1.10.18 — Breathless

Elizabeth Murray takes my breath away. She did so when I was first discovering art in the late 1970s, and she did so again with a MoMA retrospective in 2005 and with her drawings on the Lower East Side just last year.

Her principal gallery, Pace, has been conducting its own measured retrospective over the years, including work from the 1970s in 2011 and now work from the 1980s, though January 13. It builds on four paintings from museums in and beyond New York, with a dozen others of nearly equal size and stature. Notebook pages confirm their origins and her restless imagination. With nearly every painting running across several fragments of shaped canvas, who can speak of her art as ever coming together once and for all?

Elizabeth Murray's Breaking (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1980)She is taking my breath away once more, for I am at a loss for more words. Instead, I have revised the earlier reviews, especially the long one on her retrospective and the 1970s. I try to incorporate what I am seeing now, and I can only ask you to read more there. Here I shall just offer a teaser. The reviews also touch on contemporaries, including Joan Snyder, and the revival of painting ever since. If painting has survived or even exploded, she deserves credit. As I conclude, no one painting has the iconicity of black stripes from Frank Stella, but her work has served as not even his could, as an iconic starting point for painting today.

She came late to formalism and early to Neo-Expressionism or Neo-Pop. A painting from 1982 outlines a shattered teacup, but the tea still lets off steam. Who, though, can accuse her of inconsistency, when she pushed the logic of the frame for twenty-five years? Murray embraced both abstraction and shaped canvas, but she gave them a shape or shapes all her own. She wields those shapes freehand, and she dares one to keep track of how they come together. She welcomes illusion, but as a further reflection on painting.

At the same time, her work suggests a commitment to the past. That includes sheer skill, although she delegated a frame’s construction to her studio. A furniture maker would take pride in curves like these. An older painter would admire her blended surfaces and hints of human anatomy. Like Cubism, she supplies multiple cues to space as well, from the cracked surface to overlapping planes, while contrasting colors smear into one another, creating new openings for brightness and darkness. A dark tentacle, like a small head from Edvard Munch’s Scream, looks back to Surrealism, but through the eyes of a knowing child.

Her circling back includes the literal layering of canvas, in twists that recall waves or Möbius strips. One work from the 1980s has four pieces, each propped at one end on the next, like M. C. Escher’s eternal waterfall. Other pieces stand just apart, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether the canvas is coming together or apart. When she returns to earlier motifs, she is still taking stock. One can describe her career as the alternation of continuity and disruption. Just try to tell them apart.

If all that makes Murray a figure of her time, it also makes her a disturbing force. Where Stella or Judy Pfaff announces a break, she assimilates everything. Where Stella treats even the wildest turns as predetermined, she always finds one too many determinant. Where Stella’s time marches on, her images and shapes keep circling back. Was she the best painter of her generation? Like Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter, she makes it hard to define what one means by a painter any longer, but even harder not to care.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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