The acquaintance with whom I viewed Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ’80s remarked that it appeared two artists were at work creating the paintings on view. This was an apt observation—of the sixteen paintings, there are two competing motivations. One is a quest for painterly abstraction, while the other embraces objects and their renditions in paint. The two intersect on the unexpected territory of Cubism (or post-Cubism, as this show presents work from a decade falling well past 1921).
The first branch of Murray’s work heaves and sighs with visceral, bulging canvasses, in which the artist tackles a self-imposed problem: how to train a two-dimensional medium to behave like a three-dimensional object. She stretches the limits of canvas and oil almost beyond the bounds of credibility to make something that is still a painting but that convincingly mimics a sculpture. This object-centered representational work is exemplified by Dis Pair (1989–90), an oversized caricature of a pair of blue shoes with orange laces curling and snaking across the surface, like veins or the calcified skeletons of sea worms. The competing trajectory in Murray’s practice is embodied in a series of crisp, mostly flat pieces that employ Murray’s signature dedication to the shaped canvas, but are more focused on the juxtaposition of form, color, and edge. These paintings are more conservative and take fewer risks but are ultimately more successful. Her Story (1984) and Table Turning (1982–83) seem less mired in the process of their own fabrication. Nonetheless, they are still a radical innovation in painting, and they cite Murray as the foremost artist who was willing to wrestle with the thorny and fraught problem of the shaped canvas, something akin to Fermat’s Last Theorem of painting.1
New YorkPace Gallery
October 25, 2017 – January 13, 2018
Murray is quoted frequently on the walls of the exhibition, mostly in elucidation of her process. Her words concerning Bean (1982) offer a further insight into the intellectual underpinnings of her overall painterly strategy. “This piece suggests a grammar or different views of the same things,” she says. This succinctly states her use of the Cubist raison d’être, but by invoking the term “grammar,” her artistic quest expands to contain an entire syntax of seeing. Still, that underlying intellectual principle becomes wonderfully obscured and complicated by her own subsidiary investigations into the penetrability of a painting’s surface and what a three-dimensional canvas-painted surface looks like. In Cracked Question (1987), the artist obsesses over the readability of a recognizable symbol—the question mark—in the face of its disintegration, as well as bizarre and intriguing wormholes that tunnel through the mass of the canvas throughout. While maintaining a literal depiction of her vocabulary of signs and symbols, Murray is all about the abstract ideal of rendering the form of an object from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Her further aim of doing this sculpturally is risky and courageous. Ultimately, it yields some hard-to-digest works such as 96 Tears (1986–87), whose slick surface texture and incongruous color palette don’t seem to have a clear theoretical or aesthetic direction. But Stay Awake (1989) is wonderfully successful. The “painting” is a literal object, but while it is an image of an impossibility—a cross of a coffee cup with a length of viscera or a fleshy organ—it exists physically in the viewer’s real space as well. Murray also cheats quite a lot—Stay Awake is a plywood form over which canvas is stretched and adhered. While this solid armature is clearly visible to the viewer, Murray refuses to let go of her medium and offers an unfaltering allegiance to the institution of painting. It is a strong meditation on the mutability of reality in painterly space: a storm in a coffee cup.
The flatter works range from visually pleasing but conservative to thorny and complex paintings that challenge the viewer to move beyond their visual comfort zone. In terms of representation, they reaffirm the artist’s aesthetic vocabulary of specific images and forms, as in the first two paintings that greet the visitor upon entering the gallery, two fractured coffee cups that, like the cartoon shoes and question marks, quietly narrate the personal aspects of Murray’s life. Though flat to the wall, the canvasses Just in Time and Wake Up (both 1981) are broken into two and three pieces respectively, which crack the image; but it is ambiguous as to whether the object itself is fractured, bespeaking a much deeper psychological disjunction than merely knocking a coffee cup on the floor.
Much more challenging works, such as Her Story (1984) and Not Goodbye (1985), are seen in the second room, where these geometrical constructions play off each other in a more formalistic atmosphere with several other similar works. Her Story plays with the layering of planes, textures, colors, objects, and shapes that are implied by absences and redactions in the canvas, as well as coincidental alignments and intersections of edges and bodies of color. If Murray is working towards a visual grammar, the second room is an inspiring and effective primer. But Murray was not content to play it safe with these profound abstractions, and from the timeline of the show, it is clear she moved further away from the analytical works towards the plastic, representational, and ultimately more problematic pieces, highlighting the experimentation and daring that mark Murray’s practice.
- Fermat’s Last Theorem was a seemingly unprovable algebraic proof problem that consumed and stumped mathematicians for 358 years.