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Featured work: EM's "Druid" (1979)

By Jason Andrew, Estate Curator

When she arrived in New York City in 1967, Elizabeth Murray found a completely different art scene than she expected. Her heroes were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenberg—the titans of Pop Art. “I got here and there was this whole other thing happening,”[1] she said. That “whole other thing” was: Minimalism.

Murray recalled that the word on the street was, “Haven’t you heard? Painting is dead!” But she thought, “Oh really? Well, to hell with that. I’m painting.”[2]

It was a trying time for Murray, one that made her rethink her entire approach to art making. “At that point I was so confused. I was trying to paint and look at all this stuff and deal with my life. I was married. I got pregnant the second year I was here which I loved. I was very happy about it. Everything was very personal and I had a few friends who were more out there than I was, who were really very ambitiously working to be the young person who got the next best idea. And I was totally out of that. I was really shocked at how hard it was and how intimidated I felt […] I thought when I got to New York I would just be happy to be in New York working. Instead, I really sensed my competitive nature but I saw how out of it I was.”[3]

1971 was a turning point. Elizabeth describes that for the first time in several years she went out for art supplies and stocked up on oil paints. There was something about the physicality of oil paint—the process and the potential. “Changing from acrylic back to oils re-grounded her paintings and slowed her down,” wrote Roberta Smith.[4] And Murray’s inclusion in the Whitney Annual of ’72 signaled she was on the right track.

Murray began looking inward, seeking out emotion and structuring it through color. Between ’74 and ’77, Murray explained, she was truly hitting her stride. “It seemed like I really got myself grounded in a way,” she said, “and I cleared the decks. I felt that the work was […] focusing on the structure and I began to work with the shapes and focusing on the paint and thinking in very simple terms about what a painting could be. In a way, as dumb or as simple as possible. But then what started to happen was the form thing began to be boring.”[5]

For Murray, formality quickly turned into a series of rote devices. “Instead of it being learning, it was all stuff I knew,” she said, “So what I began to do was not give up the formal structure but sort of throw more things in. And then it just began to be more and more decorative. And then I think the shapes started to show me that they became real things. I’d be able to have the abstraction of a shape and then an image could go into that abstract-anything structure and give it this other element. Make this other thing happen in the painting.”[6]

Rolling Ball, 1975–76, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio. Gift of RSM Co. (1984.242)

Rolling Ball, 1975–76, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio. Gift of RSM Co. (1984.242)

“Rolling Ball,” 1975-76 (Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum) is an example of a work that bridges the ideas of Elizabeth’s earlier work while foretelling the critical importance that shape or shapes would play in the structural evolution of her maturing work.

In an effort to both accept and reject the formal, Elizabeth began to modify the actual shape of her canvases moving away from traditional pictorial space of a rectangle or square. She started simply at first, tilting her compositions as in paintings like “Falling,” 1976, and “Searchin’,” 1976-77, but as Murray became more and more obsessed with the “edges” of her paintings, she began to deliberately design the canvases in a specific shape such as in works like “Harry,” 1976, and “Desire,” 1976.

Installation of Murray's first one-person exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, November 2-27, 1976 featuring (L to R): Harry, 1976, Back, 1976, Rolling Ball, 1975-76, and Rise, 1976. Photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery Archive.

Installation of Murray's first one-person exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, November 2-27, 1976 featuring (L to R): Harry, 1976, Back, 1976, Rolling Ball, 1975-76, and Rise, 1976. Photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery Archive.

In 1978, Murray’s painting “One or Two Things,” 1974, was featured on the cover of the February issue of Artforum. It’s a simple square painting, diagonally divided in half in red and green. At its near center, an orange circle sits at the border between the two colors. In the featured article, critic Donald Kuspit acknowledged Murray’s minimalist roots sighting, “There are Malevichean and Nolandish moments, as well as more generally systemic and Minimalist and, more guardedly, expressionist looks—some obvious, some impacted, all summary.” He then elaborated on how Murray was setting a new precedent in the structure and introducing emotion in her seemingly geometric work. “Where regularity of canvas is the rule, the accents enlarge and become eccentric, as if humorously to insist on irrationality whatever the rule and however much that irrationality, that sense of strange, primitive form, must be included rather than trusted to arise spontaneously.”[7]

Murray’s painting now seemed to be leading the conversation of the arts scene. “By the mid- and late-1970s,” wrote the curator Richard Marshall in his essay for the exhibition “American Art Since 1970” at the Whitney Museum, “painting had moved further away from the confines of the Minimalist approach—even from a negative reaction to it—and the artists [Jennifer Bartlett, Vija Celmins, Lois Lane, Neil Jenney, Bill Jensen and Elizabeth Murray] inaugurated new ways to treat subject matter and meaning […] there emerged a move against an insular, elitist attitude towards art and what it is, should be, or must be […] artists began to look at more diverse visual repertory: commercial art, advertising, fashion, television and movies, popular culture, the decorative arts, rugs, religion, ancient artifacts, and Middle Eastern Cultures.”[8]

This move was particularly true of Murray who explained that at the time, “I was reading books about Gestalt therapy and I was reading a lot about Zen at the time. Very briefly, I got involved in Japanese Buddhism and Za-Zen. That was the spiritual thing in a way that was an influence to it but it was also very much from just looking at the Minimalists.” Murray sought to personalize her art. “I really needed something to settle me down and some kind of a plate to put this stuff on.” She realized that she had “a real desire for structure and for order. But also the chaos of the feelings feels like the thing that has to be in there. I think it’s totally emotional. For the emotions to be seen you have to have a format.”[9]

The drawing on the left "September," 1979, pastel and charcoal on paper, 38 1/4 x 40 3/4 in. (97.2 x 103.5 cm), is likely the inspiration for the massive green petal-like shape found in "Druid," 1979 (right).

The drawing on the left "September," 1979, pastel and charcoal on paper, 38 1/4 x 40 3/4 in. (97.2 x 103.5 cm), is likely the inspiration for the massive green petal-like shape found in "Druid," 1979 (right).

“Druid” was painted in 1979 along with two other similarly sized cross-shaped canvases titled “Try” and “Twist of Fate.” The three paintings mark a singular occurrence by the artist in that this seems to be the only time Murray worked within a series. A pastel drawing made the same year titled “September” offers insight into Murray’s gestural yet focused process and also into the evolution of the massive petal-like shape that is aggressively marked into existence. A red pastel line playfully lassos the shape seemingly reining it in. Murray, who was never known to transfer directly her ideas expressed in drawings to canvas, offers a more defined petal-like shape in “Druid," and a rigid dark blue line circumnavigates the shape securing the composition into place. It's exciting to see how the shape morphs from one painting to the next until its four petals become distinct bodies in "Twist of Fate." All three paintings were likely completed in the late fall of 1979 ("Twist of Fate" is dated verso December 1979).

L to R: "Druid" with "Try," 1979, Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 54 1/2 in. (133.4 x 138.4 cm) Collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Gift of Dr. Karl and Mrs. Jennifer Salatka) and "Twist of Fate," 1979, Oil on canvas, 56 1/4 x 54 1/2 in. (142.9 x 138.4 cm), Private collection courtesy Pace Gallery, New York.

L to R: "Druid" with "Try," 1979, Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 54 1/2 in. (133.4 x 138.4 cm) Collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Gift of Dr. Karl and Mrs. Jennifer Salatka) and "Twist of Fate," 1979, Oil on canvas, 56 1/4 x 54 1/2 in. (142.9 x 138.4 cm), Private collection courtesy Pace Gallery, New York.

“I never start a painting from a clear, rational plan,” Murray explained, “or from a complete drawing. I work more impulsively. Often, though, the motivation comes from the desire to make a shape or to get a certain color. The idea is to enact what happens… There are shapes and figures in my painting, which refer to forms in nature and to the human body. It is a figurative space. But the shapes are not identifiable with a specific thing. They feel like transformations. Since they are organic shapes, associations created by the viewer become inevitable. But the shape painted actually belongs to itself. The act of painting, which is a solitary one, ultimately teaches the artist about the complexity of painting.”[10]

In a slide talk Murray gave at the Whitney Museum in 1980, one year after completing “Druid,” she adds further insight to her painting process detailing the arrival at the shaped canvas and foreshadowing the eventual arrival of her mature inventive style that would challenge the definition of what painting can be:

“I got involved in just having eccentric shapes made to paint on. And I think it had very much to do with […] I was bored with just painting on rectangles and squares. And also they change how the shape is on the wall, a lot, they change the relationship to the wall and it feels more organic to me. But also there are just a lot more edges—kinds of ways of going off the canvas, off the painting. It feels like I can be very conflicting […] I can do a lot of different things. Feels like a wider range of mode or modality of expression.”

“Druid,” 1979, was acquired by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz from the Paula Cooper Gallery. In 1999, the couple donated the work to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The painting is currently on view at the Whitney Museum through May 14 in the exhibition Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s.

Installation view featuring Elizabeth Murray's "Druid" (1979) in Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, January 27, 2017-May 14, 2017). Photo: Jason Andrew

Installation view featuring Elizabeth Murray's "Druid" (1979) in Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, January 27, 2017-May 14, 2017). Photo: Jason Andrew

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[1] Greg Masters interview with Elizabeth Murray conducted at the time of her mid-career exhibition at the Whitney Museum, December 1987, unpublished.

[2] Elizabeth Murray quoted in Paul Gardner, “Elizabeth Murray Shapes Up,” Artnews LXXXIII, no. 7 (September 1981), p.51.

[3] See Greg Masters interview.

[4] Roberta Smith, in Graze and Halbreich, “Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings,” exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Dallas Museum of Art and the MIT Committee on the Visual Arts, 1987), p.15.

[5] See Greg Masters interview.

[6] See Greg Masters interview.

[7] Donald Kuspit. “Elizabeth Murray’s Dandyish Abstraction.” Artforum 16 (February 1978), p. 30.

[8] Richard Marshall. “American Art Since 1970,” exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art), p. 12.

[9] Greg Interview.

[10] Elizabeth Murray quoted in Barbara Rose, “American Painting: The Eighties—A Critical Interpretation,” (New York: Vista Press, 1979), unpaginated.

[11] Richard Marshall. “American Art Since 1970,” exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art.