PRINT September 1968

New Work by Robert Murray

THERE HAS BEEN A TENDENCY in Robert Murray’s sculpture, especially in a number of his earlier pieces, toward a kind of locked uprightness, something strained or constricted in the way in which the forms exist in space. It comes about, in part, from intention and idea being too quickly set, forced into a kind of definitiveness, by the materials themselves, so that the sculpture acquires a sense of something which is nearly realized but also very emphatically stated. This is only a general description of a quality that I have sometimes found problematical in Murray’s work and I shall return to it; however, his recent show at the David Mirvish Gallery also confirmed my feeling that he is one of the very few young sculptors working in this country who has the potential for making major work.

As a broad distinction, it is evident that Murray’s sculpture has more in common with David Smith’s work than with the kind of material abstractness which is basic to much of the Minimalist sculpture being made today. This is an important distinction, because there is a characteristic material assertiveness, a particular quality of substantiality to Murray’s sculpture which at times only narrowly misses the stressed and inertly structural materiality which could be said to characterize Minimalist sculpture. The abstractness in Murray’s work is integrally related to the heft or lightness of planes and the way in which they lean, unfold, extend or straighten in space. In the most successful sculptures one is at no point stopped in one’s perception of a piece by its materiality, or compelled to focus on it, but one is nevertheless made aware that it is the material and the way in which surface is cropped, folded or angled which yields the particular forms. In other words, one is less aware of separable and connected sculptural elements, and more aware of the continuousness of planar surfaces which in their configurations reveal something which moves between image and unitary form.

For the past five or six years Murray has tended increasingly to use planar shapes which are strictly rectilinear in edge and surface. The separable quality of line in his more recent work appears not in its running, connecting and elliptically descriptive function, but only as successive cutting silhouettes, which, as one moves around the piece, flatten and spread. The stress on continuousness of surface, surfaces which fuse or closely overlap, is something which has evolved in Murray’s work in part as a reaction against the kind of juxtaposed and relational mode of composition which basically characterizes David Smith’s work. And also, in a less obvious way, as Murray’s response to a fundamental quality in Smith’s sculpture: the natural authority with which Smith made materials fits his ideas and concomitantly, his unequaled ability to give an idea a rightness of weight and scale in space.

In this respect, certain of Smith’s painted sculptures from the early sixties, in which he worked predominantly with large planar shapes—pieces like the Primo Piano sculptures for instance, or one or two of the more extended and opened-out Zig sculptures—are particularly germane to a discussion of Murray’s work. They represent a more abstract, structural trend of Smith’s thought, and the kind of sculptural imagery which is uniquely theirs takes its character from the fullness and the fluency of the play of planes in space. In a number of them a single, extended sheet of metal functions very forthrightly as both support and image, structuring the sculpture and unfolding and revealing the image as it gathers space in shallow curves and folds, spans space and straightens upwards. It becomes, in fact, extremely difficult to discuss one’s experience of a number of these sculptures in terms of images, so frankly structural are they, and this is something which applies fundamentally to Murray’s sculpture. That is, Murray’s sculpture is not unified by the kind of fluidly circulating and connecting play of space and form making something like an image in their spatial projection, but rather it is unified by a sense of plasticity controlled; plasticity made to span, divide and gather space by the particular ways in which the planar stretches are inflected and projected into space. This could be said to be the fundamental characteristic of Murray’s sculpture. His work reveals qualities which are architectonic and plastic in nature, qualities which he handles with increasing authority and expressive subtlety, and which distinguish his sculpture fairly sharply from that of Anthony Caro’s, for instance, and from a number of younger sculptors who in different ways have learned from Caro’s work.

Before getting to the sculptures which Murray exhibited in the David Mirvish Gallery, I want to touch on something which Murray’s actual method of working brings out fairly distinctly in his sculpture. That is the difference between something which is felt in a sculpture as being experimental in nature, and something which is felt as being exploratory, the former quality having more to do with the actual mechanics of construction, the latter with what is expressive. I make this distinction because a number of Murray’s sculptures reveal it, at times obtrusively.

For the past two years Murray has had his sculptures constructed at the Lippincott Plant in New Haven (prior to that he worked in a number of steel fabricating plants in this country and in Canada). The sculptures are executed under his supervision, and at one time or another during the process he works directly on their construction. He works mostly from sketches, sometimes from small maquettes, and the crucial decisions lie in the area between the inception of an idea and the fleshing of that idea in full sculptural form. To feel the scale that is latent in the idea, to feel the weight of the idea and to arrive at the corresponding physical dimensions are of paramount importance for Murray’s work. Increasingly his impulse has been to work with large scale and, because of this, the kinds of structural improvisations which are more readily available to him when he works on smaller scale pieces assume a new and perilous importance. A piece like Plainfield, for instance, from 1966 (which was exhibited in the Betty Parsons Gallery in that year) shuts itself in a strange state between the full expression of a sculptural idea and the indicating presence of the structure which clothes it. It is as though the animating sculptural idea was compressed almost out of existence, because the forms were tailored to it too closely, too explicitly. One experiences the piece confusedly; the very flatness and stretched uprightness of the two vertical forms which confront but which are continuous in space, is partially moving, almost expressive, yet one is tripped by certain very definite but also expressively arbitrary details. The sudden cropping, toward the base of the inner of the dual sheets which make up the taller of the vertical forms for instance, or the small discs separating these sheets which become apparent as one sees the piece in silhouette. One recognizes intention in details like these, intention which is either stylistically or structurally experimental and which has to do with the original idea but which does not integrate with it, and the exploratory feeling of tensed uprightness and verticality which moves through the piece, is interrupted, pinned down—almost in certain areas—by details which are neither formally expressive nor unobtrusively functional.

Yet the piece does not fail altogether, and I take it as an example partly for the curiously disjunctive fusion between what is structurally experimental and what is expressive in the piece, and partly because, by almost failing, it establishes the kind of esthetic realm which most threatens Murray’s sculpture: the state where architectonic and plastic qualities, ungoverned, convert form—to use a phrase of Hilton Kramer’s—into something like “an irresponsible species of architecture . . . an architecture which imposes its physical presence but does not function.”1 The threat of this is felt but staved off, in one of Murray’s most ambitious and also cohesive sculptures, Cumbria from 1967. The piece, which stands fifteen feet high and extends thirty feet laterally, comes perilously near to succumbing, in certain passages, to a kind of wall-like inertia; yet the piece in its totality manages to possess space superbly, the three rectangular forms moving into space with a slow, turning expansiveness, unfolding the physical scale and declaring it, rather than carrying it inertly.

It seems that Cumbria was a fairly crucial piece for Murray; with it he discovered a way of disposing forms in space which is loosened, freer. The spatial projection of the three planar forms moves away from the stressed rectangularity characteristic of his earlier sculpture towards a subtler kind of axiality. The two cantilevered planar shapes pull away and flare upwards from the laterally running plane, so that as one moves round the piece there is a constant tensing and fusing between the horizontal axis and the upward thrust of the angled planes. There are elements in Cumbria which, I feel, Murray has absorbed from Caro’s sculpture. Certainly the five recent sculptures that Murray exhibited show him exploring low-lying, horizontally extended planar shapes in ways which suggest that he has learned from Caro’s work, though the pieces remain distinctively Murray’s and differ fundamentally in their expressiveness.

What emerged from Murray’s exhibition was a general sense of his having clarified and refined a way of handling form in space so that the sculptures stand free of structural contrivance or incidental stylisms. Three pieces in particular, Mesa, Pueblo and Bank, possess extraordinarily nuanced and moving distinctions between kinds of sculptural simplicity which are especially difficult to convey because of the underlying quality of plasticity which runs through Murray’s sculpture. That is, one apprehends the distinctions visually, but also, in a special sense bodily, registering and responding, not to the specific widths and thicknesses of each planar shape, but rather to their relative abstract weights as visual emphases in space. In this latter sense, color, as Murray uses it, is essential in one’s experience of a sculpture for the way in which it isolates plasticity as an abstract quality, and distinguishes it from a kind of materiality which might otherwise seem literally malleable in his work (something which I find applies, detrimentally, to Ellsworth Kelly’s sculpture). In Mesa, for instance, Murray is able to risk an extreme spareness and simplicity of form; two different-sized rectangular shapes which are continuous in space (literally cut from a single sheet of metal) are twisted in such a way as to make them stress and tilt one against the other, touching one side and one angled corner to the ground, and thus supporting the whole. Color, in this case a very dark, curiously space-absorbing green, combines with the two continuous forms to create an extraordinarily dense and shifting interreaction of form with space. As one moves round the sculpture, the depth of the color, in a spatial sense, acts subtly and illusively against the flatness of the two planar shapes, while the sharpness of hue emphasizes their ungraspable shifts off axis and the sense of their being a single, continuous form.

Murray has, I think, arrived at the point where he is able to coordinate with fluency and assurance the angularity and the extreme simplicity of planar shapes which in essence characterizes his sculpture, so that an almost elemental simplicity of sculptural form is becoming, in his hands, increasingly subtle and keen in its expressiveness, and also truly original.

Jane Harrison Cone



1. Introduction to catalog of Julio Gonzalez’s sculpture, Galerie Chalette, New York, 1961, p. 36.