Posted on 11 March 2014.
Cracking Cup, 1998, lithograph, 34 1/2 x 39 1/4"
“What’s wrong with painting,” Donald Judd once observed, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall — a rectangle being a shape which determines or limits what can be put in it.” I don’t know if Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007) read that remark, but like her cohorts, which included Jennifer Bartlett and Susan Rothenberg, she heeded the general call for a fresh approach to painting, which by the 1970s had become a mandate.
The results, on view in this exceptional and rare West Coast glimpse of her output, curated by the Cantor's Hilarie Faberman, remind us that there was a time in the recent past when giants stalked the Earth. After graduating from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute and earning an M.F.A. at Mills College, Murray, in 1967, moved to New York. Entering the fray in the years between Pop’s decline and Neo Expressionism’s ascent in early ‘80s, Murray distinguished herself by helping to revitalize painting, then under attack from all sides. The charge, led by bully-critic Clement Greenberg, was that painting could only move forward if it was emptied of its supposed excesses.
Wiggle Manhattan, 1992, lithograph, 58 x 29"
Murray ignored such voices. She painted on wildly shaped, multi-part canvases whose contorted forms gave off a gyroscopic energy, but on close inspection, revealed domestic scenes being blown apart, as if struck by a tornado engineered by Picasso working hand-in-glove with Maxim Gorky, Jean Arp and a crew of wrecking ball cartoonists. Into her paintings Murray emptied the detritus of her life and her unconscious, merging the two in works that mixed representation and abstraction. She took everyday objects – shoes, chairs, tables, coffee cups — and transformed them into a messy, autobiographical, decidedly female vision, absorbing what she needed from early and mid-20th century Modernism, engaging in the necessary debates about flatness, surface, color and support structure, and arriving at a synthesis that was as adamant about asserting materiality as Minimalism was about denying it.
“It’s not whether an idea is good or bad, it’s how far you’re willing to go,” Murray said. Indeed, Murray knew how to stretch an idea. Others concurred. The McArthur Foundation awarded her its “genius” grant in 1999; MOMA followed with a career retrospective in 2006, a year before she died of cancer.
This exhibition, titled Her Story, a poke at the implied male bias embedded in the word history, focuses on the two- and three-dimensional lithographs, etchings, intaglio prints, monotypes and mezzotints Murray created at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). What we learn is that Murray performed the same feats with paper as she did with canvas: she made it sculptural and just as complex. So complex, in fact, that your brain reels thinking about how she did it. Wall labels describe multiple printings from multiple plates, hand-torn and painstakingly collaged, sometimes with hand tinting. These works thrum with an aliveness that belies the labor that went into them. Like her large-scale shaped paintings, three of which are on view here from the Fischer Collection, the paper works amaze at every turn. The boldness of the images, their seemingly impossible construction, and the messages delivered unfold in a kind of origami of the mind. However once absorbed, the effect feels more like a detonation.
Shoe String, 1993, lithograph 40 x 33 x 5"
Wiggle Manhattan, a 15-color lithograph made with 18 separate plates and just as many printings, is a fine example. It depicts the island as a writhing, electrically charged see-through organism – a bit like The Invisible Man, the teaching aid that showed the human circulatory system in a transparent plastic figure. In this collage, streets, subway lines and everything below converge, giving the impression of a city dancing the mambo with the wagging tail of Broadway leading a conga line. In a similar caricature-like manner, but with greater dimensionality, Murray invests the seemingly mundane subject of shoes with an anarchic, graffiti-like energy, their forms, in relief, practically unrecognizable until you read the words Shoe Strings on the wall label. Wall-mounted in a convex vitrine, the piece consists of bulbous Arp-like shapes and gaping holes, ringed by threaded eyelets and punctured at the bottom by protruding razor edges.
Here it’s worth noting that Murray entered the School of Art Institute wanting to become a cartoonist, but instead switched to painting after repeatedly passing a Cezanne still life on her way to class. She later absorbed Picasso, Miro, Gris, Gorky, Stuart Davis and Guston, but also allowed the influences of Popeye and Donald Duck to hold equal sway. That mixture of cartooning, Cubism and Surrealism is what made her unique – and, what gave her work currency after Neo-Expressionism swept New York for nearly a decade beginning in the early 1980s.
Lovers, mezzotint, 1996, 28 x 26 1/2"
Other notable examples include Lovers, a small square drawing that depicts an interior scene from an overhead viewpoint. The couple, eyes and mouths streaming smoke, is watched over by a weirdly disfigured torso. Everything else in the room is spatially unmoored. Cracking Cups, built of ovoid and circular forms, shows Murray’s talent for distorting and reassembling. This concatenation of shapes more closely resembles a bomb cleaved by a bolt of lightening– a far cry from the staid domesticity we typically associate with the source imagery, coffee cups. It crackles with energy. Undoing, with is swirling Mobius strip, feet and legs akimbo, upended wine bottle, and open vortex at center, all but exerts the sensation of physical suction. Over and over, Murray transforms a vocabulary of repeated forms without actually repeating herself. While Gris-like edge shadowing gives many of these paper works a distinct family resemblance, the compositions are as different from each other as are the monumental shaped canvases that ground this show. The latter demonstrate what gave Murray, at age 40, the impetus to begin making paper perform unnatural acts.
Of the three big canvases on view, Things to Come
, which hangs at the far end of the gallery, held my attention longest. I can’t tell you how many curved panels are conjoined or how, exactly, they fit together because in Murray’s hands, the wood across which the canvas is stretched more closely resembles something pliable, like hardened putty or bubblegum, not the layered, beveled, planed plywood that it is. Its protuberant shapes – warped and entangled — recall a giant insect with wings folded back on themselves. It, along with two companion pieces, Chain Gang
and My Manhattan
, highlights Murray’s crowning achievement, which was to take painting, literally, off the wall. Sure, others did it, most notably Frank Stella, who did it with hard-edged geometric forms, painted in solid colors, flat and affect-free: the perfect
Things to Come, 1987, oil on canvas 115 x 113 x 27"
Greenbergian formulation. Murray did the opposite. She painted 3-D biomorphic forms that overflowed with feeling.
That may be why the title piece, Her Story, a collaborative series of 13 drawings made with poet Anne Waldeman, displayed in a long, narrow vitrine, feels more like a denouement than a centerpiece. Nevertheless, it fulfills its ambitions. Waldeman’s words — about love, loss, desire, loneliness and rejection — layer the drawings with meaning in a way rarely seen in such efforts. You read them and hear yourself saying, “Here are two artists working in telepathic communion.”
As you leave, you may also hear yourself saying something less exclamatory: that Murray’s remarkable story ended way too soon.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Her Story: Prints by Elizabeth Murray, 1986-2006” @ Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University through March 30, 2014.