If the mini-retrospective at The Arts Club of Chicago is a good indicator, painter Elizabeth Murray had an oddly uneven career for someone so successful. Most bad art is an acquired taste, like coffee or cigars, that a novice will not instinctively enjoy. If a respected friend praises it beyond measure, though, you may come to know that your mind can veto your gut, that sometimes pain beds with pleasure.
Murray is not like that. Her paintings are deliberate but unrewarding. It has been said that she resuscitated the Modernist tradition by pushing abstraction beyond its feasible end. Some artists played that game by courting the stark monochrome, but Murray turned abstraction into an absurd jumble. Her canvases are intentionally broken and warped, but they are not funny. She placed these shaped canvases into inconsequential groups. The clashes aren’t productive or transcendent. As transcendence is denied, no brute reality or subtle ambivalence is offered in its place. This is to say nothing of her colors, which are tepid and muddy. They are neither abject nor garish. Matte and glossy finishes of the same color are applied as if without difference, side by side. Since I do regularly enjoying painting, I searched the faulty canvases for clues to their existence. They are not ironic. They are not ‘so bad that they are good.’ They are not poignantly jarring, nor nihilistic, nor innovative, nor provisional, nor pleasant.
Something shifted for Murray around the year 2000. Colors became crisp and clean. Her sloppiness went from haphazard to energetic. Negative spaces between shapes remained her signature move, but now they activated the objects that congregate around them. She keyed up the awkward/beauty dichotomy, finessed her stance on the abject, and harnessed some disturbing forms. It actually looks like she discovered the painter Carroll Dunham (born 1949). Murray’s late works, six of which are in the gallery here, emulate Dunham’s naughty transgressions, even the weird penis-nosed figure, and maybe that’s why I enjoy them. But these were also produced during the last years of Murray’s life (she died in 2007). The later works finally ooze the painterly freedom she tryingly sought, revealing, by contrast, her lifelong project as over-wrought and labored. Sometimes you just have to give up to get it right.
Published in Newcity (September 28, 2009)