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Elizabeth Murray

American Painter

Born: September 6, 1940 - Chicago, IL
Died: August 12, 2007 - New York, NY
Movements and Styles: Neo-Expressionism
Elizabeth Murray Timeline
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.
Elizabeth Murray

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.

Key Ideas

  • 'Pastiche' is a term used to refer to a celebratory imitation of an artwork or style. Parody is a similar term, but means an imitation produced to mock. Murray's paintings often both pastiche and parody painting's history: using recognizable Cubist and Modernist abstraction techniques and reinterpreting famous works of art in a way that playfully pokes fun at the hallowed history and contemporary seriousness of painting as a medium.
  • Unlike many of her cotemporaries, Elizabeth Murray was determined not only to paint (after one of painting's many purported deaths), but to make fun paintings. Influenced by cartoons, Murray's work is intentionally bright, often silly, and always playful.

Biography of Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray Photo

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.

Important Art by Elizabeth Murray

Pink Spiral Leap (1975)

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.

Join (1980)

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.

Painter's Progress (1981)

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.

Influences and Connections

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Elizabeth Murray
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Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Elizabeth Murray Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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