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A Tribute to Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007)

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui

Elizabeth meant the world to me. My father worked in a factory and I grew up in front of the television. I had no idea what being an artist was about. I met Elizabeth because I had a terrible job demolishing her sheet rock walls and putting them in a dumpster—the lowest rung on the construction ladder. We got to talking and liked each other, and she told me that she needed someone to make her stretchers. She was making flat irregularly shaped paintings and I helped her transition to the overlapping and interweaving works. I spent five formative years in her home and studio while she unselfconsciously showed me what an artist’s life can be.  On a normal day, I had a baby in one arm and a hammer in the other. That wouldn’t be my path, but made abundantly clear to me the fact of how art comes out of life, and that you had better pay attention.

Robert Gober

We who have loved Elizabeth are blessed to have had this time, the last two and a half years since her horrifying diagnosis—to be able to show her how much we loved her and to say goodbye. We’re so grateful to Bob and the family for making this possible for us to visit and help with some care-giving. Even so, I’m now feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of her loss. I feel like a huge part of my own personal history has gone with her; or maybe I’m just beginning to notice that I’m actually 64? War babies, we grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. No TV. We listened to radio, read borrowed books from the library. Our parents went to nightclubs and loved swing. Our mothers wore hats and gloves. We were there for the birth of rock & roll and survived the ’60s. A lot of us didn’t.

Elizabeth was a very great human being and a very great artist and in her case these things were truly inseparable. There was no division between her life and her painting. We first met in Detroit in 1972. I was 29 and I guess she would have been 31. I was in graduate school—Wayne State University. Had started at Wayne in 1961, and was clearly a slow learner. I worked, studied part time, worked, dropped out. Spent a year and a half in the nut house. Lived in San Francisco from 1964-67. Left there the weekend of the Monterey pop festival, feeling like a failure at hipness. Although by then things in California were just beginning to turn ugly. Back to Detroit and back to school. Things had changed a lot in Detroit when I got back.  Finished my undergraduate stuff, got an MA and was at the end of an MFA. In 1972 Jennifer Bartlett was invited as the first visiting artist to come to Wayne—a program that the art department’s youngest professor—a great hire, abstract painter John Egner, fresh from Yale—proposed and oversaw. (Thanks, John! Other art departments should take note of how important these visiting programs can be) but Jennifer—so smart and trippy and hyper articulate—was aviation phobic and frequently sent Elizabeth in her stead. Elizabeth was this fun, modest, soft voice, gentle young woman with a ready smile and luminiuos, clear gaze. Even then she was already the whole entire big gigantic person she has always been, and it was love at first sight for both of us. We of course thought we were sophisticated women of the world, had loved and suffered—well, that’s true we had. We were feminists. You had to be. Though we rejected the kind of programmatic feminism that wanted to create rules about what women’s art was supposed to look like. Vaginal imagery. Hand craft. Embroidery. It’s actually interesting to see now that artists like Alan Shields and Richard Tuttle were also early on doing the beading, staining and embroidery. I had decided when I was 19 that Art is the Hermaphrodite—Hermes Trismegistus, and that everyone has to draw on both their male and female sides to be a great artist.  We wanted to duke it out with the big boys, toe to toe. I can see now that we were complete innocent loons. What did we know then, of the love and suffering that was yet to come? Cascades and waterfalls of it. I was able to move to NY in the summer of 1973 because of the kindness and generosity of Mike Goldberg—another visiting artist who came to Wayne. He gave me the keys to his loft on the Bowery while he and Lyn went to Italy and I’m eternally grateful to him. I arrived with $300. Elizabeth and her son Dakota lived on Cooper Square—5th Street and the Bowery. We saw each other every day and went to the corner to nurse a beer and hear Thelonius Monk most nights. Wow! She was always so brave and also hilarious. Wicked too.

The ’70s was a magical time to be in New York, largely because there was virtually no money and no art market. The city was also much rougher then, and a whole lot dirtier. Still illegal to live in lofts. We were all so poor and so idealistic. There were so many truly fascinating people, so many ideas, so much invention. Very individualistic and very disparate work being made. The beginnings and extensions of much performance, video, conceptualism, and a moment as well of hybridizations of all these possibilities. Painting and sculpture had never been so close together. The downtown scene was so small then—so few galleries, dance parties seemed to happen somewhere every weekend. Early post-minimalism, I suppose—a very broad rubric. I just remember how much fun we had and how hard we worked. In and out of each other’s studios a lot. Everybody knew each other and that was a family. Nobody thought they were going to get rich at this. The company of serious women artists was very important to me. Now that time and place seems to be the complete dark side of the moon. Invisible.

Also, in that decade many schools art departments had begun to notice (perhaps because of much screaming and marching) how few women, if any, they had on their faculties, and that one quick remedy might be to invite woman as visiting artists from New York. Elizabeth and I both taught a lot in those days, and over the years we talked a lot about how to teach. Without question, the best place that Elizabeth and I taught in the later ’70s was CalArts, mostly because of John Baldessari—an early feminist himself!

I want to say what a terrific teacher Elizabeth always was and why I think she was so good. First of all, Elizabeth had such a strong inner core of certainty, a moral compass, and a very large view of art. She had a William James-ian American pragmatist acceptance and belief in the realities of her own experience. She really seemed to know what was right, and that one must take responsibility for one’s life in a very profound way. She believed implicitly that if you have a gift it’s your duty to develop it fully and set your sights as high as possible. Impatient with conformity and ‘isms,’ she was unusually quick to recognize other people’s originality, and would encourage it with generosity and enthusiasm. This was by no means just some kind of blanket niceness. She really saw if something was original, right on the money. She didn’t want disciples. I think she could do this because she was not competitive. She was wildly ambitious, of course, had hugely high standards, but remained a perfectionist; rather than being competitive. Smart, quirky, and extremely inventive visually.

I used to quote Emerson to her “Language is a city to the construction of which, every human being has carried a stone.” We both believed honestly that art is not a foot race, that each of us has our part to add to the conversation—the very long conversation that is art history (There’s a part of this that may well have to do with growing up Catholic, being very devout and mystical as children. As little girls we both wanted to be saints. Elizabeth has done a far better job with this than I. Our families also both had changeable and sliding fortunes, which often resulted in much drama, uncertainty, and poverty at times. Unconventional parents. Early on we learned to fend for ourselves.) Her advice to me over the years was always, “Stick to your guns and fuck the rest of it.” And regarding reviews, “If you don’t believe them when they’re bad, you can’t possibly believe them when they’re good.”

Elizabeth was extremely nurturing, compassionate, and maternal; a wonderful mother, a wonderful friend. She was also a total activist, a great champion of social justice. Tremendously and tirelessly compassionate, philanthropic with limited means. A marcher. A picketer. She was also a dedicated bohemian radical who cared very little for worldly success. She cared about painting, poetry, music, other artists, and that difficult struggle that we all share, the life of the mind and the imagination. She was particularly kind, mentoring and supportive of other young women artists.

The challenge of Modernism as we understood it when we were coming up—the straight line to where we found ourselves as young artists came through Cezanne, Matisse. Picasso, synthetic Cubism—to Gorky and de Kooning. It was nothing less than a requirement to invent new morphologies, entirely new vocabularies—the reformation of form. Pretty daunting, that demand, but in my view, Elizabeth was an absolute Modernist who marched forward to create a whole universe of flexible, fungible abstract vocabulary as well as symbolic forms that could speak any story: a meditation, a demonstration of the raucous, sublime, quotidian, daily, domestic. Tough and unflinching. Masculine and feminine. The war between the sexes and sex between the sexes—love death, memory. The splayed table and the bed. The dog beneath the table, the dog  howling at the moon. The weeping skull on top of the table, the body and its Plastic Man extensions into horns and funnels, the hot water bottle. The biggest shoe and its journey. Labyrinths. Doors to open or close. All of life is in there. She also did this during the decades when the prevailing discourse declared that this task was impossible to accomplish. We were Post-Minimalists but never Post-Modernists. I think her achievement is immense and only beginning to be understood. The late, last paintings are so profound, unflinching, humane. A danse macabre in the face of so much pain, sorrow, grief.  They are breathtakingly heroic.

I am so blessed to have had her as a friend, a confidante, and always an inspiration and example of a life in art so well and truly lived.

—Ellen Phelan

Although I’ve been a great admirer of Elizabeth’s work ever since I saw her first retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1988—one year after I left art school—we didn’t actually meet until I visited her studio in 2004 when, as a pretext to the visit, we talked about our favorite de Kooning from 1955, “Excavation,” and also the Picasso and Braque show from 1989 at MoMA: “Pioneering Cubism.” This conversation led to my subsequent visit with Rob Storr, around the time of her retrospective in September 2005, for an interview which was printed the following month in the Rail. I remember talking to Elizabeth about her love for Cézanne, which brought us to Picasso’s well-known remark, “What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety—that’s Cézanne’s lesson.” 

I felt that Elizabeth’s identifications with both Cézanne and de Kooning had broadened my understanding of her work. One senses her deep admiration for Cézanne’s most arduous ambition to overcome his lack of natural dexterity, and his desire for gradually building-up an inner substance that would survive perpetual doubts and anxieties (The conversation between Cézanne and Emile Bernard about the protagonist Frenhofer from Balzac’s philosophical novel, The Unknown Masterpiece, comes to mind. Frenhofer attempts the impossible—to unify line, that of Neo-Classicism such as Ingres, and color, like that of Romantics such as Delacroix—and, in the end, destroys his painting out of frustration. When this story was mentioned in Cézanne’s presence, he stood up from a table and began to strike his chest with his index finger, “C’est moi, Frenhofer!”) Elizabeth was also very much aware of de Kooning’s impoverished condition that lasted until his fifties (Unlike Cézanne, de Kooning did not come from a banking family that allowed him to paint full-time for all of his life). At the age of 24, three years before she moved to New York in 1967, she painted a large painting called Poverty that, to me, recalls Picasso’s 1903 The Blindman’s Meal, and certainly anticipates her enthusiasm for the urban funkiness of the Bowery, as well as her personal homage to de Kooning. In the next few decades, like a dry sponge, she absorbed all the juices of paintings that she had seen in New York, from Gorky, Guston, Al Held, Roy Lichenstein, Brice Marden, Charles Hinman, Ron Gorchov, Ralph Humphrey, to Jennifer Bartlett, Ellen Phelan and many others of her contemporaries.

However, unlike Cézanne and de Kooning, whose eventual moves to the countryside decidedly informed their late paintings; Elizabeth’s work stayed on course with the vital energy and jazziness of New York City. Even as her health declined in the last few years, her appetite and enthusiasm for life only grew stronger. When I think of “The Sun and the Moon,” or “The Lowdown” and “Do the Dance,” or the very last painting I saw the other week in her studio, I think of them as her own way of undoing Mondrian’s vision of rectilinear structure of the city. Elizabeth reclaimed the visceral sense of the body, and made her painting a conduit for her own vulnerability—one that could only emanate from a profound investment in the truth that, as she said in her last interview with Rob Storr in reference to her husband: “There’s nothing like being in love.”

On the behalf of the Rail, I’d like to send our deepest love and condolences to her soul-mate Bob Holman, their children, Dakota, Sophie, Daisy, and their extended family.

Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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