Friday, October 21, 2005

Elizabeth Murray: A Painter's Painter

About half the folks I asked how they liked MoMA's Elizabeth Murray retrospective at the opening Wednesday night said, "It is amazing." "Really great." "A wonderful show." The other half (I kid you not, it was nearly 50/50) said, almost verbatim, "I've never really been that much of a fan." I would consider that an ungracious thing to say at someone's opening if I didn't actually fall into that second category myself---although I'll admit to being a bit more of a fan now (which is why we have retrospectives, now, isn't it?).

It wasn't until I read
Michael Kimmelman's review in the Times this morning, however, that I realized that the 50% of those who loved her exhibition were mostly painters themselves. It's her focus on one exploration that Kimmelman highlights to begin his review, and it's this focus that provide clues into why she's so beloved by other pigment-on-canvas sorts:

She has pursued a problem partly inherited from Cubism, and filtered through Surrealism and comics. It is how to get movement (translating her absorption in the sensuous push and pull of pigment) into a static image - how to make a figurative painting, even when its subjects are inert objects like tables and glasses, convey instability, fracture, speed, collapse, explosion, thrust. This isn't a new problem, of course. Among others, Ms. Murray has had her great hero Cézanne to emulate.

Her inclination has been to nudge painting toward relief sculpture: to concoct and combine panels and shaped canvases that teem with goofy incident and stuff. What results can look as rickety as an old jalopy. Paint pools, congeals and drips. Sides and edges of canvases stay unfinished, like the backs of stage props, openly belying their ostensible illusions. You love them or not for their messiness.

Now I've argued for sometime that one of the advantages of Pluralism has been the carte blanche it gives artists to pick up on exploration threads dropped by previous generations (or at least dropped by the critique) because their movement had gone out of fashion. The fact that Murray never waited for the rise of Pluralism to do just that speaks volumes about her integrity as an artist. But I'm still trying to sort out what to make of the fact that the paintings in the exhibition I liked the most were some of her minimalistic earlier pieces, the ones, according to Kimmelman, she reports as being a struggle and not at all in line with her interests.
I've said repeatedly that artists should focus on what they're interested in and, as best as they can, ignore what's fashionable if what's fashionable isn't what they do. Elizabeth Murray is a good example of an artist who learned that lesson and forged her own path.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Murray as images, but sometimes the actual works fall flat to me - too muddy, too clunky and too heavy for the kind of kineticism she's trying to make.

I do really like to mix up of cubism and cartoons - not comics by the way, comics would be something sequential. She references cartoons.


10/21/2005 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Tyler said...

Kimmelman writes hagiographies, not reviews. So of cousre he "loved" it.

Of course what he wrote isn't half as embarrassing as what popped up on GawkerForum.

10/21/2005 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I know what you mean about GawkerForum, Tyler, but it's hard to begrudge Elizabeth a bit of celebrity (although, clearly it's embarassing that's not provided in a more appropriate forum). Having said that, we too were struck by how gracious she greeted everyone at Wednesday's opening...assuming that after a few nights of that she must be exhausted.

10/21/2005 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no what is embarassing is what Finch wrote, i am not easily shocked but what he wrote about the EM show did offend me deeply. i really cannot fathom someone who has such self-hatred that he writes something like that. and besides it was not even true what he said.

10/21/2005 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


That Finch review reminds me of the adage, "we hate most in others what they reflect of ourselves."

I saw Charlie at the opening squatting in an alcove, looking like a frumpy sack of discarded Murray reject canvases. The fact he felt compelled to describe his companion as "A beautiful anonymous female friend" provides all the insight one needs into where he's coming from.

I've noted before I'll always be indebted to Mr. Finch for his gracious support of my first curating effort (he really was spectacularly supportive), but this review is simply mean with no reason.

10/21/2005 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous crionna said...

but this review is simply mean with no reason.

What kiinda gossip sight you runnin here E? No link? ;)

10/21/2005 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

sorry Crionna.

here's the link to the review. And for a visual, here's Mr. Finch, and here's one of Elizabeth's paintings with haunting similarities

10/21/2005 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Thanks E. You know, the man seems to be nothing so much as the person killed in a Law and Order episode.

10/21/2005 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


yeah, I hate that about L&; rarely get to know anything at all about the victims.

10/21/2005 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

EM's work is meaty. I tend to like the idea of what she is doing more than the work itself. Still, Charlie needs a good prick to deflate his ego.

10/21/2005 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Sorry to miss the opening, I did see many of her etchings popping up around town, in anticipation of the retro. Some were quite good, especially the scruffier worked over ones;some good color too.

10/21/2005 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

yeah, I hate that about L&; rarely get to know anything at all about the victims.

Except for a rather long list of folks with motive for the crime ;)

10/21/2005 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Jahn said...

Ive never really liked Murray's work but the evil curator in me can see how she would fit in with a show of painters I do like; Yek, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Brad Tucker, Morris Louis, Jacqueline Ehlis, Benglis, Pollock and Ellsworth Kelly. All have this tough to pin down spatial/perceptual shift and viewer placement/displacement effect.

somehow Murray has always seemed like a halfway to toon-town and I want something more extreme. I dont see her as a major influence on those younger artists I mentioned... they are all way more into Kelly and Benglis. That said I want to see a big Benglis retro at MoMA. I

10/21/2005 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finch's review was harsh, but Kimmelman's is way off in the other direction. To describe Murray as a hedgehog reads as a necessary disclaimer. Sticking to her subject matter "despite the obvious risks that attached to her doing so because she was a woman," as noted by Storr, is a ridiculously offensive statement - not because she is a woman, but because he has to make note of it in order to provide context for her everyday images. "Household upheaval?" Is that what Guston was doing with coffee cups and light bulbs? No way. Formally, Murray is a female Red Grooms with all the typical accoutrements - bright colors, pattern references, arrows, squiggles and spirals. Finch may have been meanspirited, but he's not completely off-base.

10/21/2005 05:52:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

It's playful stuff, a lot of it is fun to look at. She breaks some formal boundaries and maintains others in a way that, on occasion, is very skillfully balanced. As a contrast, I'd take her later work over Stella of the same period in a heartbeat. IMO Stella almost has become Vivaldi in the sense of 'seen one, seen 'em all,' 'working space' be damned. Murray -- I'd contend she's still worth seeing.

10/21/2005 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Hiccup said...

Ok, the Charlie Finch review seems to be what we expect from him. Nowhere near as bad as what he wrote about curator Lisa Kirk in late August - that was an ad hominem, misogynistic attack that can't be forgiven. At least here he speaks about the work. Well, sort of. Elizabeth Murray is an important , possibly pivotal painter, I think, but there is a lot of ugliness in her work, it seems she is playing with that. Not many painters these days seem to want to risk ugliness.

10/22/2005 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous observing from afar said...

I am loathe to go to the dark side and say something negative about someone but this case is exceptional. Finch is a sociopathic brute. I don't understand how he continues to maintain a presence in an art world to which he contributes nothing but useless bile (and I guess a few bucks?). Perhaps artnet is to blame for continually enabling such a clearly hateful person.

10/22/2005 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked Charlies comments. Its good not to see "sociopathic" conformity and pc pitter patter in criticism all the time. If he hurt Murrays feelings, too bad. Ive always been amazed at how far Murrays got in the Artworld. I would have thought they would be embarrassed by her.

10/24/2005 07:13:00 AM  
Anonymous observing from afar said...

Everyone's absolutely entitled to have a voice and I'm no homer for Murray either but Finch's remarks are unnecessarily and purposefully cruel considering the moment. We're talking about a lifetime of creative output - an attempt to do something positive - contrast that with years of basically bitching about others making a living by creating art which does not conform to one's tastes. How mature. I for one am more amazed by how long Finch has been in the art world - so which individual should this little society be more embarrassed by, as you say? In a way Finch, via his Murray screed, has created this question: "It's either me or her." I side with Murray.

10/24/2005 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think something that is not being said about the finch "review", in addition to the ugliness of it, is that of sexism. Like her or not, she held her own while other more mediocre male painters were constantly honored and lionized, made fortunes, and if and when they have retrospectives, who will be as ugly to them as finch (or read the one last week from the new york sun) was to her. i think there is something else going on here. and embarrased? by what? she has had and has a rich career showing in top galleries, how many of you can say you have the same thing. EM is an american artist, she did not have a huge career in europe, and in todays standard you have to have that to be considered "important". as anonymouse said earlier, Finch should be embarrased, art net should be embarrased. no she is not a young babe, does that mean that she is irrelevant?

10/24/2005 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Martin said...

What happened with the Mia Fineman article on Charlie Finch? Is that still happening?

10/24/2005 06:55:00 PM  

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