Art and Film: Elizabeth Murray and the splendor of the ordinary

Elizabeth Murray
Elizabeth Murray, Everybody Knows, 2007.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Elizabeth Murray, who died too young at 66 in 2007, stretched and contorted household scenes and objects into kinetic abstract festivals on baroquely shaped canvases that defied and escaped the presumed domestic tyranny of wifely and motherly duty. That may be what a Guerrilla Girl – fittingly interviewed in her mask for Kristi Zea’s documentary Everybody Knows … Elizabeth Murray, screening this week at the Film Forum – means when she says that the groundbreaking painter was “a feminist without having to talk about it.” The film is an exemplary integration of personal history, cultural context, and the exposition of the artistic process. It is perhaps a bit more elegiac than analytic, and only starts what should be a long conversation about a great artist who merits recognition as one for the ages.

An additional factor in Murray’s sublimated brand of feminism was that when she was getting started in New York the 1970s, it was extremely difficult for a female painter, buffeted by peremptory male Minimalists and Pop artists who had learned from the AbExers how to marginalize women, to get a solo show. Yet the rewards were obvious. An avuncularly trenchant Chuck Close – the Elmore Leonard of the art world – notes that back then every painter in New York would go to any fellow painter’s opening, then gather at Max’s Kansas City to talk about the work. The quietly driven Murray, whose influences ranged from the Cubists to the AbExers and Minimalists to The Hairy Who, had a unique gestalt to offer and fervently wanted her canvases to become the subject of that discussion. She had little time for discrete political posturing; she had to work and hustle.

Yet she did not capitulate to ambition existentially, having two daughters while in her forties after raising a son. All three of her children testify to Murray’s dedication as both an artist and a mother. She seemed able to reconcile the two roles in seeing and evoking the splendor of the ordinary. It helped that she was apparently a frank, well-balanced, and fundamentally modest person, true to her personal inspirations. She did not bow to the market aesthetically, either, painting only what she was moved to paint and never losing the sheer tactile joy of applying brush to canvas (just watch her has she struggles past her frailty while making Everybody Knows, her last painting).

Warm but candid, Murray was grateful to Paula Cooper for sticking with her though painfully cognizant of her own calculation – sourced in an unstable and materially insecure childhood in Illinois – in leaving Cooper for Pace to ensure higher prices for her work. Her success brought her confidence, but without vanity. She often eschewed a hat, wig, or scarf even as she lost her abundant hair from cancer treatment. A constant, even as her life visibly ebbed, was her bighearted smile. She may have taken satisfaction in having inspired other women artists to come to New York, confront the men, and play in the big leagues. Perhaps Murray also knew that in her extreme attenuations of and appropriations to everyday objects, she had formally established a unique equilibrium between the abstract and the figurative – and found a place in art history – while preserving in her work a playful and irrepressible humanity.

Also on view:

Elizabeth Murray drawing
Elizabeth Murray, For Bounding Dog, 1993, watercolor and crayon on paper.

Elizabeth Murray curated by Carroll Dunham and Dan Nadel,” CANADA, Lower East Side, New York, NY. Through 

Related posts:
Elizabeth Murray at Pace (2011)
IMHO: Elizabeth Murray, a neo-feminist icon
Elizabeth Murray: tributes and obituaries

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5 thoughts on “Art and Film: Elizabeth Murray and the splendor of the ordinary”

  1. Could you give examples of how pop and minimalist artists marginalized her?

    And marginalized for what reason but to gain fame and fortune for themselves. And yet in this article you say how she left Paula Cooper for Pace for more money. (pace the sleazy gallery that took on the actor who blatantly ripped off Cindy Sherman…how embarrassing).

    Hey I love Murray, but if she was a victim of, let’s call it the marketplace, then she also was a perpetrator.

    1. The idea is not that male artists conspiratorially set out to exclude female artists, but rather that they exuded a certain kind of attitude and swagger that catered to an entrenched art media bias that favored men. So although Murray had a good gallery, it took a long time for her to get the critical love. She left Paula Cooper after over 20 years, and stayed with Pace for about 12 years, until she died. I would hardly cast Murray as a mercenary soldier of the marketplace for making one prudent move towards greater income as she approached age 60. At the time, she had a family, including two children who weren’t yet grown, and the art market was in decline.

      1. Are you correcting the author? He said they were marginalized by pop and minimalist artists not the entrenched media.

        And the entrenched media only catered to those with attitude and swagger? What happened to Joan Mitchell?

        And next generality–“entrenched media”. Who were the entrenched media? Can you give me an “entrenched” writer/critic who ignored her? Name a NY art critic.

        Maybe, but it seems like you are spouting a worn out narrative. Certainly a certain amount of exclusion is true and it always will be true. (We have a Jewish Museum showing primarily Jewish artists who have no connection to Jewish history or culture except they were born. All kind of exclusion endorsed by the entrenched media).

        I am not condoning any unfairness. It is all around us. It’s just the simple default excuses generalized without facts are no basis. It’s the kind of narrative that solves all problems while it solves none.

        And I don’t blame Murray for any financial decisions. It’s just she can’t be a saint if she is calling out the sinners. (I didn’t know her but I doubt she was calling out the sinners and I doubt she would agree with you that she was totally ignored because of her sex).

        1. Thanks to both of you for the comments. Ernie was accurately teasing out an admittedly compressed and parenthetical point in a film review as opposed to a definitive scholarly essay. To elaborate further, I think the relationship between the critical community (including museums and galleries as well as media) and male artists was reciprocal: many of them internalized, played to, and reinforced the bias favoring men, making it harder for female artists to be anointed. There is plenty of evidence of this adduced in the film, and a couple of critics–including Roberta Smith–testify to the prevailing dynamic on screen. Of course Joan Mitchell and other female predecessors and contemporaries of Murray’s–Frankenthaler, Krasner, Hartigan, Heilmann, and Hesse, to name a few–made it, too. But that mere fact does not negate the reality that it was harder for them to do so. Billy’s last point is a gaggle of straw men: nobody is calling Murray a saint, she is not cast in either the film or the review as an accuser, and no one is claiming that she was totally ignored. Indeed, in the movie her daughters note her frequent self-absorption, both the movie and the review make clear that she was not a strident sort of feminist, and the film is in part a celebration of her ultimate recognition. In any case, Murray’s critical struggles and place in the politics of art are only two aspects of the documentary. It also thoughtfully considers the art-historical relevance of her work, her studio process, and her personal history.

          1. You misunderstand what I wrote. I wasn’t using a straw man.

            Simply saying whenever we (person of ANY gender) get in power we tend to use that power. We make economic and other decisions selfishly. It is what it is. Not condoning it, but not accepting the accepted the simplistic narrative, even when it has some truth to it.

            Aren’t women dominating the art world? Seems most of the best artists are women. I think there must be a bias there….only kidding.

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