Good Reception

New York

Left: Bob Holman and Elizabeth Murray. Right: Cindy Sherman, Pat Steir, and Joan Jonas.

Three standing ovations, buffeted by extended applause from several hundred loudly cheering people, were not enough. Constant hugs and smiles from the assembled artists were not enough. Laudatory speeches were not enough. Even with the entire history of modern art rising to the occasion, none of it was enough to express the tender and powerful feelings that Elizabeth Murray inspired in her friends and colleagues on Monday night, at the “family” reception for her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

“It's serious but not lugubrious,” said a giddy Rob Storr of the exhibition, which was more than ten years in the making. In fact, it is exuberant. Next to a world that seems in greater peril every day, it is a welcome sight in every way. “Uplifting,” many said, while every single guest seemed stuck on the same phrase: “I'm so happy this is happening!”

Indeed, the opening provided rock-solid proof of what is most attractive about the art world: the artists who band together in it. And when they include whole constellations of luminaries like Jasper Johns, Richard Serra and Brice Marden, PaceWildenstein mates Chuck Close, Alex Katz, Joel Shapiro, Lucas Samaras and Kiki Smith, and inner circle buddies Jennifer Bartlett, Jan Hashey, Ellen Phelan, Robert Moskowitz, Francine Prose and Murray's first dealer, Paula Cooper, all eager to hand the spotlight to Murray, life takes on a warm and fuzzy glow. At dinner every table had at least two artists, Cindy Sherman and Pat Steir, for example, Robert Gober and Sarah Charlesworth, or Gregory Crewdson and Fred Wilson, with Joan Jonas, Keith Sonnier, Vija Celmins and Terry Winters nearby. How many people could have taken this crowd, with its writers, trustees and curators, and made what could have been a stuffy dinner in MoMA's cavernous lobby feel like a marshmallow roast around the old hearth?

Not that many.

And how often are this many people this happy to see someone else get the credit?

Not that often.

Left: Paula Cooper, Elizabeth Murray, and Julian Lethbridge. Right: Robert Storr.

Quickly correcting Glenn Lowry's observation that Murray was the first grandmother to get a MoMA show—an erroneous impression disseminated by The New York Times (which evidently cannot accept the idea that a woman can create tremendously inventive paintings without making her achievement sound quaint), Storr then stuck his foot in it by calling Murray an “artist's artist,” a limiting characterization that distressed more than a few guests.

Storr recovered nicely but then seemed to depart from his prepared remarks as if they weren't good enough, letting one thought trail off to pick up a new one, only to abandon that and find himself lost in an anecdote about Luc Tuymans and Chris Ofili discovering Murray's work only last week. (Oh, well. What's a retrospective for if not the next generation?)

Finally, when Storr came to the part about the house of Matisse and Picasso putting out the welcome mat for Murray, he simply let go and broke down. As he wiped away the tears, you could sense the years it took and the battles fought to get the show, his swan song at MoMA, on the boards. Aggie Gund, Storr's chief ally and the retrospective's principal sponsor, was no less emotional in her address. “It's impossible for me to stay calm and quiet in front of Elizabeth's work,” she said. “Art like hers makes life worth living.”

It's no secret that Murray has spent the better part of the last year fighting both lung and brain cancer, continuing to paint all the while. The two new works that end the show, Do the Dance and the still-wet The Sun and the Moon (both 2005), almost literally pulsate with rhythm and color. She is clearly a hero to everyone who knows her, though that was the case before she fell ill. Surrounded by her children, Dakota, Sophie, and Daisy, and her husband Bob Holman, Murray was positively regal throughout the night. “I'm so happy you're here,” she kept saying to all who came.

She made that museum look great.

Left: Gregory Crewdson and Ivy Shapiro. Right: Mary Beebe and Ann Philbin.

Left: Susanna Moore, Helen Marden, and Kiki Smith. Right: Howie Michaels and Francine Prose.

Linda Yablonsky