Elizabeth Murray was an American abstract painter, draughtsman, and printmaker known and celebrated for her lively cartoonish imagery, large-scale and oddly shaped canvas works, and re-imagination of the rectangle as the established format for painting.
Critics have noted that Murray’s work was inspired by styles like Cubism and Surrealism, but carried a particular American flair. She is often classified among the great Neo-Expressionist artists and became prominent in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Murray’s work is characterized by her use of fragmented canvases, bold colors, and unexpected mix of shapes. Since her first appearance at the Whitney Annual at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, her work has been featured in hundreds of shows.
Today, Murray’s artwork is part of various notable public collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art. In 1998, Murray became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Elizabeth Murray Career
Murray attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. According to the artist, this is where she learned how to draw, use watercolors, and paint landscapes and figures.
After securing her degree, Murray continued her studies at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she received her Master’s in Fine Arts. During this period, she made her first object paintings and explored the work of several new influences, including Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Paul Cézanne.
After graduating from Mills, Murray taught at Rosary Hill College, a Catholic women’s college in Buffalo, New York. She continued to pursue her interest in art, concentrating on pop art and the work of the sculptor Claes Oldenburg, who was a big influence on her later work. She worked with new materials such as cloth, wood, and canvas, and experimented with using furniture to make sculptures.
In 1967, Murray moved to New York City, where she soon began teaching at a private school on the Upper East Side. In 1971, her art underwent a major shift. She abandoned three-dimensional work and went back to oil painting.
Switching from acrylic to oils slowed Murray down, but she enjoyed the physicality of the work. She began to focus more on the nature of paint and how it can be manipulated than on the subject matter of her paintings. In 1971, one of her pieces, Dakota’s Red, was included in the Whitney Annual, the yearly exhibition hosted by the Whitney Museum of Modern Art — this was her first major museum show.
Over the next few decades, Murray participated in numerous other group shows. Her work started to take on an aesthetic that resembled those of Frank Stella, Brice Marden, and other painters and sculptors of her time. She taught at various institutions, including Bard College, the California Institute of Arts, Yale University, the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and her alma mater, the Art Institute of Chicago.
Murray served on the boards of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation. In 1999, she became a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant.” The Bowery Poetry Club, a performing arts venue in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was opened as a result of this grant.
Murray has honorary degrees from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the New School University. In 1992, she became a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters.
The year before she died, Murray’s career was celebrated through a highly praised retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit showcased her artwork from a career spanning over 40 years.
Elizabeth Murray Key ideas
- Throughout her life, Murray pushed the boundaries of painting, thus helping to rejuvenate the art scene, particularly in the 1970s and the 1980s.
- While she was influenced by the work of her contemporaries, many of whom made Minimalist or conceptual art, Murray’s shift to oil painting in the 1970s caused her work to stand out from the rest.
- One of the key concepts behind Murray’s work was the rethinking of a two-dimensional rectangle or square as the traditional medium for painting. Her trademark asymmetrical canvases typically consisted of multiple panels cobbled together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. These irregularly shaped pieces made artists and art critics see the painting from a different perspective.
- Murray’s use of two or more panels resulted in larger-than-life paintings that are a sight to behold.
- The panels Murray used for her paintings were cut from sheets of canvas using a razor blade. These were then fitted over plywood pieces, resulting in an overlapping or shattered look. She painted each panel separately, treating each piece as if it were a work of art on its own.
- After she had painted each panel, Murray arranged the panels with the help of an assistant. She sought to make each painting look three-dimensional or sculptural in a two-dimensional space. In 1984, she told ARTnews that she wanted the panels to look as though someone had thrown them against the wall and that was how they got stuck together.
- The artist was fond of using vibrant colors that resulted in spirited, cartoonish images but didn’t always evoke a joyful mood. Some were troubling to the viewer.
- Many of Murray’s paintings had parts that protruded from the wall, occupying space with strokes of bold color. She often disregarded conventional pictorial illusionism.
- Despite the eccentricity of her frames and the complexity of her work, Murray’s paintings often contained elements that were easily recognizable. Sometimes, these elements were of a domestic kind. There were cups, goblets, tables, utensils, keyholes, and such.
- Some of her work contained elements that were quite unsettling and hinted at a dark sexual humor. There were also elements that seemed to represent life and death. Several of her paintings showed body parts such as mouths, arms, and other biomorphic forms.
- Murray did not want to be boxed into any particular style or art movement, even when her work suggested a more abstract style.
- American art critic Roberta Smith said that Murray redefined Modernist abstraction.
- Murray’s body of work consisted of paintings that had a Minimalist feel and others that had a bold Surrealist look.
- After Murray left sculpture behind, she focused on painting and on the paint itself. She once said that paint is a transforming agent.
- Murray’s work walked the line between abstraction and representation. They were heavily influenced by graffiti, cartoons, and puzzles.
- Much of Murray’s work was influenced by the illustrations and cartoons she grew up seeing.
- Like many artists in the ‘70s, she created numerous artwork in the Minimalist style. However, her pieces never looked severe or cerebral. They had a warmth and irreverence that came from her love for cartoonish forms.
- Murray liked to play tricks with her artwork. In some paintings, a viewer may have to take a closer look to find out if a curve is an actual three-dimensional bulge or just a cleverly painted line. Forms may look lopsided from afar, but with careful inspection are actually carefully balanced.
- Murray once said that painting is a “way of acting out” and is somewhat a violent thing to do. She approached each new piece with every possible weapon she could use in her arsenal. For example, she used spray paint to sketch and a palette knife to layer paint.
Elizabeth Murray was born in Chicago on September 6, 1940. Her father, a lawyer, and her mother, an aspiring commercial artist, were Catholics of Irish origin. She was raised in small towns in Illinois and Michigan and spent much of her childhood drawing.
Murray’s mother encouraged her daughter’s love of art. A high school art teacher helped Murray gain acceptance to the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a BFA in 1962. Two years later, she graduated from Mills College with a Master of Fine Arts degree.
During this period, she married Don Sunseri, a sculptor whom she met as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. They moved to New York City in 1967 and in 1969, had a son whom they named Dakota. Murray and Sunseri separated in 1973.
Throughout the 1970s, Murray taught art, started exhibiting her work with Paula Cooper Gallery, participated in group shows, and had her first few solo exhibits.
In 1980, Murray met the poet Bob Holman, who would eventually run the Bowery Poetry Club. They married in 1982 and welcomed a daughter, Sophie, the same year. Three years later, they welcomed another daughter, Daisy.
Murray’s first retrospective exhibition was held at the Dallas Museum of Art in March 1987. It traveled to various other venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center at MIT, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Des Moines Art Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Murray received numerous awards and honorary degrees. She continued to produce art that challenged the conventions of painting. Her work was widely praised and her exhibitions were considered major events in the New York City art scene.
Murray succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 66 on August 12, 2007. In her honor, a Praise Day was held at the Bowery Poetry Club. It was attended by dozens of prominent artists, many of whom spoke lovingly and movingly about Murray. Another private memorial was held later on at the Museum of Modern Art.
Elizabeth Murray Notable Artworks
These artworks are some of the most important by Elizabeth Murray, representing her major creative periods:
Children Meeting (1978)
Considered to be one of her first mature works, this oil on canvas painting featured a play on shapes, lines, and colors that somehow evoked human feelings, personalities, and traits. It had large bulging shapes and lines pushing against the frame. It was one of the first Elizabeth Murray paintings to challenge the use of the rectangle as the traditional format.
Painter’s Progress (1981)
This is another oil on canvas painting composed of 19 canvases over which a unified image of a palette with three paintbrushes is painted. This was one of the first paintings in which the artist abandoned the use of a single regularly shaped canvas. Instead, Murray “shattered” the piece into several eccentrically shaped paintings spread over multiple panels.
Why? Painting (Traveller’s Umbrella) (1987)
This angular, three-dimensional work consists of three canvases cut into the shapes of the letters “w,” “h,” and “y.” Over these overlaid canvases, Murray painted a distorted terrain. The artist exhibited her penchant for visual tricks by painting the landscape such that an overturned umbrella resembles mountain peaks while an umbrella handle serves as a question mark.
Blooming (1996) and Stream (2001)
Murray created a couple of large-scale mosaic murals for permanent display in the New York City subway system. Blooming, which is installed at Lexington Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan, shows a blooming tree, coffee cups, and stepping shoes — things that the artist considered to be parts of the ritual of a subway trip. Stream, which is at the Court Square station in Queens, shows suns and clouds floating along the walls and boots striding beneath.
In her youth, Murray’s paintings were influenced by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Stuart Davis, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Paul Cézanne. She studied the work of these artists intensely.
Murray was a keen observer of the art scene of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and emulated the work of her contemporaries, including Frank Stella and Brice Marden. She was inspired by American pop art and the work of Claes Oldenburg. She also took a liking to the work of Ron Gorchov and Jackson Pollock.
Murray’s style influenced a younger generation of artists, including Carroll Dunham.
Elizabeth Murray Resources
ARTnews.com. (2017, November 17) From the Archives: Elizabeth Murray on Shattering Expectations for Abstract Painting, in 1984. Retrieved from http://www.artnews.com/2017/11/17/archives-elizabeth-murray-shattering-expectations-abstract-painting-1984/
Britannica.com. (n.d.) Elizabeth Murray. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-Murray
ElizabethMurrayArt.org. (n.d.) Chronology. Retrieved from https://elizabethmurrayart.org/chronology/
Hyperallergic.com. (2017, October 25). How Graffiti Influenced Elizabeth Murray. Retrieved from https://hyperallergic.com/406615/how-graffiti-influenced-elizabeth-murray/
NYCSubway.org. (n.d.) Artwork: Blooming (Elizabeth Murray). Retrieved from https://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Artwork:_Blooming_(Elizabeth_Murray)
NYCSubway.org. (n.d.) Artwork: Stream (Elizabeth Murray). Retrieved from https://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Artwork:_Stream_(Elizabeth_Murray)
NYMag.com. (n.d.) Art Review: Wow! Neat-o!. Retrieved from https://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/art/reviews/14925/
Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ’80s
Elizabeth Murray: Paintings 2003-2006
Elizabeth Murray: Popped Art