Elizabeth Murray: Back in Town
On ViewUB Anderson Gallery
June 12 – October 3, 2021
In most chronologies detailing Elizabeth Murray’s remarkable life, there might be one, maybe two, sentences footnoting her formative stint (1965–67) in Buffalo, New York—the last of three moves (Chicago–Oakland–Buffalo) before she settled in New York City. Why Buffalo? Perhaps she thought that Western New York was conveniently accessible to Manhattan? That would have been wishful thinking. What Buffalo offered was a respectable job at Rosary Hill, a Catholic women’s college (now Daemen College), where the 25-year-old graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Mills College, recently married to the sculptor Don Sunseri, honed her teaching skills. A photograph of Murray, dressed in a plaid shirt and white blouse, leaning over two students who are drawing, is one of the many archival gems featured in Back in Town, the homecoming exhibition organized by Robert Scalise and Jason Andrew at the University of Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery.
Other archival photographs document Murray’s no-frills basement studio at 77 Woodlawn Avenue on Buffalo’s east side, where an anomalous species of painted sculptures, cobbled together from cloth, wood, rope, paper, and other discarded materials, hang from the ceiling and off the walls. These were clearly exploratory years. A lot of experimental work got made over a short period, but, sadly, not much of it remains. Apparently, some of what ended up out on the curb, when the couple departed, was rescued by curious neighbors. What the artist did retain (now part of The Murray-Holman Family Trust) set the tone for this enlightening survey.
N. H. Lockwood (1964), Wheel, Portrait of Einstein & Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1963), and A Mirror (1964), all canvas on panels layered with cloth, paint, glass, and collage, when considered with Murray’s three-dimensional objects, defer to Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures and assemblages, as an invitation to push what painting and sculpture could be, without feeling self-conscious about the craft of perfection. The question of influence with someone like Murray is relative, particularly after she lands in Manhattan. Like any artist trying to figure out who they are in a new environment, she tuned in, covered the scene, and gleaned what she needed. Good-bye Ruby Tuesday (1967), Ohhh… You’ll Never Get to Heaven (1969), and Broken Dreams (1970), perhaps the most illustrative paintings she ever made, draw on her earlier infatuation with comic books, the tawdry Pop of Chicagoans Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, and Ed Paschke, and what appears to be an uneasiness about the metropolis. There’s something disturbingly incongruous about a phallic Empire State Building—engulfed in flames, leaning like the tower of Pisa, and severed in two—in the context of a romantic couple, or a pastoral landscape, framed by jack and the beanstalk vegetation and fairytale teddy bears. Dreams of conquest, ambition, love? Apocalyptic nightmares from the dark side? Whatever ambivalence shadowed these welcome-to-New-York tableaux was eventually sublimated into polymorphous abstractions that retain a playful, at times sardonic humor, symbolic armature, and protean invention. Even the most minimal composition included in the exhibition, Black Painting from 1974, side-steps conceptual rigor for heuristic discovery.
Though light on work from the 1970s, Back in Town does ample justice to Murray’s reinvention of painting during the 1980s and 1990s. 96 Tears (1986), 2. B. ! (1990), Sandpaper Fate (1992–93), Moonbeam (1995–96), Riverbank (1997), and Red Corner (1999) are unabashedly hybrid, part to part: jigsaw constructions whose sanded and painted skins coalesce into sculptural characters jostling indeterminate space. (A kindred group of sketches displayed in a vitrine on the Gallery’s second floor, along with a selection of print editions, illuminate Murray’s creative process and graphic collaborations.) Compared to the sophisticated construction of Frank Stella’s contemporaneous reliefs, Murray’s appear handmade and quirky, at times a little awkward. I always appreciated this clumsy quality when I first encountered her surreal polyptychs at the SoHo incarnation of the Paula Cooper Gallery. Their eccentric curves and biomorphic bones felt vulnerable, touchingly human. Illusionistic cuts and striations on several of the canvases at Anderson recall Fontana, with the same unsettling implications. In many paintings from this period a lot happens along the edges, at the periphery of perception, where a flurry of process overrides finish. Was she channeling Brice Marden? Exposed borders not only extend spatially but keep the gestalt in flux.
The last decade of Murray’s life, as represented by Midnight Special (2000), The New World (2006), and Everybody Knows (2007), feels upbeat and ominous in equal measure. The calligraphic clarity of the late work makes it easy to read. Characters square off, connect and disconnect. Shapes set off by interstitial space breathe easily. Murray’s unique lexicon is by now in full play. Colors are saturated, intensified, keyed up. The work naturally feels buoyant, but comic overtones don’t necessarily mitigate somber undertones. By this time, Murray had mastered a symbolic language, knowing full well that symbols, like dreams, are ambiguous and unpredictable. Her notion of painting accepted truth as a question with no definitive answer.
Back in Town is accompanied by a 84-page illustrated catalogue, with an introduction by Robert Scalise, an essay by Jason Andrew, a conversation with Natessa Amin, Math Bass, and Rachel Eulena Williams, a poem, “Back in Town,” by Bob Holman, and a monologue for Elizabeth Murray, “Fun-House Mirror,” by Anne Waldman.