August 14, 2007

IMHO: Elizabeth Murray, a neo-feminist icon

On Sunday, at her home in upstate New York, Elizabeth Murray died of complications from lung cancer. She was duly renowned as a passionate, energetic, and ambitious painter whose work is in collections all over the world. Yet Murray is rarely credited with helping to forge a neo-feminist vision of the triumphant, uber-artist who is also a dedicated mother. 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. 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.

Murray had her first child, a son, in 1969, before her work was well known, and her daughters in the eighties when things were undoubtedly more financially secure. It’s clear from Murray’s paintings that raising children, rather than diminishing her art-making capacity, inspired her. Her paintings channel the screaming, fractured energy and frustration that come from being both an artist and a mother, but ultimately transcend specific circumstances to make a more universal statement that is neither masculine nor feminine.

In a book accompanying a traveling exhibition of Murray’s paintings and drawings in the late eighties, Murray offers a paragraph about each painting in the show. The one concerning “Can You Hear Me?” – completed in 1984 – stands out. The painting, consisting of shaped canvases with undulating forms of a table and exclamation mark, is mostly blue, with bright green, yellow and red accents. “The formal challenge,” she writes, “was to allow the structure of the painting to remain fragmented while making the table and the room out of it. It’s just one of those paintings where everything felt necessary once it began to come together.”

Murray herself openly embraced the notion that we should paint what’s in our subconscious. Although she was quick to dismiss any observation that she painted domestic life, something similar to what she mused about “Can You Hear Me?” could be said of an artist’s embrace of motherhood. In any case, something exquisite about life came together in her art.

—Sharon Butler
Two Coats of Paint /twocoatsofpaint@gmail.com
August 14, 2007
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Murray discusses her paintings with her daughters in "Family Critiques Work," a short quicktime video clip on the PBS ART: 21 web site. Watch clip.