Catherine Murphyby John Yau
Leading from the painter Catherine Murphy’s home in Poughkeepsie, New York to her studio is a beautiful path of brown sand over a field of frozen snow made by her husband the sculptor Harry Roseman. On a cold day in mid-January, the Rail spoke with Murphy in her cozy studio about the current work, which will be on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. from February 9 to March 19, 2005.
John Yau (Rail): Could you describe what you do?
Catherine Murphy: I am an observation painter. My work is about looking very intently. That is the little curve that follows me from the very early days to now. The older paintings are more journalistic, and these paintings are something else. Journalistic in so far as I was reporting on something that moved me and that I recognized as something I wanted to paint. While some of that still exists in these paintings, the difference now is that I dream of, as well as construct, an image that I want to do. As much as my paintings are very abstract, I have never called myself an abstract painter even with quotation marks around it, because the story has always been central to my wanting to make a painting. Even when it was more invisible, more a part of the mundane, it was important to me. My paintings are based on the word as well as on painting.
Rail: They are fictional, but not literary.
Murphy: They are based on observation, but the power of these setups lies in the narrative. Not literary narrative, but real narrative. Not a narrative like “Washington Crossing Delaware,” but a narrative based on metaphor. I can’t describe it to you, but it is a narrative. My god, I did “Slipped Self,” a painting of myself as a high school girl. I did a painting of what I saw of the back of people’s heads at Mass. These ideas enter my consciousness sometimes very formally and sometimes not. Sometimes, I just wake up from a dream and there it will be—this image. Then I’ll understand it’s connected to some kind of abstraction or form that I’m working through. When I think of “Blue Blanket,” for instance, that was me setting up a picnic in my dream. I woke up as I was putting the blanket down on the ground. When I saw the blanket I understood why I loved it so much formally as well, but I couldn’t say that was just a formal consideration that came out of me setting up a picnic in a dream.
Rail: Doesn’t your narrative imply the viewer?
Murphy: Yes, but it is also kind of me.
Rail: Maybe you as a generic person rather than as an autobiographical poet disclosing a revelatory anecdote.
Murphy: Absolutely. It’s me as an observer, not a storyteller.
Rail: Jasper Johns said that he saw himself painting the American flag in a dream. He didn’t say “I.” There’s a third person aspect to your work.
Murphy: Well, it’s always my eyes that I’m attuned to. “Tracks,” for instance, is me trying to sort out how I was in time. There are different subjects, but time and space are what I’m interested in.
Rail: But the space has changed. In the journalistic work, the space is more connected to the realist tradition. Then the space becomes more compressed, and everything in the painting is under an invisible pressure.
Murphy: It’s the pressure of the canvas, and of the form. I want you to understand about the power of that rectangle and how will I make you understand that if I don’t have you sense the pressure of that space.
Rail: That is true of the self-portrait where you’re looking at your reflection in the window at night.
Murphy: That little nighttime self-portrait is important to me. It was me finally understanding what I was interested in. I’ve always seen paintings as flat. Even the ones that try the hardest to be three-dimensional are flat. I want you to understand that, and I want to make a painting that is an object and a vehicle for information. How do you do both? I want it to be an object and I want you to feel the pressure of the edges. I sometimes want to define the painting through the edges, which automatically makes a kind of flatness. It’s about not lying, but about revealing. I not only want to reveal what I observe, but I want to reveal the reality of the canvas itself. I am very influenced by Robert Ryman and by minimalism. I believe in the reality of the object. I know that sounds far out.
Rail: Do you ever test your own capacity to render?
Murphy: That is only appearance. It happens, but I just see something that I want to do and nothing stops me from doing it. It isn’t about difficulty, but about concentrating. I know that’s hard to believe since I’m the lunatic that did “Swept Up,” a drawing of a dust pile. Before I start something, I say this is going to be really easy. I didn’t do “Swept Up” because it was difficult, but because it was the cosmos.
Rail: So the subject drives you?
Murphy: The subject or the form. Something drives me and then nothing stops me from doing it. Take this drawing, “Cat Scratches.” We perceive the scratches as chaos, but they are absolutely ordered. The cat has claws, which have a shape. The cat reaches a certain height. The claws fit perfectly into the ridges between the fabrics. That’s how it got scratched. So you have disorder in the order of things. Then the collision between them happens. I can’t know a drawing is going to be hard and I keep falling into things that are hard, but I never do them because they are hard. Sometimes, people will think things are hard, but they aren’t. “Red Pages” is the hardest painting I think I’ve ever done. But it was only hard because it was such a small object and I was blowing it up in perspective into a larger object. The perspective is what was difficult, not the detail. Detail is not hard, it’s just time. If time spent is not something you are going to think is important, then most things can be figured out. Some things are actually almost impossible [laughs]. That was almost impossible. Other things that are hard are actually really easy; they just take time.
Rail: Scale is also what distinguishes you from other observational painters. You change the scale of the thing perceived. Some people would say that you’re not a realist painter.
Murphy: Actually, somebody once said you don’t paint from observation. I said, I do paint from observation. He said, no you don’t because it has to be the same size. I said, ok [laughs] and walked away. Some people want to make the equation narrower, but I want to make it larger. I want to turn what I am looking at into a painting. I also want the viewer to understand that this is a painting, not life. I don’t want to make genre pictures. There’s nothing wrong with them; I don’t want to make them. Yet, they’re all still-lifes. I’m controlling the situation and that’s what a still life does. Scale is extremely important. I don’t want to blow it up until it becomes a pop billboard. I want it to be within your grasp and for you to be able to understand that it’s a private experience. Also, that it’s part of your experience and mine. It has to be connected to both experience and to making paintings.
Rail: I want to mention Rackstraw Downes. Both of you are unmannered painters, while Philip Pearlstein, for example, is a mannered painter.
Murphy: Alex Katz says that Rackstraw and I are low style painters and that he’s a high style painter.
Rail: But you rejected mannerism?
Murphy: Yes. I also rejected self-consciousness and then I stopped rejecting self-consciousness.
Rail: What do you mean?
Murphy: When I was painting things that moved me, I didn’t analyze why they moved me. I just painted them. These paintings are very self-conscious.
Rail: Did the change happen when you went to your parents’ house. There is that painting of the pill bottles.
Murphy: That happened here. The reason it happened here was that I no longer felt like I had to move. The paintings at my parents’ house were paintings that I had to record. It was written down in some ledger that I was going to be put here to make those paintings. I felt that I had to make them before they died. I was desperate to make them while I could still record my life growing up. When I left there and came here, I didn’t have to do that anymore. I said, I’m free to do what I need to do. I wanted to do something else. That happened here and I always thought it was because I wasn’t going to leave here. I had plenty of time to do what I had to do.
Rail: Is that why you don’t paint variations or revisit the same subject. There’s a reason for that.
Murphy: There is. It is very difficult to articulate. I can’t use that part of the narrative again. The form repeats itself all the time, but if I repeat a subject, I would feel like I betrayed it. So many of them come to me in dreams. So many as gifts, that I can’t betray it. Nobody questions a poet’s desire not to repeat herself. Nobody said to Elizabeth Bishop, that poem is really good. Give me ten variations on it. That’s how much the subject means to me. I might draw something and then think I need that to be a painting. But it will change enough so that it won’t be the same thing. It is intrinsic to who and what I am. My whole being won’t let me do that. It’s not that I don’t think you can make great paintings this way. But I can’t do it.
Rail: John Ashbery said that in her poems Bishop recognizes that she’s part thought and part thing. That’s something you two share. Meanwhile, you said your paintings come from dreams?
Murphy: Many, many do. “Tracks,” however, was observation. Walking to the studio everyday, one day I stepped off the path and thought; it’s two horizontal lines. Then I looked up and there were vapor trails from a plane. I felt like someone shot me. The minute it happened, I knew that it had to be close up and far away, that it would be two panels, and the crack would be the horizon.
Rail: I believe Johns said, sometimes I see it and then I do it, other times I do it and then I see it.
Murphy: That’s exactly right. The best thing about being a painter: You can get to things deep in your consciousness, where your sub-consciousness was all along.
Rail: You mentioned being influenced by Ryman. Who are some other artists you feel influenced by?
Murphy: Bob and Sylvia Mangold. I’m always having small arguments with lots of modern artists, but also historical ones. I’m a great lover of Rogier van der Weyden. His “The Descent From The Cross” has to be the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced other then my own work [laughs]. You know it’s an argument for the actual object. It’s the only Flemish painting that I know of that is life size. You can walk into that painting. It is both an actual looking and painting experience.
Rail: Isn’t the painting that you did of Harry (Roseman) sitting nude, with you painting him, an allusion to Velasquez’s “Las Meninas,” among other things?
Murphy: There are many paintings in my consciousness. When I started that painting, it was because Harry had been working on a self-portrait for something like twelve years. I finally said, I just have to do this. When I set up the painting, sure I was thinking of Velasquez. I wanted to describe the object from many different angles, as well as reveal both the action and mirrored space. These things become part of your vocabulary, but they are part of everyone’s vocabulary. However, I speak too lightly. This might be generational. I don’t know if it’s part of everyone’s vocabulary. I’m aware from teaching that a different argument is coming to the fore.
Rail: Along with not having a style, you also don’t have a palette.
Murphy: I do have a palette; it’s the primaries. I just mix all my colors. You know, style is inevitable. I just don’t have a conscious style. I was taught in the language of Cézanne, but through the eyes of Abstract Expressionism. That was a big part of my vocabulary. By the time I was leaving school, the brushstroke was bankrupt. I could make very pretty brushstrokes, but they had no electrical meaning for me.
Rail: You did a painting at Pratt that reminds me of Diebenkorn. You said, once I did this, I couldn’t do it anymore.
Murphy: I couldn’t. I was tired of the tradition of people thinking that paint was something that you had to see and that it had to come out of a kind of expression. You don’t see brushstrokes in Vermeer. If you get up close you can see how he made his mark. For me it was all about ego. It’s not that I don’t have a very healthy ego. I just wanted to say, is it sill a painting if I take that all away?
Rail: What about photorealism?
Murphy: I’m not interested in it conceptually. It couldn’t keep my attention. The reason I paint is because I want to be part of the world, and I don’t know how else to do it. I’m not sociable, I’m kind of a recluse. I think that art is one of the only good things humans can do.
Rail: Weren’t you in school when many decided that painting was dead?
Murphy: Painting has died so many times that I’ve never taken it seriously. My joke is that I’ll become the last great stained glass maker [laughs]. Painting will die when people don’t put up walls anymore.
Rail: Let’s talk about your drawings. You’ve used graphite, which is dust, to draw dust. In your drawing of a paper bag, you draw paper on paper. It’s self-conscious, but you don’t proclaim it.
Murphy: My great desire is to make it all seamless. I want to bring everything to a pitch so that they all become one thing. There may be some irony, but it is never vicious. There’s self-consciousness, and irony is always implied in self-consciousness.
Rail: The self-consciousness of observing the thing.
Murphy: I love drawing. When you’re painting from observation, you’re mixing paint all the time. When I draw, I have a pencil in one hand, an eraser in the other, and a piece of paper. It’s far less anxious and also very final. It’s also taught me everything I know about color. Once you do twelve drawings and you have to understand the tone of something very carefully, you have honed your senses tremendously. I’m glad you noticed those things because that’s why they are drawings rather than paintings. That’s how I decide something is a drawing rather than a painting. First, it has to be in black and white. Also, lots of times, it has to be about itself.
Rail: Which is why the paintings are humorous in a generous way. Take the painting of a balloon floating against the ceiling of a girl’s room. It’s a ball of air stuck in a box.
Murphy: That’s one of the funniest paintings I’ve ever done [laughs].
Rail: But the painting isn’t anecdotal.
Murphy: No, no, it’s that my life is always ubiquitous in my paintings. I believe that you find what’s true in your self and you reach other people.
Rail: In “Hole,” you see something complete, but also shadows coming in from beyond. It’s about both the painting and that the painting is part of the world.
Murphy: That’s right. That’s very important. Also in my paintings, often something has happened and you’re looking at it after the fact. The photograph has slipped. The t-shirt’s been ripped. Something has happened and you get to see it. It’s about finding that place where action is implied. Naturally, in the world, when action happens, a moment of stillness accompanies it. There is a yin and yang, a reaction to the reaction. I want to get the moment when that action happened. The silence is as big as the portent of the action. I like questions hanging in the air.
Rail: Isn’t narrative also about mortality?
Murphy: Yes, it’s pressing down hard.
Rail: Before we started the interview, you mentioned how all your paintings are erotic.
Murphy: Sometimes they are not erotic, but they are always sensual. There’s a word that means you feel it with your eyes, haptic. I want you to feel everything so that you actually go down into the tactile, like the scarf and the hair. I want it to be physically described.
Rail: So it goes beyond image.
Murphy: Absolutely. The story that I want to tell is far more physically connected than it was when I was younger. In “Hole,” I want you to feel the secret, warm place under the snow. It’s not dire, but secret. That’s about reality and experience, and it’s not the same as painting what I see. I want to paint more than that. It’s very difficult for me to have gone this way. It takes a lot to get to where I’m satisfied enough with the whole enterprise to actually paint it.
Rail: What you want to paint is a particularized experience. When you decide you’re going to paint it, you have to throw out all doubts.
Murphy: The voices in your head say: You’re painting a crucifix, you’re painting your husband’s nipple. What are you thinking? What will people think about that? You have to throw it all out. I am an instinctual painter in many ways. It has a logic, but it’s the logic of instinct more than anything else. I feel drawn to certain things that I can’t be talked out of. I had to go back and paint my parents’ backyard. I had to paint my husband’s nipple. I don’t know why. You know, I am really very happy when people can connect with my work, then I do believe what’s always driven me.
Rail: Your paintings are observational but not public. They’re of a photograph that has slipped off one nail, a hole in the ground, your husband’s nipple. They’re unapologetic, but not eccentric. There is something everyday about it.
Murphy: A real moment in my life was when I realized that I was editing myself according to other peoples’ desires. I think that’s a great moment in everyone’s life. You have an image of yourself. First of all, you have to construct an image of yourself. You have to drag yourself out of where you come from and make yourself an artist. You construct this image of what you think an artist is. The moment you become one, you realize you have to throw that out, and get back to the construction and find out what you actually are. Having reached a place of safety, you can feel free to get down to who you are. As a teacher and as a painter, I think that advancement is a waste of time. Thinking of yourself in a constructed way is a waste of time. I don’t historicize myself. I pray I never do. I never say I’m a realist, so I have to do this.
Rail: You’re a painter without an agenda.
Murphy: The only agenda is to not be afraid to follow that voice. When I wake up at four in the morning and lie in bed, the voice that says don’t do it is not there. You can go where you need to go.
Rail: Wallace Stevens challenged people to live in the world but outside any preconceptions of it.
Murphy: Right. I don’t want to stress the story. I don’t know where the story comes from. I am also responding to my own reading of the history of painting, which I am thrilled to be a part of. Even in the smallest way, I am a completely committed believer in what has preceded me.
Rail: Are you’re a formalist?
Murphy: Well, I like taking the painting apart, thinking about the possibilities of form, and about time. I love thinking about the combination of flatness and space, and about what that means. The story is important to me and time is part of that story, how we read it. Flatness is a flat painting about the present tense. Depth implies both the future and past. The reason why just flat paintings are not enough is because there’s no conscience without the past and no hope without the future. I need to imply space in these paintings, because that’s where the past and the future lie. I want past, present and future implied in the paintings.
Rail: There’s a philosophical side to your paintings.
Murphy: Absolutely. One way or the other, what I believe about the world is finally what I’m painting. There will be things I reject, but it’s not because I can’t paint them. Rather I’m not interested in that idea of the world. First of all, I wanted to make paintings about inclusion, not just about myself. I wanted to make paintings about the whole world. I’m a blue-collar girl from outside of Boston, who wants to include the whole world, to make paintings about my father’s life that would hang in museums. That’s a very simple desire.
Rail: You’re not painting high class or low class, but you are class conscious.
Murphy: It’s about my experience and the people I know. The only way I can experience the rooms in “Red Pages” is because they’re in a magazine. I wanted to take the photograph and put it in time and space. This is the only way I could paint it. That’s really about class. What else is that about?
Rail: In America, there is this notion that people can invent themselves, and that the invention can be a form of amnesia.
Murphy: That’s an illusion. Essentially we’re servants. You realize that very quickly.
Rail: All painters. All artists.
Murphy: But not poets.
Rail: There’s the painting you did of the two black, plastic garbage bags in the snow. I remember thinking, you’re supposed to take the garbage out, not bring it in.
Murphy: Really and truly, I looked at those garbage bags and I saw taffeta dresses. It was so thrilling to paint the light on those garbage bags. They were taffeta dresses. It wasn’t even me thinking that I was painting garbage bags as much as two taffeta dresses.
Rail: And the painting is not sarcastic.
Murphy: Absolutely. Whatever it is, I’m going to make you understand that somehow it’s a beautiful object or thing.
Rail: Velasquez paints both the dwarves and princesses beautifully.
Murphy: Spanish painters in general do it all the time. It gives me license.
Rail: The painting of magazine pages is beautiful.
Murphy: It’s always my intention to show how some things move me. I’m not moved through pity or ugliness. The garbage bags are beautiful because they’re sitting in pristine snow. That blackness and that whiteness make it a beautiful object. The other thing that I recognized about painting from observation is that the subject carries such weight with the rest of the world. The subject is enormous. If I were going to paint like this in order to say that this story isn’t enormous, I would be lying.