Art/Museums logo

Elizabeth Murray

Museum of Modern Art

October 23, 2005 to January 9, 2006

"Bounding Dog"

"Bounding Dog," oil on canvas, 7 feet 7 inches by 8 feet 5 inches, Daros Collection, Switzerland, 1993-4. Photo: James Dee, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

By Carter B. Horsley

In recent years, the appropriation of artistic style has gained favor in certain circles even though it can be construed by some as lack of originality and riding on someone else's coattails, especially when it is not promoted as a homage but as an important aesthetic statement.

Of course, it is increasingly difficult to be truly original given the ever-expanding universe of art and while some artists may not be as innovative as those they appropriate it is possible to create something more impressive, or powerful, or interesting than the original source. An infatuation with style can overlook talent.

Elizabeth Murray, the subject of a major exhibition this fall and winter at The Museum of Modern Art in New York well illustrates the problem of pidgeon-holing artists.

It is impossible to view many of the works in this show without wanting to make analogies to many other artists. "Bounding Dog," shown above, for example, quickly conjures the organics of Art Nouveau and the imaginary worlds of Wassily Kandinsky. "Do The Dance," shown lower in this article, calls to mind the rhythmic energy of Keith Haring. "Wishing For The Farm," also shown lower in this article, reminds one of the painterliness and topographic studies of Wayne Thiebaud. And many of Murray's works are sculpturally related to many of Frank Stella's constructions.


"Yikes," oil on canvas, two panels, 9 feet 7 inches by 9 feet 5 1/2 inches, 1982, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Douglas S. Cramer Foundation, 1991. Photo: Geoffrey Clements, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Despite her evolving artistic path, Murray's work consistently demonstrates fine painterliness, strong palettes and a slightly unfinished quality that make her work distinctive and interesting. Indeed, one is mightly impressed by her superb compositional qualities and choice of palettes.

"Don't Be Cruel"

"Don't Be Cruel," oil on canvas, 9 feet 7 inches by 9 feet 8 inches by 14 inches, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, The Henry L. Hillman Fund, 1986. Photo: James Dee, courtesy, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Murray's inventiveness is quite remarkable and there is a richness to her visions that is earthy, lush and dramatic. "Don't Be Cruel," for example, has a fluttering quality of dance but its jagged diagonal element in the middle surprises, breaking the fluidity of the image while reinforcing notions of strain and stress and movement.

In the exhibition's catalogue, Robert Storr provides the following commentary about this work:

"Recognizing the ways in which overlaps with but stands apart from many stylistic categories past and present, it may be argued that...Murray's art thrives on incongruity. No picture of the period makes the extremes to which can lead more eplicit than Don't Be Cruel....A visual riff on the title of an old Elvis Presley song, and the most convoluted version of the tensions...between stiff planarity (the table image) and topological pliability (the Silly Putty torquing of the canvas), Don't Be Cruel wreaks havoc with the concept of the stabililty of home in ways that simultaneously make one laugh and wince. Whereas only the watches and a mustached polyp in Dali's 1931 classic The Persistence of Memory droop, here everything flops and spirals. Furthermore, here, for the first time in modernism, the shape of biomorphic painting is subject to the same deformations as the shapes depicted in it. The signal importance of this discovery that the inside (image) and the outside (contour) of the picture could be treated in the same terms cannot be overstated, though Murray's otherwise traditional technique and her refusal to make large claims for such formal challenges to the status quo tended to distract from the originality of what she had actually done."

"Breaking the decorum of mainstream modernism with her own distinctive brand of grab-you-by-the-collar urgency and improvisatory, implicitly anarchistic joie de vivre, Murray has taken many risks to make her art, and in the process has fundamentally altered the rules of the game," Mr. Storr, the Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, declared.


"Euclid," oil on canvas, 8 feet 9 1/2 inches by 6 feet 10 inches by 13 1/4 inches, 1989, Collection Dr. and Mrs. John T. Chiles. Photo: Geoffrey Clements, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

"Euclid," on the other hand, can appear to be a duet between two singers surrounded by four powerful horns or an organic jewel of fragile delicacy. It also shows the influence of Surrealism.

"Wishing For The Farm"

"Wishing For The Farm," oil on canvas, 8 feet 11 inches by 9 feet 6 inches by 13 inches, 1991, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York, photo: Geoffrey Clements, courtesy Paul Cooper Gallery, New York

'Wishing For The Farm" has an opalesque quality of a jewel except for its enormous size. Is it a celestial vision or an Egyptian artifact? It is both macro and micro. Its sinousness is both sensual and high-tech. Like many of her works of different periods of her career, it is easy to extrapolate an entire impressive oeuvre of related works, an impressive achievement that escapes most artists.

"Do The Dance"

"Do The Dance,"oil on canvas, 9 feet 5 inches by 11 feet 3 inches by 1 1/4 inches, 2005, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York. Photo: David Allison, New York

Her most recent work, such as "Do The Dance," is a startling marvel of explosive and compacted energy that is cacaphonous and well demonstrates Murray's enchantment with the fractured world of Cubism. Much of her work breaks into disparate sections, usually quite independently interesting but made more exciting by their separations and juxtapositions.

Murray, who was born in Chicago in 1940, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then Mills College and moved to New York City in 1967.

In his October 21, 2004 review of the exhibition in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman wrote that "Her inclination has been to nudge painting toward relief sculpture: to concoct and combine panels and shaped convases that teem with goof incident and stuff." "what results can look as rickety as an old jalopy. Paint pools, congeals and drips. sides and edges of canvases stay unfinished, like the backs of stage props, openly belying their ostensible illusions," he correctly noted.

"That the Modern is now devoting its first show by a living painter in its redesigned museum to Ms. Murray is, among other things, proof of how modernism is renewed every once in a while by strong-willed, adulterating figures like her," Mr. Kimmelman wrote, adding that "You're left with the sense of an artist in the flush of her authority and still digging deep."

Mr. Kimmelman remarks of the "sheer chutzpah of Ms. Murray's maturity," and, indeed, her sumptuous and exciting works are full of agita.

Click here to order the catalogue from



Home Page of The City Review