Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007) was one of art’s gloriously purposeful paradoxes. Her work is irrepressibly bold yet insistently nuanced; liberated in spirit though domestically grounded in everyday objects; audaciously abstract but rigorously referential; simultaneously affirming and deconstructive; tightly composed while casually gestural. These magnificent tensions emerge in every blooming painting of the sixteen in Pace Gallery’s grand new exhibition of her work, “Elizabeth Murray – Painting in the ‘80s.”
Challenging Minimalism, Murray incorporated in this work the visual panache of contemporaneous Pop artists and Neo-expressionists and the formal provocations (often in two-and-a-half dimensions) of foundational modernists like Picasso and Miro and surrealists like Dali without saddling the paintings with overbearing angst, obtuse self-seriousness, or abject absurdity. In that sense, Murray’s eighties oeuvre stands as a complex embodiment of the era, when exuberantly naughty excess leavened a militant brand of conventionality, and vice-versa. Dave Hickey was onto something when he called her “a fountain of youth and good humor that has never run dry,” “the absolute mistress of high physical comedy,” and “Keith Haring with a domestic life and a Ph.D.”
Joy accented with knowingly boffo humor is a salient feature of just about any Murray painting. It can range in tone from serene (as in Just in Time, enshrining the decisive moment of romantic recognition between her and poet Bob Holman, her husband) to sardonic (check out Wake Up, which conjures a rudely interrupted dream or reverie) to gonzo (see the raucously whimsical Stay Awake, which brings to mind a brash, wise-cracking tuba). In other paintings, it ramifies as crowning mirth about humankind’s pretensions to dignity, rationality, and reserve, sometimes with a quietly feminist tinge. Witness, for instance, the co-location of what looks like a bowtie and an abstracted woman’s crotch in Her Story. It might also be juxtaposed with something vexing: in Not Goodbye, lush musical notes seem to mitigate the sadness and discomfort of departure and separation. Or joy might consist in more coolly presented figurative and symbolic elements of a piece, as it does in the notional cheek-to-cheek dancers and turntables in Table Turning.
It goes almost without saying that Murray was a major formal innovator, and the Pace exhibition can’t help but celebrate that standing. She pushed the boundary between painting and sculpture – articulating, layering, and building out her shaped canvases to degrees that few painters if any before her had approached. But if she was extravagantly iconoclastic, she was also never out of control. Whether biomorphic, symbolic, or objective, Murray’s figurative references – the woman in Her Story, the dancers in Table Turning, an apron (or a dishcloth or a wafting sheet on a clothesline) in Making It Up, tears that coalesce into a heart in 96 Tears, letters of the alphabet or cups or spoons in other paintings – though of course disguised and re-contextualized, are always decipherable. This quality anchors her work and lends it reassuring lucidity and firmness. She did not appear to value being adrift, and was not one to leave her viewers flummoxed and flailing.
Then there is the Murray work ethic, which squares with the evident pleasure she took in daily life as a happy art warrior. She clearly loved the physical experience of applying paint all the way to her last piece, as shown in Kristi Zea’s fine documentary Everybody Knows … Elizabeth Murray. Now an artist of Murray’s stature would likely employ a squadron of assistants to compose different components of such physically intricate, labor-intensive paintings. Murray did enlist a dedicated carpenter to construct shaped canvases to her exacting specifications, but only she applied the paint. You see Murray’s own hand on every square inch of a Murray painting.
The Pace show is a triumph as a retrospective for an extraordinary painter. Beyond that, it is an existential inspiration, demonstrating that great artists can process and make sense of even cynical and disorienting times – the Reagan era now looks like a precursor of Trump’s moment – and in Murray’s case achieve, in what Hickey calls “an unruly conjugal sublime,” unity of purpose with a sense of humor. Yet for all the slashing brightness and anarchical jocularity of her paintings, their most ingrained characteristic may be the enduring struggle for contentment: often, one element of a canvas seems to be seeking dominion over other destabilizing ones.
This phenomenon is plain in Murray’s cleverly meta Picture-Crack Up, in which a sinewy figure appears to wrestle with a larger enveloping surface while staying in the picture. This capsule drama seems to reflect the artist’s unavoidable inclusion in the world, however encroaching and hostile, and her need both to accommodate and to shape it. The idea resonates as much now as it did in 1985, when Murray made the painting. She would have had a field day with 2017. And she still graces our fraught time here with resounding notes of searching intelligence, good cheer, immense talent, and boundless heart.
“Elizabeth Murray: Paintings in the ’80s,” Pace, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through January 13, 2018.