From the Archives: Elizabeth Murray on Shattering Expectations for Abstract Painting, in 1984

Elizabeth Murray, Her Story, 1984, oil on canvas.


“Painting in the ’80s,” the title of an Elizabeth Murray show currently on view at Pace Gallery in New York, might be considered a sort of understated deadpan joke, given the wildly dynamic works on view. Shapes appear to burst into colorful shards, and paint seems to morph before a viewer’s very eyes. With the energy of those paintings in mind, we are republishing Paul Gardner’s 1984 profile of Murray, written when she was beginning to garner critical attention in New York for her solo exhibitions at Paula Cooper Gallery. Gardner’s profile follows in full below, with the author’s permission. —Alex Greenberger

“Elizabeth Murray Shapes Up”
By Paul Gardner
September 1984

Elizabeth Murray, charcoal gray crayon in hand, stands in front of a studio wall covered with sheet bond paper. Various sections of the wall are filled with shapes of all sizes—bulbous rectangles, smoky spirals and cometlike commas big enough for a billboard. She studies a clean white sheet, giving her curly salt-and-pepper hair a slight shake, as if tossing aside all hesitation. With the same force of energy that bursts from her paintings, she adds another charcoal shape, a sort of crescent. Later, perching on a chair, she says pensively, “I’m not sure about that one.” Sigh. “I don’t think I’ll cut it out.”

The shapes she finally selects for what critics call her “shattered” or “overlapping” canvases are cut from the sheet with a razor blade and then fitted, like dress patterns, over pieces of plywood. If she is entirely satisfied, the paper pattern is re-created in canvas, and part of a new work, still to be painted and overlapped onto another shape, is suddenly in progress. While she prepares a painting, which may take from two months to a year to complete, the studio is often strewn with shapes, rather like scraps from a larger-than-life jigsaw puzzle—pieces that will eventually be connected to be a unified form. “I always begin as if it is a puzzle,” she says.

The September 1984 issue of ARTnews.

Murray paints each panel separately, as if it were a single work. She gets her ideas for color from a paint shop in SoHo. Then, with the help of an assistant who comes to her studio once a week, she begins placing the panels this way and that. “Basically, I follow my nose. I get bored with analytical thinking, arranging. The work appears to be getting more sculptural, but I’m interested in the illusion of making something look three-dimensional in two-dimensional space. Anyway, I want the panels to look as if they had been thrown against the wall and that’s how they stuck together.”

Contrary to this approach and to finished works, which feature intense swervy images that seem to be tipping or colliding—cups, goblets, paintbrushes—Murray appears to be very much in control of most situations, either on the wall or off. She radiates a warm practicality and hard-edged focus that suggest she always knows what she’s doing artistically, even when she has doubts—and what artist doesn’t have doubts? She is definitely of this earth; fantasy has no place in her work or life.

The solid physicality and aggressive color of Murray’s fragmented canvases, as well as the unexpected combinations of unexpected shapes, have won her a strong reputation among critics, curators and collectors, who find her work simultaneously “powerful” and “rollicking.” One critic sees Murray’s work as drawing on styles such as Surrealism and Cubism but modernizing them with a “particularly American flair.” To other observers, Murray’s biomorphic forms suggest a different, more abstract style, although the artist says, “The shapes may be abstract, but I don’t feel I’m an abstract painter. I resent the desire to classify me.” Surreal, abstract, cubist—whatever the impression she leaves, many critics consider Murray a master at handling the shaped canvas, that amalgam of painting and sculpture.

Since her first exposure in the 1972 annual painting show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Murray has bene in over a hundred group shows, from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., to the Hayward Gallery in London. Her work is now in the collections of such museums as the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the St. Louis Art Museum. She has chalked up 13 one-person shows, four with Paula Cooper Gallery in New York—“my home base,” as she puts it. This spring she was selected—along with John Torreano, Gary Stephan, Brad David and Bill Jensen—for inclusion in the Whitney show “Five Painters in New York.” Associate curator Richard Marshall, who co-curated the exhibition with adjunct curator Richard Armstrong, says. “The artists, all of the same generation, began expressing themselves over ten years ago with paint when painting was definitely not the dominant art form. Elizabeth synthesized form and image, which really reinvigorated the medium.” A Murray exhibition will open the new Broida Museum in SoHo in about two years. Kathy Halbreich, co-curator with Sue Graze, observes that Murray’s work has “sensuousness and intelligence. She has quietly attracted attention without ever calling attention, without shouting, ‘Look at me.’ ”

Murray was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up in small towns in Michigan and Illinois. “We moved around a lot and finally settled in Bloomington, Illinois. My family started out with the usual upper-middle-class expectations, but my father became ill. Financial setbacks made it very difficult for my parents, who had to deal with the death of their dreams. My brother and sister and I learned at an early age that life wasn’t like the movies. It was hard on us, but getting reality drummed into me at an early age made me strong. The important thing is that my parents always encouraged me. My mother had wanted to be an artist, but when she was growing up women did not have careers. I loved to draw and started when I was very small, scribbling with a pencil. My father said, ‘Oh, you’ll be an artist . . .’ Can you imagine what that meant to me, hearing him say that?”

Her early work in grade school consisted of pictures of elephants, pipes, little boys and girls—and some adult couples. She refers to the last as her “sex drawings.” “I would draw a woman in negligee sitting on a couch next to a man in a dinner suit. My girlfriends and I would go crazy over these drawings. They seemed so provocative. Later I sold these drawings, and others of cowboys and Indians and stagecoaches, for twenty-five cents. I wanted to be a cartoonist and created my own comic books. It’s usually boys who like to make comic books—my own son does—and not girls, for some reason. Girls pass hours in fantasy, dressing and undressing dolls. But I was never interested in dolls. I guess I was more of tomboy.”

She vividly recalls high school as “the most miserable period of all.” Bloomington, she says, was like all those small midwestern towns that Sinclair Lewis had exposed in his novels of the ’20s. “The towns had a rigid caste system, and we lived on the wrong side of the tracks. At school the ‘in’ crowd consisted of cheerleaders, clubbies, jocks. I stared at them and thought, ‘Hey, these kids are real jerks.’ A lot of artists seem to have some socially stressful background that affects their sensibility when they’re quite young. In a way I didn’t care what the clubbies thought: they could like me or not. But naturally, you always do want to be liked.” Her solace form the stifling town was reading and sitting for hours silently sketching family faces. She also drew trees and hands, but mostly she concentrated on the faces of her father and her grandmother, with whom the family had lived. Her high-school art teacher, Elizabeth Stein, became involved in her work and created a scholarship for her to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Elizabeth Murray, 96 Tears, 1986–87, oil on canvas.


Chicago, Murray says, her face breaking into a wide smile, was a dazzling step into the world. “For the first time in my life I was around people my age and older who liked art and poetry, who talked openly about their sexual relationships, who did not dress according to any code but their own. I was completely stunned. I never went back to Bloomington again!” She took a room at the YWCA but eventually shared apartments with other students. For four years she took academic courses later afternoons and evenings at the University of Chicago and art classes during the day at the institute.

“I learned how to paint figures and landscapes, how to draw and use watercolors,” says Murray. “The training was very traditional, but in retrospect, I’m glad I had it. I was determined to learn everything. I wouldn’t miss a class.” Then, she continues, a curious thing began happening. “To get to the art school in those days, you had to walk through the museum. I intended to go into commercial art, but day after day, as I walked through the museum, I gradually began to absorb the art—the masterpieces—around me. One day I stopped to look at a Cézanne still life. I was thrilled by his use of color, his application of paint, his emotion. By the end of my second year, I realized that I wanted to go in pursuit of the Holy Grail—I wanted to be a painter. It was kind of a magical decision.”

Murray admired the spirituality of Cézanne, the iconoclasm and freedom of Picasso. But she learned how to paint, she says, by studying de Kooning. “There’s something about his work of the early ’60s—the way he got paint to move across the canvas, the way he used his brush—it’s almost as if he was expressing words with paint. De Kooning could make his paintbrush say or do anything.” Attending graduate school at Mills College outside San Francisco, Murray was influenced by such artists as Bosch, Max Beckmann, Chagall and Leon Golub and made large paintings—rather haunting and obsessive—with floating ghoulish figures that melded into images such as bikes and shovels. It was at this time that she first saw the work of Jasper Johns. “He knocked me out. Johns packs emotional and intellectual excitement into a painting and then forces you to see the physicality of the work by bringing it up to your face, saying, ‘You see, this is how I do it.’ ”

Before receiving her M.F.A. from Mills in 1964, Murray had become friends with another student, Jennifer Bartlett, and had married a sculptor whom she had met at the Art Institute. She and her husband moved to Buffalo, where they lived for two years. Murray taught at a Catholic women’s college. “It paid the bills and let me continue my work. I started exploring sculpture. Why? I can’t answer that . . . but somehow doing flat paintings seemed too limiting.”

She sees her move with her husband to New York in 1967, like her earlier move to Chicago, as a resettlement that dramatically altered her life. “I didn’t know many people in New York, except for Jennifer Bartlett, who was very supportive, and [sculptor] Joel Shapiro. At first I felt quite out of it. Pop was so campy, and Minimalism—just beginning—was equally off-putting. The word being spread was, ‘Haven’t you heard? Painting is dead!’ I thought, ‘Oh, really? Well, to hell with that. I’m painting.’ ” The birth of a son, Dakota, now 15, presented a new challenge and a realization. “Suddenly, I focused completely on my work. I knew time was passing quickly and I had to get on with it, I had to get a body of work done. I didn’t have forever to become an artist.” She painted quickly for three or four years, specifically trying to remove images from her painting. She was fascinated by Mondrian. “There is so much in his emptiness.”

Elizabeth Murray, Table Turning, 1982–83, oil on canvas (two parts).


In the early ’70s, Marcia Tucker, then a curator at the Whitney (she is now director of the New Museum), visited her studio and left the kindest of words. “Marcia was putting together an annual painting show, and I had sent her my slides. She must have had thousands to sift through, but she called and made an appointment. I lived on her encouraging words for weeks.” Murray’s Dakota Red, about six feet high and four feet wide, which depicts a series of abstract red houses with gray-blue borders moving diagonally down the painting, was chosen for the annual. The painting never sold. Like many artists living no a tight income, Murray traded it for services: dental work. “Today I don’t even go to the same dentist,” she says with a laugh.

However, later that year a Detroit manufacturer named Jim Duffy visited her studio, and she made her first sale. He bought three paintings for $800. He was particularly interested in what Murray calls her “alphabet group”—the letters F, B, and A repeated over and over again in different sizes on each of the respective paintings. “He was an intelligent collector,” she remembers. “He wasn’t just slumming.” A work by Murray now sells for around $40,000. “Sometimes I worry about the motives and integrity of collectors, and sometimes I feel guilty about the price, though I try not to.” Indeed, she shouldn’t. Murray paid her dues through some very lean years without ever giving up. She worked in bookstores and waited on tables. She thought it would be wonderful someday to earn an income from her art but always carefully made provisions in case that never happened. Even when an artist has become successful, Murray observes matter-of-factly, “the art world can be very trendy and fickle.”

This is one reason she continues to teach, along with the fact that teaching, she asserts, helps sharpen her critical eye. She has taught at such schools as Yale, Princeton and Bard and at present gives painting “crits” to graduate students at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Because of her own experiences in her early career, Murray shows an earnest curiosity and interest in the development of younger artists and visits a lot of studios. “I really feel for younger artists,” she says. “So many good ones get lost. They can’t push their own work, not according to the art world’s rules. It’s a very tricky situation. I want to encourage young talent. I know what it means if I make a positive comment; I know because I remember how it affected me. And besides, studio discussions keep me on my toes.” Sculptor Richard Beckett, who has now had three solo shows at the Barbara Toll Gallery, recalls: “After my first show, we had lunch together. Elizabeth’s attitude toward her own work and mine was inspiring. She made me realize you mustn’t ever feel complacent. You mustn’t ever settle for gimmick art or trendy ‘gallery art.’ Elizabeth has this amazing inner strength that conveys, ‘Don’t settle for a concept too quickly, too soon. Just keep working.’ ”

After the Whitney exhibition and her first sale, Murray’s confidence and willingness to show her work to dealers increased. Paula Cooper, a low-profile dealer with a prestigious stable, visited Murray’s studio. The artist liked Cooper’s quiet, soft-spoken style and her artistic good sense. Cooper was attracted to “the logic of continuity in Murray’s work as well as her use of color and her creation of moods that make each painting seem very special.” Murray has been with Paula Cooper since 1975. “Some people who have power in the art world are truly fine. Paula is one of them. But I’ve also discovered that, with others, power corrupts. I’ve seen this happen to dealers and curators and even other artists.” Murray’s close friends are artists, many in the Paula Cooper Gallery, but she has never been part of an aggressively social art scene. She finds the scene cliquey, filled with competitiveness and jealousies that she purposefully chooses to avoid. “The art scene doesn’t always represent the best qualities of people. I want to stay removed. Art is not like film or theater—group activities. Artists work individually, in isolation to some extent. I never heard of an artist getting a bright idea at some cocktail party.”

In discussing the progress of her work, Murray has a clear sense of the significant paintings that have charted her development since she came to critical attention. She states that Middleground (1975), in which a titled oblong shape fills the canvas, was important because she went back to very strong colors—orange and green. “When I loooked at the canvas I saw an enormous face, very severe. But I didn’t want viewers to be caught, too much, by any specific form. I was influenced by the illusory forms of Al Held.” Murray’s spiral elements, now a signature of her work, first appeared in Pink Spiral Leap (1975), a black painting with a pink spiral swirling through the field. Tiny blue, pink and white squares cling, at various points, to the spiral. “I wanted to take one line and move it through the field—and the circular form just came to me. I was also being playful in my choice of color.”

In the mid-’70s Murray decided that her work was becoming too formal; she also wanted to work on a larger scale. The result was Beginner (1976), in which a mineral-blue curvy form, which might be the profile of a face, dominates the ten-by-ten-foot painting. A violet pretzel-like line creates motion within the shape. Four years later Murray’s ready-to-burst forms (whether faceless heads or whimsical clouds) were literally fragmented in two extravagant works that sharply pinpointed her artistic direction in a time of personal crisis.

Elizabeth Murray, Making It Up, 1986, oil on canvas.


“Artists are strange beings,” she says. “We withdraw in order to work, but we can’t ever completely withdraw, not from life.” After she and her husband had separated around this time, Murray decided it was necessary to get out of New York, to have a complete change of scene, so she accepted a position teaching for a year at the California Institute of the Arts. “It was time to declare my independence—from friends, collectors, even my dealer. I’m not a Southern California type and I missed New York like hell, but Cal Arts is an excellent place to work. So the year was jolting but also strengthening. I felt free, unfettered. Nobody was looking over my shoulder. Artistically I just let myself go! People thought I was weird: while other artists there were doing conceptual things and earthworks, I was painting. I don’t think it was an accident that I started shaped canvases at the crisis time in my life.”

She saw the beginning of the “shattered” paintings in a work titled Join (1980). She had returned to New York and was painting two profiles, in red and shocking pink, on two panels. One day Jennifer Bartlett visited her studio, viewed the work and said, “Oh, it’s a broken heart.” The idea may sound corny, Murray says, but she realized Bartlett was correct. “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 shattered pieces, I believed I could make myself whole. This applied to my art and my life.” On a formal level Murray was also tired of working within a rectangle or a square. “I wanted to paint a different relationship to the wall.”

Painter’s Progress (1981), owned by the Museum of Modern Art, consists of 19 pieces—a sort of smashed painting that can nonetheless be seen as one complete work. Another “shattered” painting was Art Part (1981), which some critics described as an explosion that seemed to have just taken place. The images in both showed artist’s tools—palettes, brushes and the very necessary hand. “There’s some irony in my work,” she admits, “but I’m a real believer. Psychologically I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Elizabeth Murray, Wake Up, 1981, oil on canvas (three parts).


The pieces of her personal life eventually started to come together again. She is now married to poet and performance artist Bob Holman and has a year-and-a-half-old daughter named Sophie. The unity in her life became expressed in her work, too, as she found herself moving into overlapping paintings, in which the various panels are connected. Her first was Yikes! (1982), which is made up of two overlapping shaped canvases with scalloped edges, painted in forest greens and burnt sienas. The clearly discernible image is that of a cup. “The cup is an extremely female symbol. It can be seen as an encasement for the female genitals. It is a male symbol too: the winner of an athletic event gets a cup. I also find the cup—as an object—a beautiful image in itself. Handle, saucer, cup—three circular shapes.” Murray often uses an abstract image and a realistic image working against each other, but she is not aiming for any kind of secrecy in her work. “Viewers can look for a long time and not see any image at all, which is fine. Or a cup can be a head, a head can be a cup.” In Keyhole (1982), she overlapped two panels, deliberately leaving a “keyhole” space. An important part of the painting, she explains, is what isn’t there.

“Looking at work by women,” Murray feels, “is difficult for many people—including other women. It’s too bad. You see, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘women’s art.’ It’s a distasteful phrase, like any other categorization of art. If some women choose to push feminist images or make quilt art, that’s fine, but I’m not interested in doing that. If the feminist emphasis seems too calculated. I find the art hard to take. I see my own work as androgynous. Art is about the male and female components in all of us. Art is sexy, but it doesn’t have sex. When you think of great paintings, you don’t think this image is masculine, that one feminine. Some images are rigorous, others softer.

“The United States is exceptional in that there are women artists her who are known and accepted. It’s very difficult for women artists in Europe. Men jealously guard their territory; they’re not interested in sharing their power. I heard one young European artist say that he didn’t believe there were any good women artists. What a stupid remark! Paula Cooper heard a German dealers say about a painting of mine, ‘But it’s so large. I thought it was painted by a woman.’ Another stupid remark.”

Murray observes that a woman has to operate in a man’s world but quickly adds: “That’s okay. It’s a reality of life, and I can’t live in a fantasy world.” And so she survives, without compromising herself or her artistic vision. Murray, critics and curators agree, makes strong and turbulent canvases that destroy the clichés of so-called ‘women’s art’ while still communicating the tangled emotions and crises that constantly shape and reshape lives. “I think art is a mirror of our own conflicts. In some way, artists always paint about themselves, whether the result is expressed as fantasy or reality. I feel I have communicated something in my work. Whatever you’re doing—writing or painting or performing—art should not be obscure. Art is communication. You’re communicating your feelings and vision.”

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