Progression of Art
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
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
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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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
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
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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York