Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray’s works of the last seven years are composed according to contradictions. With most of them constructed of multiple canvases, usually in layers, the format is neither painting nor sculpture but a little bit of both. Images are often fragmented like puzzle pieces, but the parts never really fit together to make a synchronized whole—the temptation to mentally fit the square peg into the round hole is always present. And as a further complication, although these works might initially appear to be abstract, they are always filled with imagery—sometimes obvious, sometimes not. Some are still lifes, particularly a series of works based on cups and saucers, such as Yikes, 1982; others operate as a kind of simplified genre painting—a man holding a paint brush (Brush’s Shadow, 1981), a figure sitting by a pool (Writer, 1979). But the images are never the first thing I see. The color and configuration of shapes make the first impression, for Murray’s palette is always forceful, and her shapes are big and gawky, so that her large compositions seem as if they ought to fall apart visually.

But the genius of this work comes from its complete feeling of resolution, never more apparent than in this survey, a traveling exhibition curated by Sue Graze and Kathy Halbreich, which began its yearlong tour in March at the Dallas Museum of Art. Included here are 27 paintings and 19 drawings that span a period from 1976 to ’86. Every work shows Murray at top form, forcing her painted shapes against the edges of her multisided picture planes, breaking visual boundaries, and consistently striving for balance within an idiom that is distinctly her own.

The kind of resolution that Murray achieves—akin to that of Ellsworth Kelly—comes through dissonance. The composition, based on forms observed in life but radically transformed according to the artist’s interpretive vision, finds its balance through a delicate interplay of relationships among the work, the wall, and the viewer. As in Kelly’s work, the scale of her paintings is frequently quite large but never imposing. Murray’s enormous coffee cup, which appears repeatedly here, resonates of cartoon imagery and thus fits into a scale usually accorded to film—larger than life but still comprehensible. Her multilevel canvases never become truly macho or baroque in the way that, say, Frank Stella’s often do. Murray’s virtuosity, unlike Stella’s, seems to maintain a personal connection with her immediate world.

Filled with jarring contrasts of hot and cool colors, jagged and rounded edges, soft and hard forms, linear and bulbous shapes, Murray’s paintings call to mind the dichotomies of yin and yang, anima and animus of Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychological theory respectively. But the implications are neither superficial nor oversimplified. They are just one more tool in testing the limits of painting a picture. Like Paul Cézanne—whom she cites repeatedly as a formative source in her comments in the catalogue that accompanies the show—Murray is juxtaposing the apple with the table edge, trying to make them work together on both a literal and a figurative level. That she achieves such a resonating harmony without compromise reaffirms that the simple but ever challenging task of joining opposing forces within a painting still holds tremendous power.

Susan Freudenheim