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Art history has never quite known what to do with artists who do not neatly fit into categorical styles or schools of thought. Certainly before the pluralistic 1970s, but especially in the ensuing decades of postmodernism, curators, gallerists, and historians who interpreted art tended to do so by comparing works, seeking points of invention and similarity over difference. Elizabeth Murray is one of those idiosyncratic artists (others, mostly women, come to mind—Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Joan Snyder, and Lee Bontecou) whose work flourished but remained underrepresented alongside more visible and vociferous art historical currents.
The Elizabeth Murray retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (only the fourth by a woman in the history of the Department of Painting and Sculpture) represents a nascent effort to address these historical lacunae. Curator Robert Storr astutely organized seventy-five paintings and works on paper that elucidate the breadth of Murray’s output and reveal a complex and chronological painterly progression. (A complementary exhibition on the second floor features Murray’s prints with Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, and provides a more intimate setting to engage with smaller works.) Combined, the exhibitions afford an expansive view of a fiercely independent painter whose career has endured several decades of postmodernism’s privileging of simulacra over originality, irony over expressive authenticity, and pictures over paintings. The exhibition chronicles the breadth of Murray’s work, including many paintings that have rarely or never been exhibited.
A painter’s painter, Murray has subtly absorbed the analytic lessons of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the quirky renderings of Jean Arp, the luscious palette of Henri Matisse, the structure of Hans Hoffmann, and the gesturalism of Willem de Kooning. She traverses this aesthetic history without relying on irony, quotation, or vulgar gimmick; rather, she intelligently integrates this pictorial dialogue with her own visual vocabulary, developed over a forty-year career of intense negotiation of process and materials.
Although Storr states in the exhibition brochure that “there is no progress in art, only the recognition of opportunity and the consequences of its being acted upon” (n.p.), this certainly does not imply that within a painter’s oeuvre the critic cannot discern a progression of ideas, forms, and materials significant to the development of that individual’s work. Storr goes on to argue that throughout the twentieth century artistic “possibilities” and “opportunities” emerged and proliferated with increasing frequency in resistance to earlier aesthetic traditions, which rather than being destroyed in the process, were instead often displaced. While Murray has never been considered a minor painter, her work eschewed the frequently market-driven fashions of the art world. Her isolation from the much-hyped Neo-Expressionist painters in the 1980s, for instance, had an unfortunate marginalizing effect, excluding her work from related exhibitions and written histories.
Murray was just beginning to make her way as a painter in the late 1960s when conceptual modes such as photography, performance, video, and installation threatened to eclipse painting. Critically speaking, the medium had reached its apogee with the formal advances of the all-over gestural works of Jackson Pollock and de Kooning on the one hand, and the post-painterly abstraction or color field painting of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt on the other. In 1966, critic Michael Fried dissented from this growing consensus by arguing that Frank Stella’s shaped canvasses—an inspiration for Murray—marked the endpoint of a historical progression. He saw in Stella’s work a “new mode of pictorial structure based on the shape, rather than the flatness, of the support” (Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” Artforum 5, no. 3 [November 1966]: 18–27). Despite Fried’s argument (which, had it caught on, would have bolstered Murray’s project), the critical tide shifted in the direction of Minimalism and Conceptual art (“objects” rather than sculpture reigned supreme), and the formalist model of criticism that Clement Greenberg had championed was either cleverly purloined by artist-critics such as Donald Judd to theorize their work or rejected as iconoclastic by Pop artists and their supporters. Murray’s awareness of these debates, however, did nothing to deter her. On the contrary, her tenacity in pursuing her singular vision wherever it would take her—whether consonant with the narrowly defined avant-garde or not—remains a signal characteristic of her vital oeuvre.
The first room of the exhibition is devoted to Murray’s early canvasses, painted after Murray had moved to New York in 1967. (Murray had earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1962 and an MFA from Mills College in 1964.) This grouping reveals the catholic appetites of a young artist experimenting with different styles including West Coast Funk, Pop, and Assemblage. From the iconic, kitschy Night Empire (1967–68), with its decorative border, to Madame Cézanne in Rocking Chair (1972), a kind of comic filmstrip version of that famous painting, Murray expanded and then drastically edited her jumbled visual vocabulary. By the 1970s, New York was awash with an iconoclastic Abstract Minimalism that motivated her to drastically pare down her imagery. In 1973, she introduced serial motifs such as fans, ladders, waves, and variations on the grid. The result is a refreshingly simple series of nonobjective works in mostly black and white with some blue, green, yellow, and cream. Oil paintings such as White Down Step (1973) and Blue Inside-Outside (1974) consist of hand-drawn ladders and ladder-like patterns that emphasize subtle optics despite their flatness. Shrinking Lines to the Right (1974) and Shrinking Lines Embracing the Center (1974) comprise stilt-like posts that energetically push against the four edges of the picture plane. While these works owe something to Brice Marden’s cool Minimalism and even Sol Le Witt’s mathematical serial cubes, their scale is smaller, almost intimate. Moreover, Murray retained a painterly touch, imbuing the delicately built-up and scraped-down surfaces with restrained texture. She next introduced rhythmic, curving lines into these abstract compositions with Möbius strips and all-over wave-pattern canvasses. Here the flattened, slightly wobbly linear strips hover on rectangular color fields that are punctuated by six tiny squares of color. Despite their mathematical origins, these abstract works retain a gentle quirkiness that seems to foreshadow the expressionist vein that is Murray’s true métier.
Murray dramatically increased the scale and complexity of her paintings in 1975 with Spiral Leap and to an even greater degree in 1976 with Beginner (approximately 9 1/2-foot square), incorporating a neo-Surrealist morphology into her established lexicon of modulated color fields. The exhibition records this shift through a series of key works. In Beginner the figure-ground relationship is gently coaxed into a new tension with a large, indigo, biomorphic shape punctured by a pinkish-red, knotted squiggle. The shimmering blue organ—modeled with feathery metallic highlights and deliberate brushstrokes—reads as flat but has an object-like quality in relation to a matte background that is equally attenuated with a patina of its own. This enigmatic painting represented a turning point, in which the artist turned away from the grid in the embrace of three-dimensional space, both real and illusionary.
As Storr points out in the exhibition catalogue, with Murray’s first shaped canvasses—such as Tug (1978), With (1978), and Heart and Mind (1981)—the artist experimented with intensified color harmonies alongside a topological (as opposed to a Euclidean) geometry (40). Here the shapes begin to replicate, twist, turn, bend, stretch, pulsate, and pierce within their cramped confines. In the seminal Painters Progress of 1981 (a jumbled polyptych constructed of nineteen separate canvasses), she pushes these principles to the point of rupture before reconstructing the shattered fragments, although the psychedelic palette never quite coheres. Works such as Yikes (1982), Long Arm (1982), and Keyhole (1982) collage recognizable, modeled forms (coffee cups, vessels), as the cut-out shapes simultaneously echo these forms, creating a witty dialogue between positive and negative space. The depicted illusionism is belied, however, by the raw physicality of these “object-paintings.” The artist lets the built-up layers of paint show along the edge of canvas, thereby reinforcing facture over façade.
As if riding her own momentum with no end in sight, Murray rapidly succeeded the segmented, flush-to-the-wall planar canvasses with layered, warped, and constructed works that protruded from the wall like sculpture, literally upending the Greenbergian idiom. She began to mold and contort not only the elements within the picture plane, but the support itself, that is, the wooden armature onto which the painted canvas is stretched. (Frank Stella had begun making related volumetric paintings, often on metal and eventually free-standing, in the late 1970s; and while Murray admired these works, she found them essentially different from her own.) Paintings such as Deeper than D. (1983), More Than You Know (1983), and Can You Hear Me? (1984) seem driven by an internal dialectic of contradiction and resistance. In other words, the constituent components of these jigsaw puzzles attract and repel as they expand and contract, igniting a dynamic that alters the viewer’s sense of spatial reality. The layered canvasses purport a visceral corporeality as they clumsily jut, poke, and prod each other, creating a palpable tension reinforced within an iconography of domestic unrest. Can You Hear Me? achieves a precarious balance of opposing energies as it poses existential questions. Multiple canvasses eddy around a vortex stirred by tentacular, sweeping arms of a deep blue rimmed with a blood red. At the center of this storm is a cartoonish, howling face and a speech balloon emerging from its gaping mouth like a grotesquely distorted tongue. The yellow upturned table suggests a wildly displaced still life, and the wailing skull—inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream—coalesces to make the work a raucous contemporary memento mori.
With these multi-panel pieces Murray represents an illusory state of reality in which objects and elements are continually toppled or torn apart, brought together, and then often shattered or fragmented. This energetic dynamism of pushing and pulling, however, extends beyond the formal, and in doing so masters the Cubist sense of structure, imbuing it with the Surrealist dream or fantasy image. To that synthesis she injects an emotional tenor one does not find in Stella’s sculptural paintings, which read in comparison as exuberant exercises in physical daring. Murray transforms what are clearly novel physical shapes and forms into objects of sheer meditation. For instance, in Don’t Be Cruel (1985–86) she tenuously skirts the edges of a psychological content that is barely contained within the work’s potent, writhing forms. The painting’s overall shape resembles a discarded napkin or tablecloth whose corners have fluttered and slightly twisted, although the primary image is that of a table whose legs have been kicked out of place, turning a stable surface into a site of tipsy mayhem. The tabletop is torn apart, savagely marred with a jagged-edge cut, while two embryonic forms with long tails slip across the surface. Modeled in dark shades of blues and reds, the image alludes to domestic bedlam, even violence. Although the title refers to the Elvis Presley song, and thus functions as a witty pop culture device that brings levity to painterly abstraction, the composition also recalls the anguish of Francis Bacon as much, if not more than, prototypical Pop.
Murray’s strongest work (that with which she made her reputation) includes pieces from the 1980s and early ’90s in which she brings together a tough, energized formalism with an amusing, but cryptic, iconography. Table tops, coffee cups, vessels, room interiors, stairways, windows, dripping liquids, musical instruments, dogs, shoes, buttons, and schematic, cartoon-like faces populate these complex pieces but refuse cohesive narratives. These object-paintings retain the clumsy, irregular edges from her earlier shaped pieces and incorporate not only orifices that “drip” but tubular or cordlike forms that slither in and out of these holes or from behind the central canvas shapes.
The complex topology of built-up works such as Things to Come (1988), Euclid (1989), and Dis Pair (1989–90) verge on deformation as solid forms appear to turn soft, leak, and spew. Unlike the Duchampian machines they recall, these pieces veer closer to peculiar organisms of Surrealism injected with an expressionist, nearly guttural angst.
The gravid vessels of Wonderful World (1988) and Tangled (1989–90) most frankly evince this bodily transmogrification with their references to swollen uterine forms. While some critics have read Murray’s organic shapes, sensuous forms, and cut-away interiors as evidence of a buried interest in the feminine or an affinity for feminist art practices, Murray has been quick to state that she does not desire to make political statements, only paintings. The strength of the work lies in its ability to play with bodily metaphors (both male and female) that evoke surprising visual and formal relationships with humor and insouciance rather than heavy-handedness. Murray’s understanding of figural ambiguity—what she calls in the exhibition catalogue the “male and female components in all of us” (Murray quoted in Storr, 56)—speaks to a private symbolism through tropes of origin, chaos, birth, and death. This is an artist who has culled influences and sources from many different histories and frames of reference, and one whose resistance to aesthetic typecasting has been ardent. And while Murray’s iconography has shied away from straightforward or autobiographical narratives, she has also remained open to the image world outside of art history. Therefore, when Storr writes that this particularly fertile period in her career coincided with an equally rewarding time in her personal life (her second marriage and the births of her second and third children), the connection seems not only logical but compelling. The fact that her canvasses from this period pulsate with a life of their own, a syncopated rhythm and vigor, suggest that the artist tapped into a wellspring of creativity that was simultaneously instinctive and intellectual. It certainly appears that personal and domestic stability gave rise to incredible artistic fecundity and experimentation.
The last rooms of the exhibition are devoted to recent, post-2000 work in which Murray has returned to the flat surface of the wall with polyptychs of increased complexity and density. The shift in palette is immediately discernable: robust, clear, bright colors replace the moody, often somber colors of earlier decades. Rectilinear geometries predominate, mixed up with amoebic shapes, all of them jumbled together within increasingly chaotic yet tightly organized compositions. Shapes allude to urban themes—railroad tracks, arrows, and graphics from subway maps—and the text balloons from cartoons appear with greater frequency. Recalling the graphic pop of Stuart Davis but more closely evoking the convulsive oddities of Carroll Dunham, Murray’s recent work perpetuates the uneasy relation between abstraction and figuration. Punctuated by obtuse hieroglyphs and wacky trapezoidal shapes, works such as Do the Dance (2004) and Bop (2002–3) evoke jazz, hip-hop, and urban mass culture. While these works represent a logical return to the artist’s roots in cartooning and are powerful graphic feats, they lack the psychological edge of earlier works. With their polished, crisp feel they lose some of the ambiguity that powers pieces such as Don’t Be Cruel. That being said, they remain the products of a truly masterful artist who relishes painting.
Installed perfectly in the museum’s cavernous top floor gallery, Murray’s works literally pop off the wall with an unbridled energy and focus. The major pieces are complemented by prepatory drawings and early studies that illuminate the intricacy of her working process. Although much of the historical material that would situate Murray’s work in relation to art of the last quarter of the twentieth-century is unfortunately absent (one needs Storr’s expansive catalogue essay for this perspective), this is a larger criticism of MoMA exhibitions that often leave the un-expert viewer lost and without important contextualization.
Lynn M. Somers-Davis
Ph.D., independent scholar