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Elizabeth Murray, A Pioneering Painter.

August 1, 2008

It’s almost a year since Elizabeth Murray died from complications of lung cancer, at the age of 66. She was a pioneer in painting with her characteristic cut outs and distinctive, often curvilinear, shaped canvases; with these creations she broke with long held traditions of creating illusionistic space within two dimensions, making her work jut from the wall into the viewer’s space. These painted “sculptural” forms blur the line between the painting as an object and the painting as a space for depicting objects.

Born in Chicago in 1940, her childhood was a difficult one that sometimes included bouts of homelessness due to her father’s ill health. Murray remembered as a young child watching her nursery-school teacher draw with a thick red crayon across some paper; an experience that she said gave her an indelible sense of the physicality of color. She drew constantly from an early age, inspired mostly by newspaper comic strips, and once sent a sketchbook to Walt Disney asking for a job as his secretary.


"Art in the Twenty-First Century," production still

In 1958 she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her goal, to become a commercial artist, was derailed by a Cézanne still life she passed regularly on the way to classes. She later said that the painting was “the first in which I lost myself looking,” and added, “I just realized I could be a painter if I wanted to try.” She earned a BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from Mills College in Oakland California.


Southern California,” 1976

Oil on canvas, 6′ 7 1/4″ x 6′ 3 1/2″

Elizabeth Murray. Southern California. 1976


Murray debuted in 1972 in an annual exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Since then, she has challenged the traditional notion of painting, boldly piercing and shaping her canvases and exploring her medium in both physical and emotional ways. Respected for reinvigorating the medium of painting, Murray blends principles of abstraction with a genuine interest in the mundane and in emotion. In a 1991 interview the artist explained, “When you walk out of the studio, and you walk down the street that’s where you find art. Or you find it at home, right in front of you. I paint about things that surround me-things that I pick up and handle everyday. That’s what art is. Art is an epiphany in a coffee cup.”

Mark Stevens writing in New York Magazine states that, “Murray’s signature style developed in the early eighties, when her paintings began to crack into eccentrically shaped pieces. In Painter’s Progress, from 1981, she shattered the image of a palette and three brushes—a symbolic escape from the usual boundaries of art. Soon, the pictures began to buckle and bend into something that resembles sculptural relief.”

“Painters Progress,” 1981 From the MOMA Collection.

Oil on canvas, nineteen panels, 9′ 8″ x 7′ 9″

Elizabeth Murray. Painters Progress. spring 1981


Murray’s most recent work demonstrates a fiercely vibrant energy and lusciously tactile beauty that can be as disturbing as it is enticing. Writing about this two-sided attraction of her paintings, critic Francine Prose recently noted, “Elizabeth Murray’s art reminds us of, insists upon, and celebrates the joys of living in the world, the satisfaction of color and form, of work and dreams, the sheer pleasure a painter takes in playing with paint. And yet it never lets us forget how easy it would be to shut our eyes for a heartbeat, to drop our guard for an instant-and go spinning into freefall off the edge of the planet.”

“Snake Cup,” 1984

Color lithograph on paper, 32″ x 25″



Her still lifes are reminiscent of paintings by masters such as Cézzane, Picasso, and Matisse; however, like her entire body of work, Murray’s paintings rejuvenate old art forms. Breathing life into domestic subject matter, Murray’s paintings often include images of cups, drawers, utensils, chairs, and tables. These familiar objects are matched with cartoonish fingers and floating eyeballs—macabre images that are as nightmarish as they are goofy.

“Dis Pair,” 1989-90

Oil & plastic cap on canvas & wood, two panels, 10′ 2 1/2″ x 10′ 9 1/4″ x 13″


Elizabeth Murray. Dis Pair. 1989-90


Taken in as a whole, Murray’s paintings are abstract compositions rendered in bold colors and multiple layers of paint. But the details of the paintings reveal a fascination with dream states and the psychological underbelly of domestic life.

“Pigeon,” 1991
Oil on canvas and laminated wood, 94 3/4″ x 62 5/8″ x 13 5/16″


Murray belongs to a generation of artists who emerged in the 1970’s and whose exposure to Cubist derived Minimalism and Surrealist influenced Pop inspired experimentation with new modes of expression that would bridge the gap between these historical models. Over the course of more than four decades, she has transformed painting’s conventions to forge an original artistic idiom through the use of vivid colors, boldly inventive forms, and shaped, constructed, multi-paneled canvases. As already mentioned, Murray’s paintings are animated by recurring biomorphic shapes and vibrant images of domestic objects – cups, glasses, spoons, chairs, tables and shoes – by which the artist subverts the viewer’s notion of the familiar.

“Shack,” 1994.

Lithograph. 62 1/16″ x 50 3/8″ (irreg.)


Elizabeth Murray. Shack. 1994


The recipient of many awards, Murray received the Skowhegan Medal in Painting in 1986, the Larry Aldrich Prize in Contemporary Art in 1993, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award in 1999.

Do the Dance,” 2005.

Oil on canvas on wood. 9′ 5″ x 11′ 3″ x 1 1/2″


Elizabeth Murray. Do the Dance. 2005


Her work is featured in many collections, including the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Untitled, 2006

Gouache and watercolor pen on paper and foam, h: 28.8″ x w: 24″ x d: 2.9″

Elizabeth Murray, Untitled

Elizabeth Murray lived and worked in New York, and died in August 2007.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2008 5:48 pm

    Wow. That is some very remarkable art. There is definitely some cubism and surrealism in there. And then there’s something in that art that is all her own.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. aricht1 permalink
    February 6, 2009 9:04 pm

    Love that the different shapes and sizes can capture viewers in a eye popping way!!

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