For the past year or so I’ve been thinking again about Elizabeth Murray. I started following her paintings in the early 1980s, after she gave a swoon-inducing lecture at Pratt Institute where I was an undergraduate. At the time the existence of this intelligent, vivacious woman painter was as inspiring and important to me as the paintings themselves. Over the years I’ve cycled through a variety of feelings about Murray’s work — from complete adoration to indifference to a renewed appreciation for how simultaneously “simple” and smart her paintings are.
A few weeks ago I was at MoMA to see the Lygia Clark show. Afterwards I did my usual walk through the permanent collection, dropping in on old favorites, seeing what new gems had been pulled from storage and checking to see if the installation of the galleries had been reshuffled since my last visit. On the fourth floor (Painting and Sculpture II, Gallery 24 to be exact) I wandered into a room that appeared to be a capsule version of David Reed and Katy Siegel’s 2007 exhibition “Hard Times, High Times: New York Painting 1967-75.” It’s hard not to wonder whether this particular MoMA-ent in 20th century American art — the gathering of Lynda Benglis, Sam Gilliam, Ron Gorchov, Al Loving, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, and Jack Whitten — would have existed at all had it not been named and codified by Reed and Siegel’s groundbreaking show.
What struck me most about the MoMA grouping was the inclusion of Elizabeth Murray’s Southern California, a large work from 1976. Although Murray belonged chronologically to the “High Times, Hard Times” generation of New York painters, she was not included in that exhibition — perhaps because her zany, graphic abstraction feels distinctly at odds with the cut, poured, dyed, draped and scraped work made by her cohorts in the mid 1970s. To be honest, the only “process” visible in the flat, uncomplicated surface of Southern California is an efficient determination to get the job done. Together with Comet (1974), Ron Gorchov’s playful, curved painting on the facing wall, Murray’s painting can be read as a harbinger for the bright, cartoonish American abstraction that would come to the fore in the early 1980s.
For me, Murray’s highly inventive approach to the figure/ground relationship and composition in general form the core of her oeuvre — so much so that all other aspects of the work feel sometimes ancillary in comparison. Color, line and form seem to be chosen for their ability to amplify and/or problematize the painting’s structure. In Murray’s homemade contraptions of Cubism, Surrealism and the Hairy Who, everything — from simple shapes to tables, cups, dogs, paintbrushes, clouds, to even lightning bolts — is squashed into a pliable form that can be stretched and spliced at will. This is as true of an early abstraction like Southern California as it is of the complex, multi-paneled works that Murray later became known for.
While the 6-foot square format of Southern California is conventional, the image is anything but. At first glance the picture feels overwhelmed by a giant lopsided cherry-red blob that extends past the perimeter of the canvas on all sides but one. Along the right edge, the curve of the circle comes perilously close to being cut off and that sliver of space transforms the circle into a balloon floating over a black ground. The small white dot hovering in the lower corner pushes that edge even further back. On the left side, the corners are royal blue and orange and serve to both “catch” the red ovoid and wrestle it to the ground (literally). The three bright, primary school cut-outs (apostrophes, lips, kewpie doll eyes?) are strategically placed to further enhance the oscillation from figure to ground, from representation to abstraction. While indulging our propensity to anthropomorphize and locate everything in sight, Murray’s exuberant paintings also reward us with wondrous moments of pure optical, visceral and cerebral pleasure, far removed from the known world.