Robert Murray

It was after meeting Barnett Newman at the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops in Saskatchewan in 1959 that Robert Murray turned his talents from painting to sculpture. Murray’s self-prescribed mission was to take the pictorial language of painterly abstraction and transform it into three dimensions. In the resulting work, one finds the preoccupation with surface and the play between flatness and depth as in his earlier abstract painting. Murray is a true modernist: Marrying formalist concerns with industrial materials, he questions and expands the metaphoric language of sculpture. Whether employing bright colors to unify structural anomalies or engaging the movement of light on flat planes and curvilinear forms, he creates an interplay of constantly changing surface effects.

Curated by the National Gallery of Canada’s Denise Leclerc, “Robert Murray: The Factory as Studio” was the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in more than a decade and included thirty-eight sculptures as well as models, prints, and drawings spanning thirty-plus years. Murray’s work marks a high point in Canadian Minimalist sculpture (whose proponents included Bill Vazan, Royden and David Rabinowitch, and Roland Poulin). This can be seen in the spare elegance of a work like Track, 1966, one of Murray’s “diagonal and support” pieces, in which two flat bands of steel are propped at an angle on aluminum vertical supports. Other works are more personally inflected. La Guardia, 1968, for example, evokes Murray’s love of flying, by translating a pilot’s perception of space during an airstrip landing into a work comprising two curving arches, one larger than the other, with two parallel tracks of Q-decking (corrugated ready-made steel construction material) running between them. The tracks follow a straight line, then turn at an abrupt angle, much as airplanes do when taxiing on a runway. Equally evocative of flight is Chinook, 1968, in which an aluminum column balances against a steel girder as if ready for takeoff. Metaphorical and expressive, this work feels less hampered than others by the rhetoric of formalism.

In experiencing a survey like this one, one gets a sense of the unbridled enthusiasm for ’60s Minimalist codes of practice and the more idiosyncratic formalism of the ’70s, yet these languages seem so distant that they become hard to appreciate other than as part of history. Murray’s sculpture gives us a sense of moving through space, of how multifaceted our perception of form can be, but in seeking to redefine sculptural expression, he created works that seem at once too pure and too competitive with the materials of which they are made. Painted steel and aluminum look like plastic, contradicting the materials’ inherent industrial qualities. Still, there is a certain contained pictorial beauty in these works, even if space and light ultimately define the forms, and not the other way around.

John K. Grande