Elizabeth Murray’s Rule-Breaking Paintings Continue to Inspire Younger Artists

Alina Cohen
Jan 12, 2018 5:54PM

Photo by Barry Kornbluh, December 1987 / Estate of Elizabeth Murray. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Photo by Barry Kornbluh, December 1987 / Estate of Elizabeth Murray. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

An enlarged, black-and-white photograph of painter Elizabeth Murray’s hand ends Pace Gallery’s current exhibition—closing January 13th—which focuses on the late artist’s work from the 1980s. Murray’s dirty, bandaged fingers (thumb hidden, pointer bent) lightly brush a marked canvas. The picture functions as a final reminder of her distinct touch. Often extending to around 10 by 10 feet, her large-scale canvases bulge and ripple from the walls, fold over themselves at the corners, or comprise fractured and imperfectly interlocking shapes. The rough, layered surfaces and messy edges suggest an artist in thrall of paint, linen, and stretchers, and their myriad possibilities under her own hand.

In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of Murray’s work, making her the fourth woman—after Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler—to ever receive the honor from the Department of Painting and Sculpture. She was battling lung cancer at the time and passed away in 2007, shortly after seeing her work showcased in that year’s Venice Biennale. From MOCA Los Angeles to the Walker Art Center, institutions nationwide (plus a couple beyond the U.S.) have bought her work, though its scale can be prohibitive to individual collectors. Nevertheless, Murray’s legacy remains more slippery than many of her contemporaries’; it’s difficult to slot her singular, exuberant, and ever-evolving practice into art history.

Elizabeth Murray, 96 Tears, 1986-1987. © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.


Additionally, says Pace president Douglas Baxter, Murray’s market became more difficult after the MoMA show. The generation that had collected the artist was dying off. Her contemporaries, such as Susan Rothenberg and Joel Shapiro, are continuing to make work, while Murray’s premature death prevented her own career-capping late phase. Dan Nadel, who along with Carroll Dunham co-curated a 2016 exhibition of her drawings at Lower East Side gallery Canada, echoes the sentiment. The retrospective did not spur the additional scholarship Murray deserved, he says, and “she did not become a kind of lodestar, as she should have.” The Pace show, and its accompanying catalogue, aim to reaffirm her position as a crucial character in the development of painting.

That volume includes a chronology charting Murray’s art alongside major historical events, beginning in 1977, the year Murray moved to White Street in Lower Manhattan. By this time, she was an established artist working as a lecturer at Princeton and an instructor at Yale and the School of Visual Arts. In the ’70s, Murray was transitioning away from rectangular canvases and minimal explorations of line, opting instead for shaped canvases depicting more cartoonish figures. Their bright hues, dreamlike quality, and merging of high and low culture became her hallmarks.

The chronology omits Murray’s earlier, more difficult years. Raised in Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois, the artist grew up impoverished and, at times, homeless. With financial support from a high school art teacher, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and committed to life as a painter. After receiving her MFA at Mills College in Oakland, she moved across the country to New York in 1967, sensing the city’s unique opportunities. Murray quickly settled into her new artistic milieu.

Elizabeth Murray, Stay Awake, 1989. © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

In the recent documentary, Everybody Knows... Elizabeth Murray (narrated by Meryl Streep), artist Chuck Close remembers the earlier work from the 1970s: “even though there was very little going on, they were very reductive, there still was a physicality to the piece that was lovingly made.” Artist Deborah Kass similarly stresses that unlike other artists of her time, Murray “was making abstraction personal.” Throughout her significant shifts in form, these characteristics remained constant.

The Whitney Museum exhibited her work in 1972 and 1973 group shows. A friend, painter Jennifer Bartlett, introduced her to Paula Cooper that year. Murray began showing at the gallery shortly after, and her reputation grew. The gallerist and artist maintained a close relationship until Murray left the gallery in 1996 for the larger resources and opportunities at PaceWildenstein (now Pace).

The Pace exhibition traces the artist’s evolving tendency, throughout the 1980s, of creating canvases that came off the wall toward the viewer. “She was taking the idea of what a rectangular, traditional stretcher bar was, and she was folding it and twisting it,” explains Jason Andrew, who manages Murray’s estate. Consider Stay Awake (1989) a canvas that wraps around a stretcher manipulated into a large, cup-like form. Viewers can peer into the top and two other cylindrical openings, offering an experience akin to assessing a sculpture. Dis Pair (1989–90, on loan from MoMA), resembles a comically gargantuan pair of shoes; the viewer can peek into the soles. “She liked the physicality of it,” says Baxter. “It’s a way of interacting with the viewer, engaging the viewer more actively.” In the catalogue for her MoMA retrospective, scholar (and major Murray champion) Robert Storr claims that the artist’s work in the 1980s was nothing short of revolutionary. “Murray became the first painter to fully commit herself to devising surfaces on which to paint that behaved according to the same biomorphic principles as the images themselves,” he writes. During her final decade, Murray’s paintings morphed into complex, puzzle-like assemblages of interlocking canvases that resembled comic strip elements.

Elizabeth Murray, Flying Bye, 1982.  © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Tom Barratt, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Elizabeth Murray, Wake Up, 1981.  © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Murray’s life reflected this desire to connect with those around her. She frequently and vocally advocated for her female peers. She protested with WAC (Women's Action Coalition) and in 1995 curated an all-women exhibition at MoMA as part of the museum’s Artist’s Choice series. The show spanned 1914 to 1973, with drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptures by about 70 artists. Murray focused especially on the 1950s and ’60s, when artists such as Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Bontecou (whose own works powerfully protrude from gallery walls) were making their reputations. Her move to PaceWildenstein, says her daughter Daisy Murray Holman, was about “breaking into the boy’s club, creating a pathway for more women to be there.”

Feminism runs through Murray’s work, too. Her Story (1984) comprises three overlapping canvases, shaped like two As and an E, that suggest a woman sitting in a chair. A pink book in her lap doubles as genitalia. The complex, fragmented depiction of femininity makes gaps and absences (created by the holes in the As and the distance between the letters) into crucial parts of the picture.

The domestic sphere and its fractures become dramatic and weighted in massive canvases that abstract cups, tables, and other household forms. As scholar Kellie Jones reminds viewers in her catalogue essay for the Pace show, however, Murray’s works are about far more than mundane objects: They’re engagements with the entire history of Western still-life painting.    

Elizabeth Murray, Her Story, 1984. © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

If Murray’s passionate politics entered her work in a dreamy, subtle manner (she was also an extensive dream journaler), she was very vocal at home. “At the dinner table, recalls her older daughter Sophie Ellsberg, “we definitely talked about politics. We didn’t really talk about her art.” She remembers her parents bringing her along to WAC protests, the women wearing pink slips to protest the GOP. Murray worked in her home studio on a strict schedule, and she sometimes let Ellsberg and her sister help her spray paint her work; motherhood informed, not inhibited, her paintings.

Jones connects the paintings’ sensuality and Murray’s role as a mother. Just In Time (1981), celebrates the summer she fell in love with her second husband, poet Bob Holman. “The sexual nature of the painted images then is also invested in their imagined fecundity,” Jones notes. While there’s plenty of conflict in the subsequent works (fissures, spills, messiness), there’s also a celebration—particularly in Murray’s repeated, embryonic bean forms—of life begetting life.  

Through researching and cataloguing Murray’s work, Andrew hopes to build momentum and a new context for the artist—and he wants to offer younger artists visceral experiences with the colossal, highly textured works. The Canada show similarly appealed to younger artists. Andrew mentions painters Justine Hill and Yevgeniya Baras as part of a new generation who clearly look to Murray for inspiration. I asked Andrew why he thought the list of acolytes skewed female. “I feel like women artists are more free about being able to speak about who they’re inspired by,” he says. “Their male counterpoints still seem to want to claim ingenuity or originality.”

Murray’s legacy, too, is at the mercy of American cultural values. In the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat was dating Madonna, partying with Andy Warhol’s glamorous coterie, and indulging in the drug habit that would lead to his untimely death. Julian Schnabel was breaking plates and living large. Violence and masculinity were often central to the celebrated Neo-Expressionist paintings of the day; Murray’s life and work stood in contrast to this sensationalism. “I think in a way she was expressing her femininity,” says Andrew about the artist’s work in the ’80s. “Murray was giving birth, she was having a family—and she was painting.”

Alina Cohen