Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ‘80s
Pace, New York
2 November, 2017 – 13 January, 2018
Review by Torey Akers
With the onset of the 1980s arrived an era of painting primarily concerned with flash – the more brazen, the better. After nearly a decade of Post-Minimalist derision towards the genre, a new generation of painters, united by Neo-Expressionist audacity and little else, up-ended the market with a fresh injection of art-world celebrity. The pieces were big, the personas even bigger. Names like Fischl, Salle, and Schnabel became not just salient, but sexy. While this landscape hardly embraced women participants, innovators like Elizabeth Murray, the subject of an excellent retrospective currently on display at Pace’s 25th St. location in Chelsea, transcended dismissal through persistence.
Painting in the ‘80s convenes sixteen of Murray’s heaviest hitters from the period, a collection that spotlights her work’s unique ability to challenge institutionalized material taxonomies concerning affect, femininity, and process almost thirty years after their conception.
Murray always considered herself a painter above all else, and emphasized her canon’s painterly concerns to the point of insistence. While her 80’s oeuvre definitely centered painting as praxis through intuitive spatial tectonics, it was sculptural edge that afforded her reliefs their broad, peculiar spookiness. Pace’s curation strategy for this show iconizes each piece by lighting the object dimly from below, a technique that creates an almost religious ambiance in the space itself. Monumental canvas structures, some as large as twelve feet tall, hug the wall with a numb, stern stillness. The selections on view seem to fall into one of two categories; geometric-shaped coagulates arranged into splintered collage, or swelling, biomorphic arabesques that furl forth into the viewer’s immediate proximity. The latter prove more far more engaging. Works like “Making it Up” (1986) and the formidable “Trembling Foot” (1988) graft a formalist impulse over mucosal liminality, forcing the viewer into a specific submissive reverence perfected by women modernists in the 40s and 50s. These melting monoliths boast color worlds that owe as much to ancient Oceanic craft history as they do graffiti culture, and while unsettlingly organic steles like the uber-orange “Picture Crack-Up” (1985) don’t make any concrete claims towards gender, they evoke a jarring, cacophonic embodiment that places performativity and pain in rippling discord. This is a weird, unflinching assortment, assured and defiant in its command of the cube.
Murray’s more traditional canvas works draw their dynamism from straightforward abstraction; the ice-blue behemoth “Wake Up” (1981) and green-inflected “Water Girl” (1982), for instance, riff on the stylized shapes of raindrops, building easy friction through compositional contrast. “Her Story” (1984), however, proves a categorical triumph, elevating Murray’s interest in socialized symbology to a wonderland of expertly balanced chaos. Her shade selections sizzle and pop, seamlessly integrating the theoretical ingress of expressionist formalism with the high-octane graphic bravado that defined 80s painting. As such, the shadow-box of small preparatory sketches featured in the second gallery of the exhibition neither competes nor properly illuminates the assembly at hand. Their inclusion, while interesting, strikes even a casual viewer as something of an after-thought. The gallery wall-decals, containing stanzas by her poet husband, Bob Holman, and quotes the artist herself in reference to relationship with Bob, also grate a little. While Murray’s image-sourcing might sound mundane or mushy – wineglasses, windows, rabbits, colors she associated with love—the results are far from it, and a framing move towards sentimentality seems ill-advised at best. Holman’s words may have inspired these bright, entropic mammoths, but their presence in the gallery itself amounts to misstep. Regardless, Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the 80s offers up a fabulous slice of history from a well-respected but continuously under-rated artist whose work continues to set the tone for generations of makers to come.