Where Does She Get Those Ideas of Hers?

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Mouse Cup, Elizabeth Murray, 1981-82 — Collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson

Looking Around is in a looking around mood today. And I still have Elizabeth Murray on my mind. In the tribute to Murray that I wrote yesterday for Time.com, I called her a “brilliant synthesizer”. What I was thinking of there was her gift for blending multiple disparate influences into a language of form and space that was in the end entirely her own. So I decided that today I would just sort through some of the image bank that’s been running through my head these past few days as I thought back on her work. Since there’s a lot of show and tell to do here, I’ll probably break this post into two or three parts and finish it tomorrow or even Friday.

So let’s begin….

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The Ray, Chardin, 1728 — Musée du Louvre, Paris

To begin with, much of the time Murray was a still life painter. That’s easy to forget because there’s nothing very still in the springing energies of her canvases. But a table, a chair, a pair of shoes, a cup and saucer — these were her typical motifs. Yesterday I mentioned that she could be understood partly as what the French call an intimiste, a painter whose subject is the ordinary middle class household. It’s a term that’s most often applied to painters of the Impressionist era and afterwards. But it could easily be cast back further in time to the 18th century and Chardin.

And it was Chardin’s still life The Ray that came to mind today, partly because that cat creeping into the picture from the left looks like he might just set flying that whole carefully arranged ensemble of food and kitchenware. In Murray’s pictures there’s often a mishap at the center of things, spilled coffee, flying crockery — domestic life isn’t always the same thing as domestic tranquillity. Those events lend themselves to her main formal concern, which is how to get pulse and motion into a static image. But they also serve a psychological purpose. They introduce a note of anxiety and emotional rupture. There’s a fair amount of strife in Murray’s pictures. They’re funny, sure, but sometimes they leave you with the feeling that the laughs came hard.

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The Plate of Apples, Cezanne, 1877 — The Art Institute of Chicago

When she was studying at the Art Instutute of Chicago in the late 1950s Murray had what she always thought of as a crucial encounter with one of the Institute’s Cezannes, The Plate of Apples, a painting she described years later as one where “the space is all pouring out somehow at you.” At the time the painting’s main importance for her was simply that it turned her on to the joy of looking at painting. But plainly something of the canted, tilted iceflow surfaces of Cezanne’s still lifes would find its way into Murray’s work.

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Still Life with Apples and Oranges, Cezanne, 1899 — Musée du Louvre, Paris

It was Cezanne of course who was the great source of the breakthrough into Cubism by Picasso and Braque. And the Cubist fracture of space is essential to the space that Murray arrived at. Twenty years ago, in a review of Murray’s first major retrospective, at the Whitney Museum, my very esteemed predecessor as Time‘s art critic, Robert Hughes, made a shrewd comparison netween Murray and another Cubist, Juan Gris….

….with his smooth Ingresque planes and profiles of teacup, gueridon and spoon, their lights and darks fitting together like the notches of a key in the wards of a lock. But Murray’s work is less composed, and its messages include the kind of direct psychological narrative, the contact with anxiety (including the anxieties of stylistic irresolution that must be faced with every new picture) that Gris’s still lifes were designed to bury.

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The Sun Blind, Gris, 1914 — Tate, London

Another ingredient of Murray’s art is also traceable in part to Picasso, namely the bulging, brightly colored biomorphic forms that were a hallmark of his work in the 1930s, as he was playing with an almost (he never quite signed up) Surrealist phase.

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Large Still Life with a Pedestal Table, Picasso, 1931 — Musée Picasso, Paris

And those forms soon migrated into the work of Arshile Gorky, Picasso’s most devoted American follower and an artist who was a consuming passion of Murray’s after she moved to the Bay area for a few years in the early 1960s to do graduate work at Mills College in Oakland.

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The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, Gorky, 1944 — Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.

But before we get too caught up in the high art sources of Murray’s art, it’s important to remember that one of her enduring inspirations has been comic strips and animated cartoons. By conflating the cartoon world and the Surrealist world, Disney and Dali, Murray taps into their common power as sites of fantasy and fantastical shape shifting. Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Disney features were all sources for her. To say nothing of the celebrated bird who was the explicit model for one of her painted forms…Tweety Bird

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Tweety Bird, Leon Schlesinger, introduced 1942 — Warner Bros.

More tomorrow…. (Or should I do one of those Porky Pig exits? “That’s all folks!”)

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