Every once in awhile, an artist comes along that completely changes the landscape of what art is and how it is perceived by society. Elizabeth Murray was undoubtedly one of these artists. Ms. Murray was born in the 1940's, in Chicago, and earned her BFA in the same city.
Yet soon, this metropolis could not contain her talent, and Murray went on to be one of the most celebrated artists of her time. This paper will discuss both the life of the artist, and her work, in order to truly see how fantastic and changing this artist's work has been for society.
After 66 wonderful years, Elizabeth Murray passed away in 2007, leaving behind a myriad of incredible paintings. To illustrate her impact, of the obituaries written to her memory stated, "With the death of Elizabeth Murray at age 66 on Sunday, America lost one of its smartest, slyest, most exuberant painters."
Murray was indeed a very unique painter. She developed very distinctly shaped canvasses that broke completely with historical tradition of having square or rectangular canvases. Murray's process also broke with two-dimensional space, as most of her work jutted out from walls in a sculptural-like form and a very life-like and modern three-dimensional representation. This work will be reintroduced and discussed in further detail below, after examining the upbringing of the painter in order to see where Ms. Murray received her inspiration for her transcending work.
Elizabeth Murray, as aforementioned, was both in 1940 in Chicago. During the time of the Second World War, just as the rest of the country, Chicago was a bustling metropolis whose workers contributed to the war effort. The town was bleak and gritty, yet Murray was able to utilize these experiences later in her life. Her childhood was an unhappy and unstable one, mainly because of the hardships that came upon the family with the ill health of the father, including homelessness. Despite these incredibly difficult moments, however, Murray states that her interest in art was always present. A biography of the artist states, Ms. Murray,
"traced her interest in art to watching a nursery-school teacher cover a sheet of paper with thick red crayon, an experience that she said gave her an indelible sense of the physicality of color. She drew constantly from an early age, inspired mostly by newspaper comic strips, and once sent a sketchbook to Walt Disney asking for a job as his secretary. By the fifth grade she was selling erotic drawings to classmates for a quarter."
Eventually, the future artist was also able to go on to college, and earned her degree from the Chicago Art Institute in 1962, as well as went on to obtain an MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1964. After her studies, Ms. Murray moved to New York, and in "keeping with the spirit of the time, she abandoned painting in favor of interdisciplinary and multimedia works."
Yet it was during the 1950's and 1960's, when she was in school, that Ms. Murray's future life was truly shaped. According to her biography, she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1958 and her goal at this point was to become a commercial artist. Yet this first ambition was 'derailed' by "a Cezanne still life she passed regularly on the way to classes." Ms. Murray is quoted, later, as saying, "The painting was the first in which I lost myself looking. I just realized I could be a painter if I wanted to try." In California, where she undertook her graduate studies, Elizabeth Murray met the painter Jennifer Bartlett, and married a fellow painter from the Art Institute in Chicago. During this time, the artist was surrounded by a community that enabled her to grow and develop her craft.
Once again, according to Ms. Murray's biography, it was the first painting that she made in California that truly shoed the artist's ambition, confusion and a "penchant for a jokey figuration that qualified as "regional," a popular pejorative at the time. But these works rehearsed all the aspects of her later art: eccentric dimensionality, large scale, crusty paint surfaces and suggestive, emotionally charged, implicitly autobiographical narratives conveyed by extravagant distortions of form."
The change from the more simplistic and jocular to the seriousness and depth that her later life emphasized can be attributed to the environment in which Ms. Murray chose to live.
As previously stated, in 1967, the artist moved to New York. The city, during these times, was teeming with crime and lawlessness. Ms. Murray was exposed to artists such as Marden and Richard Serra, or Ellen Phelan, who only pushed her to see the true nature of her environment, and she was inspired as much by the city as by her won intuition. Abstractness, imagery, and the replacement of acrylic paint with oil paint, or 'another kind of life form' in Ms. Murray's own words, characterized this period.
In 1969, another important event took place in the painter's life: her son, Dakota, was born. The oil paint persisted, but Ms. Murray began working on small, rectangular canvases. Her biography continues,
"In the majority, shaky black lines forming grids, ladders and fan shapes are embedded in tactile monochrome fields. By 1973, the year she and Mr. Sunseri divorced, the lines had turned into wavy curves and then mobius bands. She began exhibiting at the Paula Cooper Gallery in SoHo in 1973 and had her first solo show there in 1976."
By 1976, then, Ms. Murray received her initial recognition as an artist in one of the most difficult cities in the world, at the New York Gallery mentioned above. Her first solo exhibition was a huge success, and she continued to exhibit at this gallery for years to come. It was through her work with the Cooper Gallery that Ms. Murray's art truly became known to the art community. Her work was at first characterized by a transformation of commonplace items, such as coffee cups, tables, musical instruments and animals, into "lushly painted, animated low relief forms. Breaking with her early minimalist influences, Murray defined her own particular brand of representation as a balance between illusionistic painting and dimensional sculpture."
It was truly in this work that Murray found her niche, and the paintings were admired by quite a few and truly established her reputation. Descriptions of her work compared the artist with Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse, three of the most well-known artists of the modern art movement. One of the descriptions for her exhibits states,
"Taken as a whole, Murray's paintings are abstract compositions rendered in bold colors and multiple layers of paint, but the details of the paintings reveal a fascination with dream states and the psychological underbelly of domestic life."
Ms. Murray truly understood that the genius of art is not in rendering the unknown, but in rendering the commonplace in an newly imagined way, and she did exactly this with her elaborate, well-composed, multi-layered works.
It is for this reason, namely the genius of her abilities, that Murray's work continues to be featured in world-renown museums such as The Whitney, the Dallas museum of Art, and countless other museums in the U.S. And Japan. Furthermore, Murray's life-long passion is still on exhibit at countless places, thus the artist could enjoy her success during her life, and society can revel in these unique pieces long after the passing of this great artist. In order to truly elucidate her capabilities, the countless awards and exhibit opportunities that the artist has received must also be included here. They are the prestigious:
1. The Skowhegan Medal in Painting in 1986,
2. The Larry Aldrich Prize in Contemporary Art in 1993,
3. The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award in…