The Arts Club of Chicago
September 21 – November 20, 2009
Even though it covers more than 25 years, this exhibition of Elizabeth Murray’s work is neither a retrospective nor a survey. (It is, however, the first show in her hometown since her death in 2007.) Five of the 11 paintings are from the first half of the 1980s, and four are from the last seven years of her life. The remaining two—a significant painting from 1991 and a pretty good one from 1998—are left to represent the 15 years in the middle. While the split in the show’s chronology may over-emphasize the familial connections between the earliest and the latest paintings that are included, the full-circle moment that it generates emphasizes the visual generosity and idiosyncratic personality of Murray’s work. This is likely why I found this exhibition much more satisfying than the 2005 MoMA retrospective in which her paintings seemed to struggle over and over not only with awkward room configurations or just a lack of space, but also sometimes with each other. Maybe, however, it’s helpful to have witnessed the all-too-public reunion of a dysfunctional family in order to understand how significant it is when some of them do get along somewhere else.
The earliest and latest paintings alluded to above—“Back on Earth” (1981) and “Everybody Knows” (2007)—are installed across from each other in the first room of the exhibition. At first glance it looks like a face-off between a dignified elder sister and a very much younger, bratty brother. The former balances a curved canvas against an angular one, slightly touching here and there to establish a physical as well as a pictorial connection: the dominant image is one of Murray’s trademark tables come to life, with two of its black arm-like legs still up in the “sky” of the curved (green) canvas while the rest of its body has just landed on the “ground” of the angular (blue) canvas. (The brilliant color swap between sky and ground is just one of the many sight gags found throughout her work.) As action-packed as it sounds, the painting achieves a unified state of grace with its high-flying balancing act.
The latter painting, on the other hand, is utter discombobulation. Representative of Murray’s return to her roots, it is a mash-up of separately built jigsaw forms painted in acidic colors: a bald and broken cartoon bruiser in the lower right corner, a one-eyed red monster belching a speech bubble of green gas spliced by a red zigzag worm, and a series of red and black “X’s” in a yellow squiggle (of artificial light?) across the top. It’s quite another circus act, all elbows, if you will, but in its present company—the other paintings in the room are “Fire Cup” (1982) and “Hey Madge” (2001-02)—the similarities far outweigh the differences. During these two periods of her work, Murray’s ability to fit—and keep—things together emerges as an unwavering moral imperative in her open-minded and open-handed approach to the contradictions of painting. In the end, it’s her attitude that sticks.
In the second room, Murray’s table gets a workout, becoming such a character at some moments that it’s tempting to read it as a self-portrait. For example, in “Picture-Crack Up” (1985), it finds itself rather small and in pieces (yet still somehow together as an image) dancing with green balloons in a corner of a red (rubber?) room. The painting is both ecstatic and foreboding, with two of the shaped canvases’ four corners literally folded forward as if it could collapse in on itself. In “Table Turning” (1982-83), the protagonist is oversized, like in “Back on Earth,” and given the illogical location of its legs it must be dancing. (Hence the title’s “turntable” pun, which is reinforced by the inclusion of oversized LP records.) Both of these paintings also display the extremes of Murray’s paint handling: rife with stains and drips around their unprimed edges, the effect is as exuberant as it is grungy. No matter how far Murray would let the work go, she always grounded it in the end, not as punishment, but in order to reinforce what can only be called the humanity of her work.
This is what makes the painting from 1991 so important. Called “Wishing for the Farm,” it is in some ways the most self-contained in the show. Depicting again a corner of a room, this time the scene is completely alien, involving, among other things, a bulbous white worm. Despite the blatant sense of alienation, what struck me the most about this painting is that it is also like a jigsaw puzzle, but in this case the pieces fit together perfectly. Here, in this incredibly moving show, I’ll take the bait and read too much into this: maybe you can go home again.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.