Remembering Murray

Linda Yablonsky on Elizabeth Murray

New York

Left: Elizabeth Murray. (© Sydney B. Felsen) Right: Poet Bob Holman and Daisy Murray Holman. (Unless noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

People at funerals are mourning a death. Memorials are for celebrating a life. Only two weeks after the artist died on August 12, what was billed as Elizabeth Murray Praise Day at the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday afternoon had the air of both. Over three faintly bizarre hours, the program, underwritten by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, provided a blend of the poignant and the comic that threatened to bring it closer to a Saturday Night Live skit shredding avant-garde performance practice than an actual art-world remembrance.

During the free-form portion of the afternoon—most of it—as the overflow crowd neglected the pizza and champagne laid out on the bar, admirers who admitted they had never known Murray seemed to outnumber family members and friends. Painter Jennifer Bartlett, writer Francine Prose, poet Hettie Jones, and other longtime Murray pals had to share the stage with unidentified folk singers and wannabe poet-habitués of the club who promoted themselves in song and verse, only to be shouted down by no less an eminence than Bob Holman, the club’s founder and Murray’s widowed husband.

Throughout, Holman rescued the proceedings from amateur-hour tedium with appreciative, Amen-like hoots and hollers. In other words, irreverence was the name of the game, as befitted both the place and Murray herself. Her image, in an album of photographs projected on a large screen, captivated an overflow crowd that included Dakota Sunseri (Murray’s son by her first husband, Don Sunseri), her two stunning daughters, Sophia Murray Holman and Daisy Murray Holman, artists Brice Marden and Joel Shapiro, Jessica Hagedorn and Patricia Spears Jones (no relation to Hettie), and choreographers Elizabeth Streb and Yoshiko Chuma.

Left: Choreographer Elizabeth Streb with artist Brice Marden. Right: Artist Joel Shapiro.

“Talking to her, I felt strangely Irish,” said Prose of Murray. “Two good-humored old biddies complaining about how the word domestic was used to mean female, minor artist,” she added, to knowing growls and remonstrative “Hear hear”'s from Holman. Strange to think that Murray, the subject of a major 2005–2006 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is still one of this country’s most undervalued painters. Yet she couldn’t have been more declarative or daring—qualities people seem to admire in men. Personally, I loved her plaid shirts and wild hair, her wide grin and determined air, and whatever unselfish gene made her such an enthusiastic advocate for experiment in all the arts. (She served on the boards of both the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.) And her art! Those suppurating, bent and fractured canvases could be part Cubist fantasy and part bourgeois nightmare, then whip into cartoon lightning bolts, pink-cloud choo-choos, and paper-doll pups within a maelstrom of human body parts. Her painted world was all fire and music, jazzy rhythms spun from the everyday world. It was explosive and enigmatic, punctuated by unlaced shoes, unmade beds, and clattering coffee cups. As Prose noted, Murray’s paintings all seemed to come with a sound track.

One after another, her friends forced back tears as they recalled her difficulties and triumphs, and shared welcome pieces of her wisdom. “Get a boyfriend, she told me,” reported Mary Heilmann, who is, at sixty-seven, Murray’s close contemporary. “This is a great age for having sex!” Alice Hartley and Hettie Jones both recalled Murray’s years as the unofficial art teacher at the Downtown Community School; Jones read from a children’s book for which Murray had designed the cover. Judy Hudson told a hilarious story about Murray’s dressing down of a DJ in an Amsterdam club. Sophie Murray Holman, who is about to enter San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, took the mic to read a tender letter to Murray from family friend Stuart Hanlon, who let on that Murray was utterly in character to the end, when, he wrote, she “winked good-bye.” It was hard not to choke up.

Left: Susan Murray Resnick. Right: Sophie Murray Holman.

And when it was his turn to speak. PaceWildenstein’s loquacious Douglas Baxter was similarly at a loss for words, so overtaken by emotion was he at the sight of Murray’s three children seated before him. He had known Murray since both joined Paula Cooper’s gallery in its early days in SoHo. Cooper was just as wistful as she remembered the way Murray would pick up cigarette butts from the street when she was trying to quit smoking and asked everyone present to raise a glass to Murray’s memory.

But it was Bartlett who stole the show by reading out of an old notebook a riotous biography of Murray she had written in the 1970s, detailing her friend’s affection for Erno Lazlo cosmetics, yoga, fighting, Holiday Inns, smoking and quitting smoking, and her own work. “Drunk,” Bartlett said, “she told a curator from the Whitney, ‘I am the James Joyce of painting.’” Big applause, much appreciative laughter.

Murray was the living portrait of a major—and pointedly female—artist, a MacArthur Prize winner, a mother, and a hero to many. The last time I saw her was in May, at an all-girl birthday party for Sarah Charlesworth given by Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons. Though diminished by her cancer, Murray was in great spirits, looking forward to the opening of the Venice Biennale, her tongue as pungent and her heart as generous as ever. That night, in fact, she was the one bearing praises—she laid copious amounts on everyone in the room. The hard part was seeing her have to leave before she could get her cake.

Left: Dakota Sunseri. Right: Artist Patricia Cronin and writer Francine Prose.

Left: Artist Judy Hudson Price. Right: PaceWildenstein's Douglas Baxter.

Left: Poet Hettie Jones. Right: Dealer Paula Cooper and Jennifer Bartlett.