Elizabeth Murray: Modernism Changing Shape

51G1DKTS8RLOn the 12th of August 2007, American artist Elizabeth Murray died of cancer aged 66 in Washington county, N.Y. She was a painter, printmaker and draughtswoman and her works can be found in many major public collections, including those of the Guggenheim, the Hirshhorn, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Carnegie. Murray’s “lively imagery and reconsideration of the rectangle as the traditional format for painting was part of a reinvigoration of that medium in the 1970s and ’80s. She is sometimes described as a Neo-Expressionist. The American art critic Roberta Smith considered her to have “reshaped Modernist abstraction into a high-spirited, cartoon-based, language of form whose subjects included domestic life, relationships and the nature of painting itself….” (Britannica).

Murray was raised modestly in small towns in Michigan and Illinois, but she got her break when encouraged by an art teacher, she applied and won a scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then continued on to Mills College in Oakland, California. She taught at a college in Buffalo and then moved to New York City. “After experimenting with reconciling late-minimalist painting with aspects of identifiable subject matter, Murray literally began to push the edges of the rectangle in works such as Children Meeting (1978), with large bulbous forms and lines pressing against the edge of the canvas. As if to make the exterior edges of her painting correspond to the energetic rhythms of the various elements pictured within—highly stylized objects such as coffee cups, tables, and chairs, as well as less-definable shapes—she began to create shaped canvases. She carried her experimentation further during the 1980s, when she began to use multiple canvases for a single work. Her Painters’ Progress (1981), for example, is a unified image composed of 19 canvases.

Specific ObjectMurray evolved a personal and sprightly range of curved imagery, much of which made reference to art-historical styles. In the 1990s, in works such as Careless Love (1995–96), she constructed her canvases to extend a bit from the wall, giving them sculptural and spatial qualities.” The artist maintained that there was no way of her knowing the end result of a work when she started on it. “Dreams are like paintings. They are completely unpredictable” , Murray told curator Robert Storr.

Murray was also at the forefront of feminist art in a world of male dominated modernist abstraction. Her “aesthetic influences were all male, and the idea of women artists as role models was unheard of when she was an art student. At the time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the likes of Walt Disney, Claes Oldenburg, and the Abstract Expressionists loomed large in her thinking. That was before she joined the Women’s Action Coalition. Subsequently, when Murray was invited to curate an exhibition drawn from MoMA’s permanent collection in 1996, the artist told Storr, “the only idea I had was ‘women’s work at the Modern.’ I was going to call it Mamas at MoMA.”  She did, in fact, organize an exhibition made up of works by women artists who had exhibited there and then been largely forgotten.”  (Corinne Robins, review of Elizabeth Murray by Robert Storr, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring – Summer, 2006).

From the beginning of her career, the artist traversed a succession of influences, artist and movements, from Cézanne to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Cubism, Pop Art. From the latter, Murray adopted the quasi cartoon-like imagery in her later works, yet from the Pop influence, she used “the domestic as a subject for both personal feeling and humor, but the objects she deconstructed were simultaneously skewed, and her rooms, cups, saucers, broken hearts became subversively feminist. A dozen years ago, Elizabeth Murray explained her paintings in this way: “My paintings are often strange, and sometimes show me a side 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 if s a journey.” Her ‘journey’ over the years offers insights sparked by a flux of comic nursery images emerging in dark, dream-like forms (…) In the lead article of the January 2006 issue of Art in America, critic Stephen Westfall writes that the artist’s MoMA 

51Q0QVM5BDLretrospective “makes a strong case for Murray as one of the great painters of our time, an artist who is a synthesizer and innovator of the many forms of modernist painting.” Westfall compares Murray with Philip Guston and Frank Stella, and agrees with Storr’s assertion in the catalog that “Murray has proven herself to be an undeterrable force in the rejuvenation of painting in New York in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.” (Corinne Robins). Discover Murray’s work HERE.

Feature Image: “Wishing For The Farm,” oil on canvas, 8 feet 11 inches by 9 feet 6 inches by 13 inches, 1991, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York, photo: Geoffrey Clements, courtesy Paul Cooper Gallery, New York