dedicated her artistic career to painting in all of its permutations. Her experiments with the shaped canvas were unparalleled, taking what other artists had begun to play with to its apotheosis. Her use of rich but oftentimes discordant color, the massive size and complexity of the canvas(es), and the interweaving of the cartoonish, the disturbing, and the playful influenced her peers and artists in the proceeding decades. Neo-Expressionist painters like Jennifer Bartlett, Susan Rothenberg, and Julian Schnabel echoed Murray's use of color and capacious canvases, while Carroll Dunham embraced her use of exaggerated comic book imagery and Peter Halley found inspiration in her deconstruction of geometric shapes. Murray is the consummate "painter's painter," and her work has been a source of inspiration and delight for those who refused to believe that the medium of painting was irrelevant.

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