Elizabeth Murray, who died on August 12, was among her generation’s leading painterly lights. Even though almost every artist who emerged in the seventies experimented with shaped paintings, Murray’s lopsided, buckling, asymmetrical, multipaneled canvases made the most convincing case that painting needn’t only be flat rectangles and squares but could be irregular, bumpy, and filled with holes. By the time she died, at 66, Murray was widely recognized. She exhibited regularly at the Paula Cooper Gallery starting in the early seventies, and in 1995 she joined PaceWildenstein. She had a retrospective at the Whitney in 1988, received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1999, created a kind of shimmering Byzantine glass mosaic cave at the 59th Street stop on the Lexington Avenue subway, and in 2005 had a 40-year career survey at the Museum of Modern Art.
Even at that, Murray was underappreciated, maybe because her radical ideas went beyond the shapes that paintings could take. Her ideas of beauty were brazen and Dionysian, her colors sunburned and muddy. Her notion of painterly skill was raw and physical; surfaces are glutted with opaque paint but are marked by sketchy patches where pencil marks show through. Yet her work, as daring and original as it is, came to be seen by some as excessive, expressionistic, even ugly.
And maybe too female. It’s significant that although her MoMA exhibition did travel to Spain, Murray was never big in Europe, where until very recently painting was an almost all-male domain. Her bulbous stretchers that curl up are obvious references to painting’s otherwise full-frontal, flat format; Murray wanted to reveal those hidden structures. She wanted you to see under painting’s skirt. This unreservedness rattled people.
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.”
That’s exactly what she did. Like her work, she was a bohemian rhapsody.