Elizabeth Murray - Biography and Legacy
New York, NY
Biography of Elizabeth Murray
Elizabeth Murray was born in 1940 in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. Her parents were Irish immigrants and her mother took care of the family, while her father worked as a lawyer. Despite her father's job and a few good early years, the family often struggled financially and experienced some bouts of brief homelessness. Murray admired her mother's artistic abilities; particularly her painted miniatures, but saw her as "a typical woman of the thirties. She didn't have the whereabouts to make herself have a career." Despite her parents' traditional background, they didn't pressure her to get married and have a family; rather, they expected she would become a commercial artist due to her love of drawing.
Murray adored cartoons and animation, and once wrote to Walt Disney offering to be his secretary. She stated, "All my ideas about art came from looking at comic books". As a young person she drew animals, children and adults, and 'Cowboys and Indians', sometimes selling the drawings for a few cents a piece.
High school was an unhappy time for Murray, who spent her time reading and drawing, mostly concentrating on faces like those of her father and grandmother. The financial support of a high school teacher and her parents' well-wishes then allowed Murray to enter the Art Institute of Chicago.
Early Training and Work
At the Institute Murray studied lithography and began to familiarize herself with the Institute's holdings. She received a traditional training in painting but what was truly impactful on her was the fact that "to get to the art school in these days, you had to walk through the museum... I gradually began to absorb the art - the masterpieces - around me." She marveled at the Picassos and the Cezannes, and was particularly interested in the work of the Surrealists and Willem de Kooning. When she started painting herself, she was "terrified of the idea...but something drove me to stick with it. There were a thousand times in art school where I said to myself, I'm getting out of here, I can't do this."
In graduate school at Mills College near San Francisco, Murray worked as an assistant in the printmaking department, but the head of the department taught her very little and left her alone with students; she remembered, "it was just a wreck, but I did learn something about the process." She immersed herself in the bohemian milieu of the Bay Area and was exposed to West Coast Funk and Pop Art.
Murray moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1965 after attainting her M.F.A., and got a teaching job at a Catholic women's college to support herself. She married the sculptor Don Sunseri she had met in Chicago and remained close to fellow artist Jennifer Bartlett, whom she'd befriended at Mills. Murray and Sunseri had a son named Dakota Sunseri.
Murray finally made it to New York City in 1967 and met local artists there. She and her husband had a daughter, and though the demands of motherhood began to compete with those of artmaking, she told an interviewer that having children "enhanced my work. I think children bring out the love inside of you, and I found it really emotional and very rewarding."
In New York Murray painted bright, abstract works that gradually grew quite large. She visited art shops frequently, deriving inspiration from the variety of paint colors.
The art world first took notice of Murray in the Whitney's 1972 painting show. Martha Tucker, then a curator at the Whitney, reviewed Murray's slides that the artist had sent her. Dakota Red was exhibited, though it did not sell; Murray ended up trading it for dental work later on.
Her first major sales came later in that year, however. Jim Duffy, a Detroit manufacturer, visited her studio and bought three paintings for $800. Murray supplemented her sales by working in bookstores and waiting tables.
Her confidence grew following the Whitney show, and she began to show her work to more dealers. She was particularly impressed with the quiet, elegant style of Paula Cooper and chose to exhibit at Cooper's gallery (she remained with Cooper until 1995, when she moved to PaceWildenstein).
After splitting with her husband, Murray wanted to get out of New York and thus accepted a teaching position at Cal Arts. Everyone there was "doing conceptual things and earthworks" while she was painting. She didn't think it was an accident that "I started shaped canvases at that crisis time in my life."
She returned to New York in 1980 after a year that was "jolting but also strengthening" and started to create some of the large, three-dimensional pieces she is best known for. She admitted, "I was in therapy to remain a member of the human race, but I had been holding back so much. So I pushed myself further...because out of the shattered pieces, I believed I could make myself whole. This applied to my art and life."
Murray married Bob Holman, a poet, proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, and performance artist. She had 2 daughters with Holman: Sophia Murray Holman and Daisy Murray Holman. She enjoyed both curating and teaching as well as making art. Teaching at places like Yale, Princeton, and Bard helped her sharpen her critical eye; she explained, "the studio discussions kept me on my toes." She also enjoyed working with young artists, and commented that she "really feels for younger artists. So many good ones get lost. They can't push their own work, not according to the art world's rules." A highlight of her late career was curating an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996 that focused on the work of women artists; she jokingly said she would call it "Mamas at MoMA."
Towards the end of her life Murray suffered from both brain and lung cancer. She underwent brain surgery and found it difficult to get back into painting. She told an interviewer, "it was hard because I was exhausted...But you have to keep at it, because you have to, and gradually things start to sort themselves out."
Murray died at age 66 due to complications from lung cancer at her home in upstate New York.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Murray
In the wake of Minimalism many artists and critics deemed painting dead, or at least moribund. Elizabeth Murray found this claim amusing and piquing, and dedicated her artistic career to painting in all of its permutations. Her experiments with the shaped canvas were unparalleled, taking what other artists had begun to play with to its apotheosis. Her use of rich but oftentimes discordant color, the massive size and complexity of the canvas(es), and the interweaving of the cartoonish, the disturbing, and the playful influenced her peers and artists in the proceeding decades. Neo-Expressionist painters like Jennifer Bartlett, Susan Rothenberg, and Julian Schnabel echoed Murray's use of color and capacious canvases, while Carroll Dunham embraced her use of exaggerated comic book imagery and Peter Halley found inspiration in her deconstruction of geometric shapes. Murray is the consummate "painter's painter," and her work has been a source of inspiration and delight for those who refused to believe that the medium of painting was irrelevant.