Cartoonish and Goofy, Yet Disciplined

Painter Elizabeth Murray's approach is often likened to modern masters Matisse and Picasso

Elizabeth Murray is perhaps the most critically recognized female painter working today. The slender, energetic, silver-haired Murray, with a facile wit and warmth to match, takes her place in the rarefied realm of male-dominated fine-art stardom.

Murray's paintings are included in the permanent collections of many prestigious international museums. A current show at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in the artist's home city of New York runs through June 20.

The show features Murray's well-known canvases in which virtuoso painting in lush colors shapes chubby coffee cups, tables, nuptial beds, and homespun objects that bend, billow, and race off their pictorial surfaces.

Murray began as an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and did graduate work at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. A post-college teaching stint led her to New York around 1967 just as the stark cubes of Minimalist art were becoming the order of the day.

She can pull off this exuberant, smart art because she inherited both Minimalism's compulsion for thought-out craft, and the backlash that vowed to put the figure and some humanity back in painting.

Like the dyed-in-the-wool modern masters she is usually likened to - Matisse, Picasso, Arp - Murray suggests complex human nuances through pared-down shapes, colors, edges, and planes that push, compress, and pierce space.

Her work has a certain domes- ticity that macho modernism lacks, a sense of play and even vulnerability both highbrow curators and the viewer at large warm to.

Alongside the whimsy is an inexorable entropy. What we sense here is some analog for our own sometimes cartoonish world where the simple things of life explode and implode, go unexpectedly right then left, are illogical, or exhilarating, or redemptive.

Murray - mother, wife, feminist, and artist in her prime - spoke about her art from her studio in Manhattan.

There is something in your work that is learned and very disciplined yet totally goofy. Is that deliberate?

I don't have a program in my head that says that's what I am going to do, no. I think my work happens on both those levels; it's very instinctual and very conscious. Those two trade off in the long haul of making a painting.

I spend hours designing the shaped armatures that will hold the paint.... I make thumbnail sketches, going over the shapes again and again until the surface feels right. Then I make the shape in clay models done to scale. But when I start painting on the shaped surface, I definitely lose myself, and I stop thinking so much. That's probably why I paint every day, because you get outside yourself when you are working.

Are the objects in your work observed from life?

Yes and no. Everything I have done and experienced gets into the work somehow or another - my childhood, my family life, my grad- school days.

I am a woman, I'm a mom, I'm a wife, I'm a painter, I live in a city where I see bright graffiti everywhere. And I was raised on comics and cartoons. I loved their graphic quality, how things jumped off the page. All of it gets in there. It's like an onion: You keep peeling away at layer upon layer to get to the inside.

But the objects in your work don't seem random. They have a distinctly feminine flavor.

Shapes kind of evolve or pop out over time; one object takes shape from another like topography, and I can't tell you exactly how. I saw some shoes in paintings by [Philip] Guston just before he died and that object just hit me - you know, it has great plastic properties, shoes can get filled up, they can be empty, the idea that shoes get worn out and take you forward or keep you in place ... it's complex, but it's not. I don't know if the things are exactly feminine....

So are the objects symbols?

No, I wouldn't say that either. I don't want them to stand in as metaphors for anything; I want them to be what they are: paint and shape. But every object will have allusions for the artist and the viewer, about utilitarian ideas, formal ones, it'll bring up emotional stuff ... I'm always asked this, and it's a hard question.

But you have been called a feminist.

I have no objection to that label. I am a card-carrying feminist but not if that means a separatist. The part of feminism I admire has a humanism to it. It's inclusive and nurturing, not exclusive or authoritarian. It's the part that relates to what it means to be human.

This work seems funny and sad. Is that my imagination?

I was raised as an Irish Catholic ... when the roof falls in, we laugh. We're trained to find the positive side - or maybe to be in constant denial. On the other hand, we are nostalgic and broody.

I think all sides of human experience are in there. Basically I think there's a thirst in all of us for beauty and order. I try to set up a tension. Then I try to find a resolution or an equilibrium.... You could say that's a female thing because women by necessity have had to handle so many things at once and make order out of disorder.

But again, I don't necessarily see it as a gender thing ... to me, it's a life thing.

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