Beyond the Frame: Robert Storr and Amy Sillman on Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007)

By Storr, Robert; Sillman, Amy | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Frame: Robert Storr and Amy Sillman on Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007)


Storr, Robert, Sillman, Amy, Artforum International


ROBERT STORR

SOME YEARS BACK, a student who had attended the summer program at Skowhegan in Maine told me about the powerful impression Elizabeth Murray had made on him. One thing he recounted stuck in my mind--that during a studio visit, Murray had said in passing, "For you to be right about what you're doing, not everybody else has to be wrong." Or is my memory playing tricks on me? Was it actually a woman who recalled this story for me? The matter of gender is significant when you talk about Murray, who died in August at age sixty-six. She was among a handful of woman painters of her generation--roughly that which emerged in the 1970s--who cracked the glass ceiling of the art hierarchy. And while cracking and shattering were not, and are still not, the same thing, Murray shared this hard-earned distinction with Jennifer Bartlett, Joan Brown, Vija Celmins, Mary Heilmann, Lois Lane, Ellen Phelan, Howardena Pindell, Katherine Porter, Liliana Porter, Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi, Susan Rothenberg, Jenny Snider, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir, and many others. (If I have mentioned a few Midwest and West Coast artists here, it is not only to remind New York-centric readers of their existence but also to underscore the fact that Murray's artistic life began in contrarian Chicago and shifted to the anarchistic Bay Area scene long before taking shape and flourishing in downtown Manhattan.) Largely going it alone in the predominantly male world of painting--which was turning from Tenth Street men's club to SoHo fraternity, with much-publicized displays of blustering, bad-boy behavior--some of these women were self-conscious feminists from the outset, and some, like Murray, became so more gradually, but nonetheless ardently.

Murray's comparatively late-blooming feminism was substantiated in the early '90s by her role in the Women's Action Coalition, which in 1992, together with the Guerrilla Girls, organized the picketing of the Broadway branch of the Guggenheim Museum, then on the verge of opening with no female artists anticipated in its inaugural show. (In haste, the Guggenheim added grandes dames Louise Bourgeois and Joan Mitchell to the list.) Three years later, Murray again demonstrated the strength of her convictions when Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, invited her to mount an Artist's Choice exhibition. For this, her only major curatorial project, Murray ransacked the storage vaults and brought to light a wealth of work by women usually consigned to the shadows--reminding us that women have always been a part of art history, even insofar as MOMA'S acquisition policies are concerned, but rarely get their due when that history is presented as images and objects on exhibition. (By gallery maven and gadfly scold Jerry Saltz's reckoning, the proportion of works by women in MOMA'S display of art from 1879 to 1969 is even now only 5 percent.) As happy as Murray was to be among the few female artists whose work was regularly shown at the museum--and as proud as she was in 2005 to be one of the handful honored with a retrospective there--her Artist's Choice pointedly proclaimed her refusal to be a stand-in for all the women present in the institution's database yet unaccounted for on its walls.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Murray's tough-minded sense of fairness was born of the school of hard knocks. If, in 1961, as Larry Rivers and Frank O'Hara noted in their still-stinging "How to Proceed in the Arts," it was true that Abstract Expressionism had "moved to the suburbs"--that young Americans were choosing to study art with the same assurance they would have had choosing dentistry (today the fantasy comparisons have shifted upward to careers in business and law)--Murray still took nothing for granted. Nor was she in any position to, since during most of her childhood she and her family lived catch-as-catch-can. Her father's chronic illness translated into rents unpaid and apartments hurriedly abandoned in exchange for nights sleeping on the El, followed by reliance on grandparents in small-town Illinois and the kindness of strangers. …

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