The Work: Children Meeting
The Artist: Elizabeth Murray
by Elizabeth Murray
Painted in 1978
Oil on canvas
101 3/16 × 127 in.
257 × 322.6 cm.
Whitney Museum of American Art
5th floor: Neil Bluhm Family Galleries
99 Gansevoort Street
New York, NY 10014
Elizabeth Murray's Children Meeting
Murray’s taste for the outlandish visual character of American pop probably developed early in life. She grew up in a struggling family, one not wired into the art world, and many of her pictures echo the cartoons, illustrations, and graphics of the early and mid–twentieth century. As a young painter, however, she intently studied Cézanne, Picasso, and de Kooning, among others—to see how they did it formally and technically—and responded warmly to the Surrealists, whose twisty organic shapes never looked comfortable inside art’s box. She also became a savvy observer of the contemporary art world of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Like many in her generation, she took up the Minimalist aesthetic in the seventies, creating a series of ladderlike forms that reflected the fashion for grids—yet her pictures never appeared severe or conceptual in spirit. Instead, they were painted with the tender, animal clumsiness of Philip Guston, another artist who loved cartoons.
Murray’s signature style developed in the early eighties, when her paintings began to crack into eccentrically shaped pieces. In Painter’s Progress, from 1981, she shattered the image of a palette and three brushes—a symbolic escape from the usual boundaries of art. Soon, the pictures began to buckle and bend into something that resembles sculptural relief. She also developed an eye-popping feeling for color that was boisterous and sometimes disagreeable, like the garish color of a pop sign abandoned in a junkyard. At the time, others were also making relieflike pictures, notably Frank Stella, but Murray’s work always seemed much more personal than Stella’s. Her images usually contained recognizable elements, sometimes of a domestic kind, such as tables, spoons, cups, keyholes. (Storr calls these pictures “emphatically unstill lifes.”) Others had a kind of rude sexual humor or evoked bodies and birth; they’re full canals, mouths, little arms, tadpole forms, and alien sci-fi pods. Critics like to emphasize Murray’s gender, finding a woman’s preoccupations in her art. They’re right, of course, but only up to a point: Many men have also painted domestic scenes, and the Surrealists, in particular, loved everything to do with the body’s plumbing.
Murray plays lots of formal tricks in her paintings, working the edges between illusion and reality. Until you look closely, for example, you might not be certain whether a curve is just a line or a bulge into actual space. Formal games of this kind give her pictures visual ambiguity, acting as a foil for their cartoony pow! Her compositional manner does something similar. Despite the writhing forms, the pictures are always carefully balanced—even tidy in the way they hold together. In the grand scheme of things, Murray’s art has both lively historical and social implications. Sometimes, it looks like another “death of painting” response, an effort to revive a fading patient with extreme formal devices and outrageous effects. At others, it seems almost heartwarming. I always think affectionately about American slang when I look at her work. Loosey-goosey. Wacko. Bananas. She also leaves me searching for analogies, particularly about a certain kind of change—that moment, in particular, when something sitting still begins to move. In the old cartoons, rooms would come alive when no one was looking. The chair would begin to lean, the walls to melt, the spoon to bend. Is Murray’s work what painting does behind your back? She has none of the cool irony of early Pop artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol. She’s all about warm Pop. She helps viewers embrace the strange, often slangy character of America. - Mark Stevens in New York magazine, October 07 2005 'Wow! Neat-o!
Born: September 6, 1940, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Died: August 12, 2007, Tribeca, New York, USA
She was an American painter, printmaker and draughtsman. Her works are in many major public collections, including those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Elizabeth Murray was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up in small towns in Michigan and Illinois, settling in Bloomington, Illinois. She had intended to go into commercial art, but as she walked through the museum every day on her way to classes, she became more aware of the possibilities for her in painting. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1962, and went to graduate school at Mills College, getting her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1964. She taught at Rosary Hill College in Buffalo, N.Y. (1965–67), and then moved to New York City. After experimenting with reconciling late-minimalist painting with aspects of identifiable subject matter, Murray literally began to push the edges of the rectangle in works such as Children Meeting (1978), with large bulbous forms and lines pressing against the edge of the canvas. As if to make the exterior edges of her painting correspond to the energetic rhythms of the various elements pictured within—highly stylized objects such as coffee cups, tables, and chairs, as well as less-definable shapes—she began to create shaped canvases. She carried her experimentation further during the 1980s, when she began to use multiple canvases for a single work. Her Painters’ Progress (1981), for example, is a unified image composed of 19 canvases.
Elizabeth in her studio working