New York

Elizabeth Murray

PaceWildenstein 22

Elizabeth Murray, known for large paintings on shaped and layered canvas-covered plywood, recently showed a group of small paper works framed under glass. None of these is more than eighteen inches or so high or wide, and most are rather less, but despite their bantam scale they have the vivid energy of the big works: Cut and colored, stapled and glued into loosely pictorial scenarios, some quite hard to decipher, the paper seems both fragile and kinetic, a tense equipoise. The ancestry of these intricate compositions must lie in Cubist papier collé, and the many images of tables and cups, favorite subjects of Murray's, could be a familial twist on Cubism's bar and café tables, with their bottles and glasses. But while those works are for the most part fairly flat and tightly welded, Murray’s have flaps and bridges lifting up from their surfaces, and owe as much to the pop-up book as to Picasso. (They are full of little tabs you want to pull; happily, thanks to the glass, you can’t.) Meanwhile, if Murray both relies on the soft malleability of paper and resists it through the works’ springy verve, she also makes watercolor, a medium of delicate transparencies, into something bright and forward. Occasional clear primaries muddle into greens and thick purples, oranges and deep pinks—a palette less airy than assertive, less fluid than dense.

Much has been said of Murray’s sense of fun, and of her Pop-ish affection for the treatments of form seen in comics and cartoons. But comics use pratfalls for comedy, and these paintings are full, if not of anxiety, at least of vertiginous precariousness. In a subgroup on the theme of foot, stair, and dog, the stair is of ladderlike steepness, the foot perches bravely above the fall, and the dog, an amoebalike blob, looks as if the fall has already happened, and squashed it. Murray’s cups may crack or fly apart, releasing floods of hot liquid; they are also too big for their tables, whose legs splay and flail. I think a human leg appears in a couple of pictures of shoes, another Murray talisman: In Smokey, 2001, a round at the top of the shin might be an X ray through to the bone, or a broken tibia poking out of the skin, or else just a knee—the reading is not to be settled.

Round forms like this one in Smokey—a dot or circle within a circle—are scattered generously everywhere, appearing as spoons, saucers, toenails, the bases of cups, the soles of shoes. They also double as eyes, so that many of the paintings seem to watch us watching them. Murray’s table-and-cup combinations in particular lean toward anthropomorphism, most explicitly in Inner Life, 2000, where a disk at the picture’s top is surely a head, and arms cross the table to encircle an enormous blue cup with a black interior—but the had intermixes with a chair back, and the arms run under and through the table as well as over it, so that we are seeing not so much a figure at a table as a figure that is a table. A spoon and the cup handle then signal both masculine and feminine, and the cup itself becomes chest cavity and stomach. It is much larger than the head, which it also obscures with wisps of steam (each an independent paper curlicue)—as if the work were suggesting that the unlit inner life of body appetite weighed much more hotly in identity than the conscious brain. But I’m not sure how deliberately Murray plots such morals; it seems more likely that she works at a level on which forms commingle and confuse, everything melting together in libidinal polymorphous play. Her ability to reach that place is a measure of the depth of her art.

David Frankel