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Elizabeth Murray

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See also: American Art; Women Artists

(The following article was written by Greg Masters and is included in The Artchive with his permission.)

Interview with
Elizabeth Murray

The art works of Elizabeth Murray stretch daily objects into jazzier realms. She uses the object as a meditation point the way a soloist in jazz uses a melody. Lately, it's been a coffee cup, table, or question mark that's been wrung through her translation process.
   But this is only the starting point. Her major accomplishment has been to find a way to express her emotional responses to an object, letting her passions go in abstract painting and, at the same time, fusing that rawness within a finely tuned precision, the shaped canvas. Though the boundaries of her canvas are often a bit eccentric, they restrain and give a form to the explosion of impulses. She's made a happy marriage between the exhilarating freedom to express of the action painters and the clean basics of the minimalists. Walt Disney gets worked in there, too.
   Cézanne showed how reality is composed of geometric solids while Elizabeth shows how it's, in fact, illusory, susceptible to anyone's subjective rearrangement and embellishment. Her canvases are charged with an energy that shakes the foundations of the visible world, revealing the flux that all matter is humbled by. Except, spicing up Einstein's equation, Ms. Murray brings the tender, yet vital, expression of feelings into view. Her molecules have soul. It is a looking out at the external world and combining that perception of the physical with the examination looking inward.
   And, what makes the work truly remarkable, is that this look inward is so brave. She repeatedly opens herself up for examination, maintaining the vulnerability necessary for probing the self. The playful decorativeness, aggressive colors, large biomorphic shapes, are infused with an intense honesty and integrity in the process of relating the personal reaction to the geographic environment.
   What makes her work so appealing is that her attitude about these explorations is of a joyous nature. The responses she makes visible are glowing with open-eyed passion. They're vitamins for perception.
   A survey of her paintings and drawings, selected from the last 12 years, will fill the Whitney Museum of American Art's entire 4th floor from April 21–June 26 [1988]. It's been 16 years since Elizabeth's work was given its first major exposure, when Marcia Tucker selected "Dakota Red" to be shown in the 1972 Whitney Biennial, a painting Elizabeth later traded to her dentist of the time for services. This current exhibition, her first solo museum show in NYC, will convince a lot of people of Elizabeth Murray's stature as one of the preeminent painters of our time.
    The following interview took place in December, 1987, at the Tribeca loft where Ms. Murray has her studio and where she lives with her husband, the poet and performance artist Bob Holman and their two children, Daisy and Sophie.

Greg Masters: What I think is most exciting about your work is that it is an emotional experience. It always seems to come out of your psychology, your response to objects in your dailiness, your involvement with an object. It's some thought process, an emotional response. When you go in to start a painting how do you begin?
Elizabeth Murray: Now, because of these forms, because the forms are very specific, it's much more focused in a way. First of all, there's kind of an idea there. Like that's a question mark. And sooner or later I think that you would know that and see it. But maybe not, it doesn't really matter. But, because I know it's a question mark, it really affected how I felt about it, a cracked question. That's a specific formal idea to have those shapes up there. In the beginning it feels like time breaks through the formal stuff and you get paint on it so that you begin to have ideas and it begins to get very emotional. That color feels like what you are at that particular day, particular moment, like what color feels like the right container for all those feelings.

GM: The color's not formal.
EM: It has a formal role but, ultimately, I don't think anything is formal. This guy was just here asking me if I thought about topography 'cause his work is very involved in that. It's not that I think about it. I know a little bit about it. And I know that my work is involved, in a sense, with how those forms change and twist. But to me those are really emotional things. Like a crack in the forms. It really makes me feel something twisting or shoving or touching. All those words like process or formal parts or how a thing gets constructed or deconstructed, all those things feel like, ultimately, they have to go into feelings. Even in science. I always feel that the best paintings, the longer they are, the more tortuous they are, the better they are. 'Cause they're more emotional. You get into them more emotionally and you go in and really wrestle with them.
   I'm beginning to understand that style begins to happen when you find yourself. That's what style is. The word style is a very meaningful word with a great deal of depth. Style really means the finding of yourself. I do feel like I'm finally beginning to find myself. I hope I'm not kidding [laughs]. It's taken me a really long time to do that.
   Making art is such an incredible experience because every time you're doing something, like the formal thing...When I got to that place I was really excited. For a brief period of time, say between '74 and '77, it seemed like I really got myself grounded in a way, and I cleared the decks. I felt that that work was really about clearing the decks and focusing on the structure and I began to work with the shapes and focusing on the paint and thinking in very simple terms about what a painting could be. In a way, as dumb or as simple as possible. But then what started to happen was the formal thing began to be boring. The formality quickly turns into a series of devices and instead of it being learning it was all stuff I knew. So what I began to do was not give up the formal structure but sort of throw more things in. And then it just began to be more and more decorative. And then I think the shapes started to show me that they became real things. I'd be able to have the abstraction of a shape and then an image could go into that abstract-anything structure and give it this other element. Make this other thing happen in the painting.

GM: Where are you at this time? Is this in the middle of Minimalism?
EM: I came to NY in '67 and that was when I saw my first Minimal work, Minimal sculpture and process work, and it really hit me. When I came to NY my heroes were Rauschenberg and Johns and Oldenburg and I got here and there was this whole other thing happening that was not about Warhol's soup cans. Although, it really came out of a lot of that.

Barry Kornbluh: Which artists were most influential to you then?
EM: Well, [Brice] Marden would be one of the first people I would think of and then Richard Serra. It really terrified me in a way and it made me angry. This is too crazy. This is too simple. It didn't seem abstract to me. That was the part that really interested me. It did not seem to be about abstraction. Of course, Brice Marden would say it is about abstraction. It seemed to me to be more about turning the painting or the sculpture into the thing. The thingness of it. Taking out all other elements except the act of painting and the thingness of it and, of course, Marden's paintings are very beautiful, too. They're really elegant and beautiful and so are Serra's things.

GM: Yet, you continued to be a painter in the midst of this. Was that hard for you?
EM: Well, at that point I was so confused. I was trying to paint and look at all this stuff and deal with my life. I was married. I got pregnant the second year I was here which I loved, I was very happy about it. Everything was very personal and I had a few friends who were more out there than I was, who were really very ambitiously working to be the young person who got the next best idea. And I was totally out of that. I was really shocked at how hard it was and how intimidated I felt. I didn't expect to feel . . . I thought when I got to NY I would just be happy to be in NY working. Instead, I really sensed my competitive nature but I saw how out of it I was.

GM: Were you trying to get into galleries?
EM: No, not at all. There weren't too many galleries around. The galleries that were around, that people went to, there was Castelli's, who was uptown, and Janis' and Emmerich's. When Paula [Cooper] opened up I would just have been too . . . .

GM: It's hard to see your early work.
EM: I've got some things in storage, not too much. A lot of it I destroyed, it was embarrassing. [The early pieces in the traveling show] are the best ones. The train one with the blanket around the edge [Night Empire, 1969], if I hadn't given that to my sister, I would have gotten rid of it. Now I'm sorry I did it. When I got to a certain point, I really wanted to destroy all evidence of my past struggles.

GM: When you started making shaped canvases?
EM: Yeh, it started with some very small paintings. I was reading books about Gestalt therapy and I was reading a lot about Zen at the time. Very briefly, I got very involved in Japanese Buddhism and Za-Zen. That was the spiritual thing in a way that was an influence to it but it was also very much from just looking at the Minimalists. What I needed was something, an underpinning for all my emotions, I really needed something to settle me down and some kind of a plate to put this stuff on. Then I began to understand what that was. It gave it some boundaries. I have a real desire for structure and for order. But also the chaos of the feelings feels like the thing that has to be in there. I think it's totally emotional. For the emotions to be seen you have to have a format.

GM: Is that rough for you to always be so vulnerable?
EM: No, it's not hard for me to do it. Well, actually I'm not so sure. I feel totally contradictory about that. Basically, it's very easy for me to start to intellectualize things but there's something that always puts the brakes on that.

GM: There's so much energy in your work. Do you get tired?
EM: Well, the paintings have gotten very demanding, really demanding to work on. Working over those surfaces and those bumps is really interesting but it's very different to work on these surfaces. Even talking about the light, the shadows and the lighting are totally different from when you have a flat painting. Trying to really see them at times I have to turn off the neon. I have to look at them a lot of different ways. But that goes with painting them. I have to get under them and behind them and sometimes it feels like being a mechanic on your back. Making art is about all your fantasies finally getting...and poetry, too. I know it's not any different, really. I get to be a doctor and tear open the chest and really pull out the heart and do this and that and some of it's really a lot about acting out all of the things that you ever really wanted to be and you didn't even know that you wanted to be them. All of that takes place. Making art is that kind of arena for those things. In that sense, it seems more like fulfilling as opposed to tiring.

GM: Do you still start with a drawing on paper and then cut that out to start a painting?
EM: Yeh yeh. That's all downstairs now. I rented a place with a workshop or this studio would look totally different. I rented it about a month ago.

BK: Some of your drawings are like the drawings of a sculptor.
EM: That's interesting. I guess I really do work things out very sculpturally in my mind. But they are flat. The 3-D is illusion. That's important. Because I'm more interested in the illusion of the third dimension than I am in the reality. I tried to do sculpture. I know that people sometimes think that they're more sculpture than they are painting in a way but, basically, I feel that they're paintings because I feel like a painter. [laughs]

GM: You don't confine yourself to a canvas. What compels you to go beyond the flat surface?
EM: I don't know anymore. When I started to do it it felt like I was just bored with flat shapes. When I did the shattered things I really knew that there was something there that was very psychological for me. The shattered pieces were about really feeling that one could be broken and yet . . . I was thinking of taking a painting and actually breaking it into pieces and then using an image to pull it together and that felt extremely psychological and a reality in my life. I don't feel that uncommon. It is something you struggle with. But it felt metaphorical that way. And that was when I was realizing that the shapes were really extremely meaningful to me. There was a way I could use them where I could find out a lot about myself by working with the shapes. When I first began the shapes I was just doing this and that. It would be a single shape on the wall and then it just felt like another way to use edges.

GM: Do you like the term "shattered," by the way, in reference to those canvases?
EM: I do. It does feel like that's a very emotional, psyched up word. Shattered, twisted, a little violent. I don't think my paintings necessarily look violent but I think there is that aspect in them that I feel conscious of. It's about feelings. Pulling forms apart. It's a word that really holds its meaning.

GM: Your work never seems to stay the same. You always seem to be moving on. Does work develop, evolve or do you say I've had it with this, now try something brand new?
EM: I think it probably develops and evolves. I'm sure it does. I could be wrong about this. Who knows artistically what is right or wrong. You just do it. I change and things change and one thing seems to lead to another. For me that seems to be what happens in my work. I know that other people really work very differently. That seems right now to be what goes on. Paula Cooper will say "Well, you know people come in and see this and they're thinking about something that you did last year and so they're very taken aback." I don't even think about that. It is organic. And she's not saying that as a way to tell me, "Look, Elizabeth, settle down." She's not at all. I really believe that there are a few dealers who love to watch their artists change and work and she's one of them. She's really excited about it. What she's sort of saying is, "Don't be upset if you don't get this reaction. It's just that you were there and people were getting used to you being there and now you're here and now it's a whole new ballgame." Which is absolutely true in a lot of ways.

GM: She's not asking you to do smaller work?
EM: No. Most good dealers would never dream of doing that. Not really. With some artists it's who they are. For other people it's very frightening and totally destructive. To me, that's what really frightens me the most.
GM: That's what's so corrupt about the art world now. So much of it is about marketing and not pure ideas in art anymore.
EM: Yeh. I don't think it's as corrupt as it looks. The corruption is made because the media makes so much of it and, of course, in a few years, could drop it just as quickly as it picked it up. It's a media sensation and the reality is very different. Most artists are not really involved in it.
    To me the problem goes so much deeper than the art world. I don't think it's an accident that all this stuff is going on now during the Reagan era. It's slowly been happening since the '70s and now with Reagan it's completely superficial. There's so much superficiality. If the media can accept Reagan and believe that Reagan doesn't dye his hair or allow you to believe that, they can get people to believe anything, including a lot of ridiculous things about artists and the art market. But underneath, the person who seems to be the enfant terrible is Julian Schnabel. Yet, if you go to see his show, he's a good artist. He's not just a dolt. He's done ridiculous things with the whole thing that he's done but he really is a very, very interesting artist. Which maybe isn't so true with some of the others. Maybe [Julian] believes it all too much and he's very in love with the whole thing. It's just an illusion, feeling that you can control something.

GM: Who are some of the artists working now who you like or are influenced by?
EM: Uhmm, I'm always aware that the primary influence is Jasper Johns. I'm more and more aware of that. I think that everything I've ever seen has influenced me, including people like Schnabel. I guess it'd be hard for me to say I've been influenced by people like David Salle. It's hard for me to think of someone very specific right now that feels like an influence except someone like Johns. I first saw his work when I was a student in California in 1963–64. That was when he did the first flag paintings. They had a show of his at a little museum out there and the layering, the images, the breaking up of the images, the whole psychological aspect of his work is very much grounded in this very strong sense of structure with the paint. He's much more secretive than I feel about . . . he has all these games he plays with the paintings which maybe get to be too much with all these illusions. But there's a way he thinks about painting that really fascinates me. I couldn't point to specific influences right now. His last show I thought was brilliant. I think it's more like seeing someone who continues to just be true to themselves. That's my feeling about him. That's really encouraging. Because he's certainly been out there a long time.

GM: How did the show travelling now evolve?
EM: A woman named Kathy Halbreich wanted to do a show but couldn't raise the money. She was working for MIT [as Director of the Albert & Vera List Visual Arts Center]. So she got another woman, Sue Graze, who's the Curator of Contemporary Art in Dallas [Museum of Art], to go in with her. Dallas has a lot of money. It really shocked me. It didn't shock me that there were two people out there who wanted to do a show. What shocked me was that they could actually get their institutions to put up the money to do it. The gallery has records where everything is. That's sort of funny. People really keep track of things. I guess that's what the job is for. 'Cause I don't know where they are. I don't have my own records. Some of the early stuff I have, and some has disappeared and some I disappeared. So those two women organized it. They started this almost five years ago. It's not that its such a great show, I'm not just being modest, I'm being realistic. It's a show. It's not a great show. It's interesting. But the chance to get to put this [new] work with that work is really exciting to me 'cause when it comes here to NY [opens at the Whitney on April 21] I'll be able to put these in. They want to put new work in, as much as we can cram in. This piece will be in and hopefully that piece too [Cracked Question and Two Commas Touching]. Around the same time that this was getting off the ground, Joan Simon wanted to do a show at Broida. The big hitch was when Broida decided that he wasn't interested in having his museum anymore all these shows were then not going to come to NY.

GM: What happened to Broida? You were supposed to have the first show there, right?
EM: Yeh, one of the first. What he told Joan was that she and the staff weren't ready to do the travelling exhibitions and Joan just said well, you're going back on your word then and resigned. And then he decided that he wanted to move back to California and that he really didn't want to do this at all and sold the building. Paula called me, I think it was Christmas Day, and said, "Guess what, Elizabeth, Broida's pulled out. He's closing his museum." Working with these two women was really incredible. It was a good experience. They're really amazing people. They're really different, too. It was so much fun to work with them and to realize you could put your work together that way and still go on doing your work. I always thought that if you did something like that you'd really get tied in to who you were with your work and it would just set you into this backdrop, tallying up. I found out a lot about myself.

BK: What about Europe?
EM: They don't like my work that much.

GM: You think your being a woman has anything to do with that?
EM: [sighs] I think it does in a way with some of the people. Paula's tried, of course, to get them interested. A few of them have come over here at various times. To tell the truth, when they were over here, I don't think my work was that interesting. Say around '75 and '76. There were a few good things but, by and large, it wasn't really there. Sometimes they'd come over and this place was just totally open. I didn't have any walls. There was a bedroom there and Dakota had a bedroom over there. These guys walk in and there's this kid running around and I remember once this guy from one of the museums in Amsterdam came in and he looked around and said, "I was just in Robert Ryman's studio and he just has one thing on his walls." He just couldn't stand it. It was too much for him. I think maybe they have trouble with women doing work and it certainly is. Look, gender definition in this country is still in the back ages so I think there, it's pretty primitive. I think it's hard for them to think of women as having any power. And they don't, probably, want it to happen. It's so deep in their culture. I don't have the feeling that I have to show my work in Europe. If they really cared about my work that would be nice, I suppose. It does feel like a kind of male thing to me, the European market.

GM: You go to galleries a lot and see what's around. I remember your telling me how much you liked a new Terry Winters show.
EM: Yeh, well he's a good friend of mine. I do. Mainly now, I walk through Soho and see everything in Soho, but that's mainly because of the kids. It's hard for me to get uptown. And I don't like it uptown. And it's hard for me to get over to the Lower East Side. But I do. It's really changed over there. All those places have moved over here. Which is good. It's good for people who live on the Lower East Side to get rid of that scene. I don't know how people who live over there feel. It seemed most of it was just going to raise the rents more than anything else.

GM: How do your kids affect your work? How does that get involved?
EM: It'd be hard for me to say, specifically, how it's involved. I know it's involved. And I always think any artist's sexuality is involved in their work because it has to be. How could it not be? On the one hand they're everything. When I'm working, I could never say I made too many things specifically thinking about the children. A few things.

GM: Do they wander in and out of here?
EM: Yeh, yeh. I can't really work when they're around. I really do my work when they're away, when they're out of the house in school. They're distracting. Unless something is really going strongly. Then I can do something. They have such a great take on it. They're feeling about it is just so pure. They don't see the forms. They see the colors and some of the flat shapes. They just don't question a lot of things. I didn't realize how much they cared about them. Last year, when Sophie walked into the show at Paula's she looked up and said, "What are these paintings doing here? You're not going to sell these paintings?" [laughing] She was crying, "Don't give these paintings to Paula. These paintings are ours." It really was amazing to me how much they meant to her in terms of the way her life is and how much a part of her life they are. It made me think about them really differently. Dakota [teenage son from previous marriage] didn't have that kind of take on it. He was more interested in the material aspect of it. When Dakota was little we were really scraping along. He didn't have many toys when he was little 'cause we didn't have any money, which was OK. He wasn't deprived. When I started to sell them, when he was about 8, he was really into it. Also, I had to teach all the time so I was always leaving him with various babysitters. [Bob pokes in to say goodbye, off to a reading]

GM: Want to talk about politics at all?
EM: Sure.

GM: Does the artist have a political responsibility?
EM: Yeah. I think so. More than ever. People say well, your work isn't specifically political. But I think that art is political. Being an artist is taking a kind of stand in relationship to the world. What I want my art to do is really make people feel things differently. Slow down and take a look and be provoked in almost any kind of a way. To see a kind of foreign object that maybe has some meaning that is jolting in some sense. It's not that I think I necessarily succeed or don't succeed. That's not what you're asking really. That's what I would want. I think that art does it in very different ways. I think that is political. The ultimate value in this society has always been money and art has always been the thing that's gone against that. I think the irony for me right now, that I have not come to terms with, is that I'm in this position where these are objects and as objects they're expensive. But to make them I have to make a certain amount of money. So I'm in this kind of bind where they have to sell. I want Paula to sell them. I don't mind that, I mean, I don't want them [laughs]. After I've done them I've gotten what I want out of it so it's fine with me that they sell. I think that the disturbing part is that the people who can afford to buy them are fewer and fewer. Most of the people who buy them are people that, politically, are totally on the other side of the fence than I am. Completely. I don't kid myself that their lives will necessarily be changed by having them.

GM: Do you prefer museums getting them, then?
EM: That would be nice. But that doesn't always happen. Not at all. That would be the ideal thing. What would really be ideal would be to have people who would really want them, who really care about looking at them, for my reasons.

BK: Is there any one person that collects your work?
EM: There are a couple of people who own a lot of work.

GM: With big houses?
EM: Huge houses and huge art collections. They're collectors. It's a particular breed of person. I don't really know any of the collectors very well but they are all really different people. It's sort of interesting. I don't really think about it that much. I just don't think about it. It sounds like I'm straddling this fence saying I want to change this system and yet, to change it, I'm buying into it. Which is a truth. I have to make a certain amount of money. Paula sells the paintings to people whose politics I don't approve of. For instance, Saatchi. He owns work and I'm glad he owns work of mine. He's really a great and powerful collector. On the other hand, he's the head of a huge organization that has big holdings in South Africa. I can't say I don't think about it. Maybe if I said to a group of artists "Well, what if we said we wouldn't sell him any work anymore?" And this one person said to me, "Elizabeth, don't even think about that. If you tried to think about all the different people . . . What he does is nothing, probably, compared to what some of the other people do who own your work." So it's like, do you want to sell your work at all. I guess the thing that bothers me about it is that there's a level at which I can talk about it but I don't think I'm really dealing with it at some level. There's an either/or choice. You say, "OK I'm not going to sell this work." Which means I can't build these canvases. The idea of the starving artist who lives alone in the garret, the whole bohemianism, is an idea that was invented by the middle class in the first place, in 19th century France, because they wanted for there to be those characters. I think that artists should be part of society, including poets, and make a decent living like everybody else and be able to do their work. It just so happens that we don't live in that kind of society. It's either everything or it's nothing.
   Basically, I feel very lucky. But I don't necessarily think that this is going to go on forever or that I'm particularly protected cause I'm supposed to have this position so my work will continue to sell at these prices. That's a lot of bullshit. I'm not taking it all for granted. I've been poor before. I can be poor again [laughs]. I would like to continue my work but, on the other hand, I don't want to continue my work at the expense of a lot of people. That's where it's really screwed up. It amazes me that people in this country have the nerve to talk about Afghanistan. There are people here who are starving, in NYC. It's just ridiculous. People just don't look at that. It's terribly upsetting. Especially if you have children. I really believe in the possibility of art that is the one organic thing that works through these things. I feel that it's the physical link between one generation and another. It's not just history. It's something that someone actually made. It seems more and more important to me.

BK [pointing at a group of small drawings tacked up on the wall]: Is what we're seeing here the very beginning of possible paintings?
EM: Some of them are. Bob and I are going to do this book together with [publisher] Jordan Davies. Those are about the book. It'll be a book of my drawings and Bob's poems. I love to do these. I never try to pay much attention to them. It just feels like a nice little energetic thing. I don't do big drawings about the paintings. These are more about the paintings than those are. This is an idea drawing. This is the first specific thing we've done but we've talked about it a lot.

GM: Bob has never written poems inside a painting?
EM: No, but that's a great idea [laughs]. I love that idea.

GM: So this book will be Bob's poems with your drawings?
EM: He's going to do a lot of the poems he wrote in Greece, a book that he's called for awhile Cupid's Cashbox. I love the title, it's so great. It's so sexual too, in a way. He's had this group of poems that he's wanted to put together so he's put them together and last year Jordan just approached us about doing something together. Being together with Bob, besides the fact that it's great to be with somebody that you love, to find a partner, it's really been so exciting for me 'cause I've always loved poetry but I knew nothing about it anymore and he's opened up this whole world for me that's really exciting. And it's certainly opened me up to the plight of the poet. But it's interesting to me.

GM: Did you do the drawings after reading his poems?
EM: I read the poems and we read the poems together. I know the poems really well. So I did the drawings without thinking about specific poems, I just did the drawings and now I want him to go through them and think about specific poems. I couldn't take a poem and do a specific drawing for it. It just doesn't make any sense to me. It's not the way I work but more feeling what the whole feeling of the thing is then him finding drawings that he feels work with his poems. I'm really excited about it 'cause Jordan really does beautiful work. His books are really nice. They're kind of precious. Have you ever seen them? They're small, usually. He did a book with Robert Creeley. He basically picks a poet and then finds someone to do the ill...combine the art and poetry.

For queries and comments on this article, please email the author.

For more essays and interviews by Greg Masters, see his home page.

Text © 1998 Greg Masters


Elizabeth Murray Images

1982 Keyhole
1984 Can You Hear Me?
1984 Her Story




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