Elizabeth Murray: 1940-2007

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Painter’s Progress, 1981 — The Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. © 2007 Elizabeth Murray

I’m back from vacation and unfortunately the first order of business is to talk about the death of Elizabeth Murray, the irresistable American painter. I can’t think of another contemporary artist who gave me more sheer pleasure over the past few decades. In the 1970s, when everybody just knew that painting was dead, Murray and a handful of others — Susan Rothenberg, Brice Marden and Philip Guston to name three — came along with the kind of vital pictures that said: “Says who?”

Murray’s big shaped canvases, with their declamatory colors and cartoonish references to bodily form and household objects, were playful in all the best and smartest ways. Her work was youthful, but never puerile. She could be childlike without ever being childish. Like Howard Hodgkin, or for that matter Matisse, she offered us a bright, beckoning palette as a point of entry into all kinds of sophisticated reckonings with form. She drew inspiration from comic books and Tweety Bird, but also from Stuart Davis and Miro. And of course from every area of ordinary domestic life. All those cups, and shoes and children’s toys — she took the “womanly” household realm and reminded us that it’s the place where magic happens.

I’ll have more to say about Murray later. She may be gone, but no artist ever left behind a body of work that was more exuberantly, enduringly alive.

Dis Pair, 1989-90 — The Museum of Modern Art © 2007 Elizabeth Murray