Elizabeth Murray: tributes and obituaries

Elizabeth Murray outside her home/studio at 77 Woodlawn Avenue, Buffalo, NY (c. 1965) as photographed by Don Sunseri. � 2021 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In ArtForum, Linda Yablonsky reports that the “Elizabeth Murray Praise Day” at the Bowery Poetry Club, sponsored by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, “provided a blend of the poignant and the comic that threatened to bring it closer to a Saturday Night Live skit shredding avant-garde performance practice than an actual art-world remembrance….One after another, her friends forced back tears as they recalled her difficulties and triumphs, and shared welcome pieces of her wisdom. ‘Get a boyfriend, she told me,’ reported Mary Heilmann, who is, at sixty-seven, Murray�s close contemporary. ‘This is a great age for having sex!’ Alice Hartley and Hettie Jones both recalled Murray�s years as the unofficial art teacher at the Downtown Community School; Jones read from a children�s book for which Murray had designed the cover. Judy Hudson told a hilarious story about Murray�s dressing down of a DJ in an Amsterdam club. Sophie Murray Holman, who is about to enter San Francisco�s American Conservatory Theater, took the mic to read a tender letter to Murray from family friend Stuart Hanlon, who let on that Murray was utterly in character to the end, when, he wrote, she ‘winked good-bye.’ It was hard not to choke up.” Read more.

In New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz writes: “Murray mixed things that others kept separate, melding the abstract and the geometric, the private and the public, the formal and the organic. Her subjects are often vaguely recognizable and include canoodling shoes, wiggling beds, fetuses, coffee cups, and broken hearts. All these shapes seem to probe or penetrate one another. In 2005, I asked Murray about the implications of sex and love in these shapes. I knew her, but not that well. Nevertheless, she looked me right in the eye and, out of nowhere, kissed me on the mouth. I was dazed. This act somehow encapsulated her work for me: an imposing combination of formal exuberance, intellectual rigor, lusciousness, troublemaking, and humor, with undertows of darkness and psychology. Once, when asked by an interviewer where she fit into art history, Murray responded, ‘That way of seeing historically belongs to the guys. The greatest part about being a woman in the world of painting is that I�m not really part of it. I can do whatever I want.'”Read more.

In the LA Times, Mary Rourke writes: ” While her work appears at first to be purely abstract, human figures soon emerge, along with tables, coffee cups and other items from domestic life. ‘A Murray painting is easy to recognize,’ wrote Deborah Solomon in a 1991 profile of the artist in the New York Times. ‘More often than not it consists of a big canvas loaded up with forms and colors that bounce off one another in an anarchic, ebullient way.’ Many critics noted the cartoon-like quality of Murray’s images, which she attributed to her childhood fascination with comics. The playfulness, however, did not disguise ominous undertones, critics observed.

‘Murray’s paintings have long possessed a clownishness that embraces dark and light, a slapstick joy coexisting with abject terror and rue,’ wrote reviewer Stephen Westfall in Art in America magazine in 2006. Such complexities add to the ‘psychological intensity’ of Murray’s art, he wrote. Read more.

Richard Lacayo writes for TIME: “Murray’s big shaped canvases, with their declamatory colors and cartoonish references to bodily form and household objects, were playful in all the best and smartest ways. Her work was youthful, but never puerile. She could be childlike without ever being childish. Like Howard Hodgkin, or for that matter Matisse, she offered us a bright, beckoning palette as a point of entry into all kinds of sophisticated reckonings with form. She drew inspiration from comic books and Tweety Bird, but also from Stuart Davis and Miro. And of course from every area of ordinary domestic life. All those cups, and shoes and children’s toys � she took the “womanly” household realm and reminded us that it’s the place where magic happens.”Read more.

In TIME, Lacayo later writes: “By the early 1980s Murray was routinely breaking out of the confines of the standard rectangular canvas, going instead for supports shaped like thunderbolts, clouds or shapes-with-no-name that she would combine sometimes into complicated puzzle pieces. Working in a jumped-up palette of citric yellows, Band-Aid pinks, acidic greens and plum purples, she made pictures that were semi-abstract, but full of teasing references to the outside world, like the outlines of shoes and tables. Or two conjoined canvases might take on the shape of a cup and saucer or a storm cloud. And everywhere there were hints of the human body. A comical bean shape might appear to reach out to an adjoining bean by means of a vaguely phallic extrusion. Circles and pellets suggested fingers or toes, mouths or eyes. The pictures were captivating, witty, so flat-out pleasurable that they made you a little nervous. Could art this delicious possibly be any good?” Read more.

Roberta Smith writes in the NYTimes: “Elizabeth Murray, a New York painter who reshaped Modernist abstraction into a high-spirited, cartoon-based, language of form whose subjects included domestic life, relationships and the nature of painting itself, died yesterday at her home in upstate New York. She was 66 and lived in TriBeCa and in Washington County, N.Y. The cause was complications of lung cancer, said Douglas Baxter, president of PaceWildenstein, which has represented her work since 1995….Ms. Murray belonged to a sprawling generation of Post-Minimal artists who spent the 1970s reversing the reductivist tendencies of Minimalism and reinvigorating art with a sense of narrative, process and personal identity. Her art never fit easily into the available Post-Minimal subcategories like Conceptual, Process or performance art. This may have been because her loyalty to painting, which was out of fashion, was unwavering. At the same time, her blithe indifference to the distinctions between abstraction and representation or high and low could put off serious painting buffs.” Read more.

Two Coats of Paint suggests that Murray was a neo-feminist icon: “Unlike earlier painters such as Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner, who felt childrearing would dilute their focus and diminish their ability to paint, Murray opted to have kids. For a female artist who has spent every available hour of her adult life in the studio, choosing to have a child is a difficult decision, for it prompts a relentless, daily, internal debate over whether she should be with the family or in the studio. Either way, guilt is inescapable, like having paint spatters on her shoes. Some artists, like Judy Chicago, intellectually recognized the importance of motherhood and explored it as a theme in their art, but never came to the conclusion that raising children, one of the most primal of human experiences, could actually strengthen and inform their work.”

In the Huffington Post, Ellen Susman reruns an interview with Elizabeth Murray from over a year ago:

“ES: You began making art in the 60’s, you got married, you moved to NY and while you were teaching art, and trying to make art, you had a child. What do you remember about juggling career and motherhood?

EM: A lot of conflict and guilt, because you know, the minute your baby comes out you fall in love with them and you also feel this incredible protectiveness that I’ve never felt before.

ES: What about the guilt?

EM: I think for some women the identity with baby is total and complete. I think mine was with Dakota, too, but at the same time there were other things I wanted to do in my life that I wanted as much as I wanted a child.

ES: Did you consider yourself a feminist?

EM: I didn’t really think, am I, or am I not a feminist woman? I was just trying to be a painter.” Read more.

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