Elizabeth Murray’s Rule-Breaking Paintings Continue to Inspire Younger Artists

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This post was curated from an article written by Alina Cohen for Artsy

An enlarged, black-and-white photograph of painter Elizabeth Murray’s hand ends Pace Gallery’s current exhibition—closing January 13th—which focuses on the late artist’s work from the 1980s. Murray’s dirty, bandaged fingers (thumb hidden, pointer bent) lightly brush a marked canvas. The picture functions as a final reminder of her distinct touch. Often extending to around 10 by 10 feet, her large-scale canvases bulge and ripple from the walls, fold over themselves at the corners, or comprise fractured and imperfectly interlocking shapes. The rough, layered surfaces and messy edges suggest an artist in thrall of paint, linen, and stretchers, and their myriad possibilities under her own hand.

In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of Murray’s work, making her the fourth woman—after Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler—to ever receive the honor from the Department of Painting and Sculpture. She was battling lung cancer at the time and passed away in 2007, shortly after seeing her work showcased in that year’s Venice Biennale. From MOCA Los Angeles to the Walker Art Center, institutions nationwide (plus a couple beyond the U.S.) have bought her work, though its scale can be prohibitive to individual collectors. Nevertheless, Murray’s legacy remains more slippery than many of her contemporaries’; it’s difficult to slot her singular, exuberant, and ever-evolving practice into art history.

 Additionally, says Pace president Douglas Baxter, Murray’s market became more difficult after the MoMA show. The generation that had collected the artist was dying off. Her contemporaries, such as Susan Rothenberg and Joel Shapiro, are continuing to make work, while Murray’s premature death prevented her own career-capping late phase. Dan Nadel, who along with Carroll Dunham co-curated a 2016 exhibition of her drawings at Lower East Side gallery Canada, echoes the sentiment. The retrospective did not spur the additional scholarship Murray deserved, he says, and “she did not become a kind of lodestar, as she should have.” The Pace show, and its accompanying catalogue, aim to reaffirm her position as a crucial character in the development of painting.

That volume includes a chronology charting Murray’s art alongside major historical events, beginning in 1977, the year Murray moved to White Street in Lower Manhattan. By this time, she was an established artist working as a lecturer at Princeton and an instructor at Yale and the School of Visual Arts. In the ’70s, Murray was transitioning away from rectangular canvases and minimal explorations of line, opting instead for shaped canvases depicting more cartoonish figures. Their bright hues, dreamlike quality, and merging of high and low culture became her hallmarks.

The chronology omits Murray’s earlier, more difficult years. Raised in Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois, the artist grew up impoverished and, at times, homeless. With financial support from a high school art teacher, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and committed to life as a painter. After receiving her MFA at Mills College in Oakland, she moved across the country to New York in 1967, sensing the city’s unique opportunities. Murray quickly settled into her new artistic milieu.

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