Rather than use Elizabeth Murray’s ravishing retrospective to trace her painterly progress, let’s ask why—as admired as she is, and even though her paintings are like wall-bound fish-eyed Richard Serras—Murray, 65, isn’t more widely recognized as one of the best American painters since 1960.
First, her idea of beauty, while juicy, is dissonant, deviant, and brash. It is an unsettling, tempestuous beauty—what Baudelaire called a “coarse, earthy, sublime distortion of nature.” Murray’s colors veer from sunburned to murky to off. She’s prone to carrot-colored oranges, plum, and chartreuse. There’s very little visual letup in her art, which can make looking at her paintings vexing. Compositions are fragmented, surfaces gummy, and her idea of “painterly skill” is so raw and original that it can seem as if she paints with windshield wiper blades.
In addition, Murray’s is a seemingly too kooky beauty, one that looks goony and cartoony—and maybe too girly. Her subjects are often canoodling shoes and wriggling beds. She has painted fetuses and wombs. But while her iconography is domestic, the vibe is cosmic, if not satanic: Everything is replicating, shattering, or turning into other things. Her space is orgiastic and overflowing: Her structure is eccentric and volatile. Albertian perspective buckles and dissolves into something more Mobious-like. Her stretchers, which can curl around, twist, and penetrate themselves, are production numbers and sideshows unto themselves, grandiose visual machines and crazy burlesques. The front of one sometimes turns into the back; sides become fronts. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to concentrate on the fulminating delivery system of these irregularly shaped canvases or on what these systems deliver. Finally, maybe she’s been denied seminal superstar status because no woman has ever been given this standing.
Perhaps more than any living painter, Murray has melded the abstract and the representational, the private and the public, and the formal and the organic. And while almost every artist who emerged in the 1970s experimented with shaped paintings, Murray’s curving and hard-edged multi-paneled canvases make the most convincing argument I’ve ever seen for a painting being irregularly shaped, three-dimensional, bumpy, and filled with holes: more so than Frank Stella, whose work came first and is as garish but who isn’t as interested in how his surfaces are painted, or Lee Bontecou, who came before that, but never really painted her shapes.
Murray’s unrelenting abstraction makes you aware that you may be in the presence of a new pictorial format. After a while it seems odd and stodgy that anyone would confine him or herself to painting on a flat or square rectangle. As much as any painter, Murray has pulled painting apart, moved it around, made it physical, while carving out a distinctive if unnameable place in the history of post-war American art.
This retrospective, superbly organized by Robert Storr, demonstrates that Murray is a formalist in vernacularist’s clothing and vice versa. Narratives of breakfast and broken hearts become psychological rebuses; things knit together in frenetic jigsaw arrangements. Murray claims she doesn’t see herself as part of art history. “That way of seeing historically belongs to the guys,” she says. “The greatest part about being a woman in the world of painting is that I’m not really a part of it. I can do whatever I want.”
She has. But contrary to this claim, I think art history and her ambition to be in it saved Murray from being only a “1970s artist.” Murray was getting big in the late ’70s and was poised to be even bigger. Once the 1980s hit, she had to play catch-up to painters like Julian Schnabel who went more whole-hog than most of the artists of Murray’s generation. Murray is an alpha artist cloaked as a beta; her drive to be in art history made her work better and more belligerent. Murray is an omnivorous art-historical tigress for whom incorporating and adapting stylistic tropes is as important as overturning them.
Murray’s accomplishment is breathtaking but knotty. She built a bridge between the formalist-pluralist-pop concerns of the 1960s and ’70s and what followed. For this she is respected and loved. I’m sometimes afraid that this bridge strikes young artists as being too brazen, Dionysian, and leading too close to areas currently deemed too excessive and expressionistic. Nevertheless, I think artists like Dana Schutz, Matthew Ritchie, Katharina Grosse, and Chris Ofilli, among others, are making use of this bridge, even if none of them profess a specific interest in Murray. No matter. Murray’s bridge will likely serve as a crucial link to the undiscovered country that lies ahead for painting.