Elizabeth Murray at MOMA

I write from the point of view of a younger generation of artists following Elizabeth Murray; and my work clearly follows in her footsteps. Unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of knowing her, but I have always heard her spoken of as a wonderful person who managed to make great art, have a successful career and have children too! She is a role model many of us needed and appreciated.

Elizabeth’s work is part of the ground that my work grows from. Hers along with Judy Phaff, Frank Stella, Rauschenberg, Schwitters, and, of course Picasso and Braque’s Cubism all explore different ways in which the illusionistic space of the flat white picture plane can be expanded to include less well behaved surfaces.

In addition to admiring Elizabeth’s work and making sure that I saw her exhibitions whenever I could, I have also found her work vaguely irritating. In front of the paintings I find myself always embattled, enjoying them and feeling irritable. Looking more closely at my irritability is rewarding. I find that these paintings embody a string of dualities sitting uncomfortably next to each other and exudiong an irritable and provocative charge.

Looking for the source of my irritation, the first place I go is to the “ Anxiety of Influence,” the title of Harold Bloom’s book that I haven’t read. I do however often think of the title, and perhaps one of these days I will read the book. I work in an area that rubs up closely to Elizabeth’s; and our criteria for success in this field are almost entirely tied to doing something brand new as opposed to doing well something that has already been established by others. We all have a stake in feeling out the differences between our work and the work of other’s.  It is easy to feel that the choices I made in contradiction to Elizabeth are “right,” casting hers as “wrong.”  Though this anxiety is particular to myrelation to Elizabeth’s work, I think that internal to her work there is also a challenge to the question of originality. Elizabeth’s paintings propose at once to be radical and conservative in relationship to picture making. Her paintings challenge the flat rectangular nature of picture making even as they insist on a naturalistic kind of representation in illlusionistic space. This is most marked by the kind of shading she uses to indicate volume on her shapes whether they are abstract or representational. I find myself dwelling uneasy at those parts of her paintings, and unsure of where to go with her gesture which insists on creating the illusion of light falling on the these weird and wacky forms.

Elizabeth, has poked holes in the picture plane, curved the picture plane, invited the wall underneath the picture plane to be part of the picture, and she loves and uses color without worry about what it means. She has maintained a steady and tight tie in her work to the tradition of easel painting. She always paints on canvas stretched over eccentric stretcher bars. Though her work becomes 3-dimensional it does not explore different materials in the process. She like the cubists has explored ways of dragging dimension into the “picture” while at the same time reveling in the very comfortable and established tradition of easel painting. The edges of her paintings mark the edge of the illusionistic space used. This is often pointed at, at the edges of the canvases where the paint fades out into the bare canvas. Again I am brought to a duality between aggressive challenge to convention and a conservative love of tradition. This kind of open mindedness does not sit easily in a culture where the new thing is seen to arise from the overthrow of the old. Elizabeth’s paintings insist on being avant-garde and traditional at once. It isn’t possible to value these paintings because they won a battle. It occurs to me that to understand creative endeavor as valuable in so far as it unseats what comes before it may be tied to patriarchal structure. Perhaps these paintings pose a challenge to that structure carried inside each of us. This is of course uncomfortable.

The color in Elizabeth’s painting is dynamite. And the work that the color does is entirely lost in reproduction. Her colors are screeching, they stretch your eyes too far apart from one side of your head to the other, and from one side of her work to the other. That the paintings are big and your eyes have to move past the edges of your body in order to see them has everything to do with it. The colors explode off of the paintings and out of the illusionistic space that they so carefully construct. The colors scream unabashedly; and I love that.

 And then, there is the story being told by the drawing of objects inside the paintings. There are shapes, boxes, hand mirror, railroad tracks, tables, body parts, and colons all rattling around in a fractured space.. It feels like looking through a keyhole into a room. Sometimes there is more literature attached to this story telling and sometimes the characters are just shapes that embody gesture, atmosphere and attitude. But in either case the narrative occurring inside the illusionistic air of the paintings is at odds with my head snapping back and forth at the color. The paintings insist that I struggle over the fence between these two ways of looking, over and over again. It’s tiring and it makes me irritable. But it’s also compelling.

The paintings are seemingly likable. I feel invited to the party. The colors are alluring; the paintings are beautiful and upbeat. At first glance the work purports to embody an “authentic expression.” of what looks to be riotous activity, intimate drama, intense emotionality. It’s a very controlled chaos, expressive but not. There is in each painting a drama played out within the canvas, and on the wall. It is uncomfortable to be invited to the reading of a “likable” story that turns out to be not quite so likable after all. It is perhaps even horrific at certain junctures with floating body parts and fractured blown up domestic space.. This work is not struggling to renounce authorship, it is not cynical or ironic, but the keyhole I’m looking through keeps me at a distance. I can’t get into the room. There is a screen between the action and me. This screen mirrors the screen we all carry around between who we know ourselves to be moment to moment, and who we might know ourselves to be if we let ourselves know more. This screen also speaks to the postmodern curtain that’s been drawn between us authors and our output. The sometimes cartoon nature of the painted objects participates in this distancing and brings the work of Tip Dunham and Jonathon Laskar to mind. But in the end, the distanced, muffled nature of the narrative is at odds with the unabashed direct nature of experiencing the screeching color.

All of this story telling occurs in the space of illusionistic easel painting, space that represents the interior space of the author’s mind. The paintings assume that the expression of subjectivity will provide a public place to share experience. And at the same time they are structured to deny that space and insist on themselves as objects gripping the wall. They are often structured as loose grids asserting themselves as objects in space in dialog with architecture, and with contemporary art that sneers at the notion of “expression” or “feeling” as central to the whole enterprise. The work stretches in two directions at once. It asserts itself as powerful and public, like Frank Stella, even while it insists on the vulnerable humanity of the author, on the interior, floaty, dream like mind space of private life. It has a foot in two different and sometimes-warring camps.  The paintings insist on drawing power from both places. This is distinctly uncomfortable and again fly’s in the face of cultural expectations that insist on separating men from women, and power from feeling, a culture where human need and frailty is often viewed as embarrassing and weak.

Theses paintings insist that we, men and women, can be powerful, public, ambitious, and at the same time vulnerable private individuals. It is not at all easy to carve out this space and it is very uncomfortable. And this is as art should be.