Elizabeth Murrayby Phong Bui and Robert Storr
Robert Storr and Phong Bui
In the midst of preparing for her upcoming retrospective, which will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art beginning October 23, 2005, Elizabeth Murray sat down with the painter Robert Storr, curator of the exhibition, and Rail publisher Phong Bui to talk about her life and work at her studio loft in Tribeca.
Phong Bui (Rail): I thought we’d begin with your most recent painting, “The Sun and the Moon,” which belongs to your work of the last decade, a significant change from your much familiar still-life and interior motifs to a more exterior celebration of a variety of forms and shapes that are vitally connected to the sound and movement of New York City.
Elizabeth Murray: I started painting it before I got sick. I was really having a lot of trouble with it, partly because I was starting to have these really terrible headaches, and I was depressed—I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me. And I put it all on painting even though I wasn’t able to comprehend what was wrong with the painting—the kinds of things that you would say to yourself when your work falls apart and you can’t figure out why. Then I started in on it a couple of weeks after I got back from the hospital because I really had to work. I had to show myself that I could work. And it was hard because I was exhausted, still recovering from the brain surgery. But you still have to keep at it, because you have to, and gradually things start to sort themselves out. The thing that is interesting about the painting is that it shows how I had lost my mental coordination, how the forms connected and other matters that I take for granted when I paint. I couldn’t say, “Oh, that color needs to be over here too, or that shape has to be over there.” I simply couldn’t analyze them in such terms. Besides, the thing is, it’s really hard to paint.
Rail: [Laughs] Thank you for the reminder. It’s important to be reminded that painting is hard.
One of the most distinct features of your work is the way you have developed this elaborate three-dimensional structure onto your canvases, which seems to result from a long invested interest in Cubism without losing sight of your own personal playfulness and inventiveness. You spoke when I was last here of Cézanne, Picasso, and de Kooning. Could you retell the experience of seeing their paintings and their initial impact, if any, on your formative years as a young student at the Art Institute of Chicago?
Murray: Well, I love those paintings. I’d looked and learned a great deal from them. I did learn, however, how to paint from looking at de Kooning rather than Cézanne. But that was because de Kooning was closer to my generation, that’s all. More importantly, I felt the spirit. I felt the soul behind them. And I think if you feel that, you’ve got to try to set out in the same path with your own experience, of course. Let’s face it; once you feel the soul of the painting, you’re hooked. And I don’t think only artists feel that. I think people in general who love painting acknowledge that strong feeling as well.
Rail: Rob, Elizabeth also thinks of Cézanne’s apples as erotic and sexual—so did Meyer Schapiro. Many of us do—aside from Hilton Kramer—which brings to mind D.H. Lawrence, who once saw Cézanne’s paintings in the show that Roger Fry curated in London along with Gauguin and Van Gogh, around 1910, when Fry coined the term Post Impressionism. D.H. Lawrence said, “Cézanne’s apple is like the moon because there is the unseen side”.
Murray: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Rail: And Picasso had said it in a different light in 1935: “What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety.” What is interesting is that he had abandoned his older cubist practice of pure construction during 1910s for a more engaged effort with the emotion by the twenties and throughout the thirties. So as far as the issues between abstraction and representation, form and content, which can be extremely pedantic, Elizabeth seems to embrace them from afar—but at the same time she acknowledges the conviction and integrity to the importance of what I would call self-referential or self-susceptibility to her own immediate environment, namely the vernacular or colloquial significance of pop culture images. What do you make of all that?
Robert Storr: The image of the painting “Can You Hear Me,” which is this person screaming in a series of blue visual echoes. There are these great blue shapes floating around and the head is twisting and screaming, in one sense, based on “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, but it doesn’t imitate or copy it, it simply takes that kind of situation into a new spatial dimension. But the point is that it is a painting in which people might initially take those balloon shapes, because of the certain animated gestural quality, as cartooning or that kind of language. But in fact, Picasso is right about Cézanne. What holds us is that the anxiety can be multiple levels more or less pronounced in a given painting than the actual image. It could be in the actual image, the image itself can create the discomfort and uneasiness. It could be in the way either how the image comes together or refuses to come together. It could be in the paint surface. It could be the fact that either the shapes are wonderfully rounded and curved or that the paint inside them doesn’t sit happily on the surface. It’s moving and shifting, and textures are not necessarily squeezeably soft at all, and so on. With Elizabeth’s work, you get all of that. It’s like lots of those different registers of that anxiety. Sometimes there will be a particular dimension of the painting that seems to be inviting or funny or easy to take, but there is always a kicker, and there is usually more than one.
Rail: How do you place Elizabeth’s work in context with Neo-Expressionism of the eighties?
Storr: I think Neo-Expressionism is a misnomer to begin with. Take Eric Fischl, who is not exactly a Neo-Expressionist. He is a naturalist painter who gives himself certain liberties, given the fact that he has already put together a narrative that basically is not part of the simplistic notion of searching for the image. It’s a matter of a painter who paints what we normally experience. So that label is just a period label, which is just about as useful as any other label, probably less. Similar to Elizabeth’s case, whose work didn’t fit that label and the label didn’t fit that circumstance. But in terms of expressiveness rather than Expressionism, she’s one of the most expressive painters out there during that time. The trouble is not being embraced by the club. As uncomfortable as that may have been, it was a good thing because it meant you didn’t get your work boxed and framed into a style. It allowed those things that made it expressive to develop without being locked into a single attribute or a symbol of work that everyone was expecting. So she was free before and after Neo-Expressionism, and a lot of people who were a part of that have been limited to the track of their talent.
Rail: That’s true, but sometimes one can’t help making those analogies. For instance, when I look at Elizabeth’s paintings of the early to mid-eighties, they remind me of a small series of paintings and strange pastels that Miro did prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. One in particular, “Still Life With An Old Shoe,” in which he painted objects that were meant to identify with the suffering of common people—an apple, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, and an old shoe—in a very strange hallucinatory environment. It has a similar sentiment to the pair of shoes in your painting, “Tomorrow,” which to me also recalls Guston’s image of the upturned sole and cobbled shoes. I’m wondering whether that has any symbolic reminiscence of early memories?
Murray: I’ve always been quite reluctant to analyze my work in that linear way because it tends to reduce and close off meaning in a specific reading. But in this case of the shoe image, I was thinking much more of Guston’s than Miro’s painting. And I do know that painting you are talking about very well.
Storr: There’s a famous line of Borges where he says that all of literature can be boiled down to three metaphors. Now, it’s a wonderful piece of literary hyperbole, because of course it can’t be. But in certain ways there are archetypes, things that people gravitate towards as means of expression that actually are very different. The reference of the shoes exists from Van Gogh on down to Guston, and the fact that artists of such different characters should find in a shoe, a commonplace object, a vehicle for expressing very distinct and very different ideas, is interesting. The reason for thinking about them is to bring the differences forward, rather than to establish some influence or connections. Now that I’m an art historian—I used to be on the outside of the glass house screaming, “don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t create genealogy”—I’m on the inside, I throw the bricks from the inside. But I think knowing them is important, knowing the power of dominant primary images. The power is not what they contain; it’s the power they give to the maker to do something you’ve never seen.
Rail: That leads to the iconography in Elizabeth’s paintings. But more importantly the changes that took place in the work in terms of the physical applications of the format, the color and surface. Let’s begin with the late seventies, when the shaped canvases emerged, although they still retained the flatness of the surface. By the early eighties came the more broken up and fragmented planes like “Painter’s Progress,” which to me was a seminal work in that it yields to the inevitable overlapping of planes, notably in “Keyhole.” From then on the three-dimensional aspects became very pronounced, especially throughout the nineties: “Labyrinth,” for example, or one of my favorites, “Temptation.” Not until recently did they seem to become more flat, though just as complex. Nevertheless, how do you maintain the natural progression in flow, since the understructure has to be pretty much predetermined before the painting gets painted?
Murray: Yeah, it’s very challenging. Because when they’re made and brought here in the studio, most of the time, they look so beautiful without any paint on them. I have to really sort of go away from it so that I’m not too compelled to put something down. But honestly, once I get going, I cease to think about it. It’s not like I don’t think; it just comes up. Since I can no longer change the structure, I can add or take things away, and I do. It’s simple, really. It’s about making, arranging the shapes and colors that jump or retreat in some context of harmony so that your eye can move across with some degree of fluidity. Of course it’s an illusion, but that’s what paintings do. And that’s partly why I like this flatness now. When it was more three-dimensional your eye did not do the same thing in terms of the motion.
Rail: What was the reason for your attraction towards modeling before?
Murray: Well that was like a joke, really. To have something that is three-dimensional, and then model on top of it. It was a lot of fun. It was playing with one illusion on top of another. That was a very deliberate decision on my part.
Rail: Many critics have brought up Juan Gris as an example of your study of cubism, both in his similar still-life motifs and the treatment of modulation between light and dark. But I also think of Braque’s studio paintings of the mid-thirties, where the conflation of ordinary domestic life, of leisure, of music, infused with the studio environment, as if it became consecrated to a kind of labor as well as to the visual. Besides, the surface is so beautifully painted and the color is quite audacious: edgy balances of dull and acidic green, wide range of black and brown, and very lively pinks. Have you ever thought of Braque in that light?
Murray: I haven’t thought about him for a while, but I love his paintings. When I was looking at Braque, it was always tied up with Picasso because of their analytic cubist collaboration. And I obviously learned a whole lot from looking at those paintings, about the ordinary, the humor. It was the first pop art. They’re taking the newspaper, wine bottles, glass, knife and folk and putting them on their paintings. Not to mention what cubism does to the surface of a painting, to a flat surface. It shatters the space, thereby creating a very anxious, very intense pictorial situation.
Rail: Like your own cubist version, “The Beer Glass?” Again, I see more of Braque and Picasso in that painting than I do with Gris.
Murray: That’s legitimate.
Storr: Look, I think the fracturing of form is more Picasso and Braque than Gris, but it raises another issue in the sense of how different the languages are and the way we once discussed. For example, when people say someone is a colorist, the assumption is that it means bright, and shiny. So when people think about Elizabeth’s color they imaginatively sort of re-color it all in the upper key of saturation of hues. I think the great colorists, and Braque is one of them, often work in odd and middle tones. It’s almost like if you approach color as being the fullness of what it actually might be. And then start looking in Elizabeth’s paintings for those off-greens, off-blues, grays that are in fact not black and white but are chromatic grays, you realize not only how much color there is but how spatially active that color is. So I think some people have these ideas that reduce these paintings to their brightness, and a lot of the color—as in Matisse for example—is in the half-tone, the dirty pink, the green that is turning something into violet. That’s where the color is, as opposed to anything that is bold, and that’s certainly true of Elizabeth’s work. It’s where the space comes in. That’s what’s holding these paintings up as much as any carved, bent form that is a part of it. These flat paintings now that are made of flat elements are full of these kinds of color things, in which the bright ones are maybe active in one way, but the subdued ones are doing just as much heavy lifting.
Rail: So the matter of distribution, you’re saying?
Storr: Well, distribution is part of it, but it’s just the way in which one color reacts to another. The tendency is to see the muted one as just a supporting color. But it’s not. It is a major player in all the paintings, and if you just let your eyes settle on one of those passages you can spend as long there, maybe longer, than on a passage that is bright red or grayish green.
Rail: And how do you see Elizabeth’s work in the context of the recent history of shaped canvas? There are those who would fit into that category, for example Frank Stella, Lee Bontecou, and Ron Gorchov?
Storr: The argument that I made back in the eighties when I first heard about Elizabeth’s work, that I’m making again for the catalogue essay, is that basically she’s the first painter to have fully developed the possibilities of a shaped canvas work, which is based if you want to call it on the surrealist side of the equation that Stella and others had done. It goes way back to Russia and Argentina in the 1940s. What they did was figure out how to make a shaped canvas that was faceted in a way that a cubist painting can be faceted. But the idea that the container of the painting, the support, would follow the same elastic surface geometries as the forms within the painting, the biomorphisms, that was touched by no one. And Ron [Gorchov] was the only person who has stuck his foot in the water, but he didn’t take it as far as it might have been taken at that point. And I’m a big champion of his paintings, as you know, so I’m not admitting to reasons of criticism, again, but Elizabeth simply saw an opportunity that’s been sitting there for seventy years. I think it’s indicative of how she’s important, not just why she’s important, that not being deterred by the fact that there’s no argument out there for doing it, and not trying to get in on the arguments that are always in play around Stella, and seeing physically and materially what can be done, has made a dramatic change in the paintings.
Murray: Ron influenced me enormously. He’s a great talker. And for a while he was the Guru of McGoos, where he hung out with John Toriano, Guy Goodwin, and other painters of my generation. He really was smart and I learned so much from him. When I first saw his show with those stretched and shaped paintings, I thought this was a painter I really wanted to get to know. I’m glad I did.
Rail: That’s what’s cool about your work. On one hand there’s incredible breakthrough in formalist tradition, which Rob just clearly described, and on the other it really belongs to the domain of the painter’s bohemian dugout.
Storr: And that’s the difference with the relationship between Elizabeth and [Frank] Stella. Stella is a very inventive form-maker, but the painting part of his paintings is very perfunctory. He uses it to get color down there, and sometimes uses it to make a graphic mark, but to actually explore what paint as a material is capable of has never been his interest.
Rail: That’s because he never invested much in the alchemy of paint.
Storr: Not even, just the chemistry of paint. But that’s a distinctive thing. Once that surface is built, in however many ways, whether it’s folded, jig-sawed, cut or stretched, it is the launching pad for painting activity. It’s not this thing being complete and then just sort of tinted with some random marks of paint on it.
Murray: Then it becomes a reason to start painting.
Rail: One of the things that Robert Hughes highlighted in his review of your retrospective in 1987 was his perception of your work as having the presence of the body as an oblique or obsessive object. He went on to say that you’re not a feminist artist, per se, in any ideological sense, but that your work gives a powerful sense of womanly experience. There’s an ambience of sexual comfort, protection, and maternal nurturing. But I also see it as a matter of scale: an instinctive connection between the body and the proportioning of the painting despite the fact that they are big paintings.
Storr: It sounds to me like Bob [Hughes], who has a great love for painting, has become a latter day essentialist [Laughs]—arguing Elizabeth’s paintings as Kleinian rather than Freudian! But some of the paintings in the show are very, very big. They’re twelve-feet square or thereabouts.
Rail: How about Lee Bontecou?
Storr: Elizabeth would have to answer herself in terms of what she may or may not know of Lee Bontecou and has thought about her work. But I think Bontecou in a sense has a somewhat analogous position in that she saw an opportunity sitting right there while people were trying to follow the mainstream or the big argument or trying to work out the logical next step, of which there are at least a dozen artists who followed that path, particularly in the sixties and seventies. Quite on the contrary, Bontecou didn’t think about the next step, she thought about the step in front of her. And then she took another and another step and she made a world out of a series of quite empirical decisions about what was possible and snuck up on everybody by making things that were much fresher and much more surprising—and in fact were radical—than what everybody else who had the right questions and the right answers was doing. So, I think that’s the principle relation. As far as the work itself is concerned, she is a sculpture, she is not a painter, there’s paint on occasion, but not much. Much of what she was doing was finding analogies for paint so that a grommet works for some kind of a mark and a piece of rope looks like a stray gesture. There’s some wonderful dialogue with painting, but it is sculpture. And in Elizabeth’s work, on the other hand, although it is in relief, it is essentially painting.
Murray: Yes, I think so too. But I saw her work for the first time when I was a student, in Chicago. They used to have these American Annual exhibits where they would show mostly New York artists in which her work was included. And it’s so powerful; it affected me deeply. There are some artists whose work you see and use immediately, and other artists you don’t know what to do with, but you think the experience is really great. It gets under your skin, which I think is a really strange thing to think about with her work. But the thing I liked—and this was during the time I was excited in seeing Pop Art for the first time as well, which I thought was incredible—was the dimension of an earthly kind of spirit in her work that’s both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. It’s like going into the unknown, but she was able to express it with such humble elegance. All of those things at once—though made with a real sensual understanding of the materials.
Rail: When in fact did your paintings begin to make a drastic change from the interior to the exterior, or urban experience, of the world outside?
Murray: There was a very specific period of time from 1993 to 1995 when I realized I wasn’t excited about the three-dimensionality anymore and I was also getting tired of painting that way, of having to deal with that kind of modeling or illusion. I wanted to just paint. So I did this one painting which was a completely black painting and I deliberately let it be as hokey as possible. It was such a pleasure just to paint and be able to bring my brush across a surface without having to go around the different angles and surfaces, without having to think about edges, what’s on top, on a side or underneath and so on. It was a real release and I think that was the turning point. I felt unsure of it, but there’s also a time when you realize you just have to make a move, you have to change, for me anyway. It’s just as simple a thing as being bored. One, being bored, two, realizing you don’t have any more ideas. I could work three-dimensionally again some day; I would never say I wouldn’t do it. There were a lot of factors. I was tired of having a shop and somebody working for me all the time, having to deal with that. I just wanted things to be a lot simpler in my life.
Rail: There is a change in sentiment as well. The new work to me manifests an exuberant optimism and playful spirit in spite of all the difficulties in reading Elizabeth’s personal struggles and the political climax.
Storr: They’re syncopated in a way that the earlier ones were not. They have a different kind of rhythmic quality. They move in and out of sequence, in and out of cadence visually. In addition, you are aware of spaces within the painting more so than before. In some past pictures, there’s on occasion an opened hole or a gap that made you very conscious of the interval or negative space between the forms, but now there is a lot of interstitial white space which makes your eyes pop, so that you move from a painted piece which is one color across a space which is the white of the wall to the next piece and so on, which is one of the things de Kooning talks about. When you look at Mondrian, where the black lines meet, your eye makes a compensatory white and it’s like little flashes. The same things happen in Gerhard Richter’s color charts paintings where colors meet. You get this flashing phenomenon. Part of the function or part of the way it works is with a natural eye reflex, but also when a white space surrounds that accentuates and opens up a space for that to happen. So when you really look at them, you’re looking not only at the painted object but also at all of those intervals and how they illuminate the painting in both literal and optical ways.
Rail: Do you remember, Elizabeth, the last time we saw each other we spoke at length about de Kooning?
Murray: That’s right.
Rail: We discussed his great painting “Excavation.” But also of his urban abstraction, like “Gotham News” or “Police Gazette,” and several other paintings of that mid ‘50s period which were very loud, compressed, and aggressive. Not until he moved to East Hampton did the forms open up and expand. It’s just amazing that you’re moving out from your studio into the world outdoors. I think these paintings are a testament to that. Because they’re very susceptible to the world outdoors, and the loudness. But they’re not loud in terms of aggression; they’re very playful in fact, lyrical even. When you mention the hokeyness in your work, do you mean the same sentiment of the hurly-burliness that exists in Red Groom’s large constructions? His work does have that kind of deliriously casual outwarding without being aggressive, but at the same time it’s a bit chaotic.
Storr: But his works are naturalistic and illustrational even though they’re very good, whereas Elizabeth’s forms don’t describe specific situations. They don’t have to. They create situations on their own, basically.
Murray: I enjoy his work, very very much. But it is more like a three-dimensional Robert Crumb in the way he goes, and that’s the way it is too, he doesn’t search for a way to express the forms in different kinds of ways, it doesn’t come out of that work. It’s like there’s a plan, and he executes it. And they are enormously funny.
Storr: There’s also the question of the tenure of the times, because lately people have not looked at the city, as an art subject at least, as a source of excitement and exhilaration, they tend to look at the darker side of the city, to an idea that’s increasingly monolithic. The sociology of things floating around people’s minds is not one of exhilaration. When somebody approaches it from that angle, I remember years ago when I was writing a piece for Art in America, a member of the October group was my editor, he handed me back a text I’d written about Stuart Davis, and I said in the text that having seen this show Stuart Davis makes one think that the twentieth century was not such a bad deal after all, and he handed it back to me and said, “how could you be so naïve?” Well the fact of the matter is that Stuart Davis painted in a context that was every bit as grim as the Great Depression, for heaven’s sake. It is possible for people to take an exuberant view of the world in shady times, right? And it’s sometimes much more useful to us. So when Elizabeth does this it may not be a zeitgeist but it’s an expression of the energies that the city actually does always have.
Murray: I guess it’s life, and how each person wants to portray it in his or her expressions or beliefs. Even though it’s dreadful and sad and violent and everything else, it’s life. And that’s just part of everything. Stuart Davis is a great example—another very important figure for me. Apart from the fact that I love the strength and stiffness of his brushworks, and that my favorite paintings of his are really not the landscapes so much but the still-lives—I love the Eggbeater paintings. He has exactly what Rob said. I couldn’t say it better. In the twenties and thirties, after WWI and before WWII, there was an escape thing too, like jazz was so important to him. And that’s a way of allowing yourself in terrible times to feel happiness. At the joy of sound, and nothing could be more joyful, and more excited about abstraction, than jazz.
Storr: Everybody always quotes Adorno, nowadays, so you get the most melancholic musically blocked philosophical genius of his era saying how terrible the culture industry is, and he hated jazz. Adorno hated jazz because he thought it was simply commercialization and regimented music, and bourgeoisie, capitalistic entertainment, stuff like that—well try to tell that to Father Hines or Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, it’s just sort of crazy. This attitude of forced pessimism, there’s plenty of reasons to take a dim view of the world, but forced pessimism is an intellectual habit, it’s not a better description of the real world. Why should jazz or hip-hop, or all the things that are lively, not be central to what goes on in everyday lives.
Rail: That’s how I feel about it too. One has to fight for it everyday, which I noticed in the last decade or more you have become very politically active, and very verbal, speaking out in support for those who don’t belong to the establishment. In your words: “It’s time for the other.” Do you have any advice for young artists from all walks of life?
Murray: I don’t think there’s any advice one can give, because every artist is going to do what he or she is going to do. Anyone who’s really an artist doesn’t listen to advice. Maybe practical advice. But I think the most important thing right now, and I see it happen and it pains me, is the emphasis on success and money. And there’s nothing wrong with success, you should want it, but what you want is success for your work, not your career resume. That’s power. But I think it’s gotten twisted, that the power comes from showing your work, from making money with it, and it just segues into a part of society that I think is really dangerous. Artists have gotten caught up with it, and it’s not surprising, and it’s not even wrong, but just be aware that your job is really a spiritual one, it’s not a material one.
Storr: Elizabeth, this show at the Modern is the first woman’s shown in the main room—you know if this were Las Vegas this is not the side bar, it’s the main room—since Helen Frankenthaler in 1989. Before that there was Lee Knasner, and before that there was nobody, as far as painters. But in the last decade women who were always underrepresented began to be seen more. There tends to be sculptors, photographers, conceptual artists, and why is it that you think women painters have been bypassed by the institutions, even those who have been collected in some quarters? What is it about women painters that make them so hard for the cultural apparatus to deal with?
Murray: I ask myself that question not very often, because it doesn’t serve me to even think very much about it. I think it’s because it’s a man’s world, painting. Photographers have been more successful, and they’ve been brilliant too, because there haven’t been a lot of men there first. We’ve had centuries of men who’ve painted. That is kind of considered a man’s territory. I don’t know why, because painting is so feminine in a kind of way.
Rail: Like how? [Laughs]
Murray: I’m not sure, but I think it’s a very feminine thing to do.
Rail: Is it the sensuality?
Murray: Yeah, it’s more exotic, more sensual, and warmer, it’s hot. It’s not cold, it’s really a hot kind of a thing. That and I think it’s very hard for men to see women’s paintings. They prefer to see a painting by a man. Because there is something in, um, ‘a woman’s a woman’. I think my paintings look like a woman’s painting. Even though they’re sloppy, and they have violence in them, and the thick paint and everything, the scale. I may be wrong, but I think they do look like a woman, and that a woman has painted them. Men paint differently. And I’m sticking my neck out. I love the painting; I learned how to paint by looking at “Excavation.” But I could never do it that way. It’s like, women like it slow and men like it quick.
Rail: That’s it. That explains everything.
Murray: That should get the men, shouldn’t it?
Storr: Yeah. Slam damn, thank you ma’am. I should have called the show “Elizabeth Murray: Slow Hand.”