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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Elizabeth Murray

Perhaps more in art than in many other fields, women today are accepted as the norm. There is a feeling that only the art matters.  The age and sex of the artist are at best secondary factors. Once an artist has achieved a name, he or she becomes a "persona" and then critics begin to consider the source in addition to the art, but even then the sex of the artist is seldom either a positive or negative factor. And for the aspiring young artist today, there are dozens of outstanding artists of both sexes for them to admire and emulate. But this is a recent development. For those in the past wishing to emulate, almost without exception, the role models were all men. Even as late as the early 1970s, the outstanding female artists women had to look up to could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. And for those aspiring female artists with feminist leanings, this was especially troubling, because so many of the male artists whose work they genuinely liked were of the "chauvinist pig" variety. No matter how appealing their painting might be, often their subject matter and personalities were quite the antithesis of what these women stood for or were striving for.

One of 36 panels comprizing Madame
Cezanne in Rocking Chair, 1972,
Elizabeth Murray
One such woman was Elizabeth Murray. Born in 1940, and raised in the Midwest, she came of age artistically at a time when artists were deserting Abstract Expressionism in droves, in favor of figurative painting, Minimalism, and various incarnations of conceptual art. Compared to the lengthy run of the New York School, these all seemed to be merely momentary flashes of brilliance (although some were quite explosive). Most were as broad as a New York pizza and about as deep. Murray was astute enough to see this. Her earliest and strongest influence reached back to Cezanne, and especially his handling of women in his work. Madame Cezanne in Rocking Chair, dating from 1972, comprises 36, six-inch panels in which she takes Cezanne's work and pulls it apart, plays with it, some might even say destroys it, before putting it back together, having gained new insights into the work of this godfather of modern art.

Stirring Still, 1997, Elizabeth Murray
Still, Cezanne was a man. So was Gustave Courbet, another of Murray's early idols, and Picasso, and Vermeer. None of these could be considered any sort of feminist ideal. So, at a time when all women artists of her generation were ardent feminists, Elizabeth Murray rejected the label. Moving beyond that, she rejected any relevance as to her sex in her work. In the short term, this put her outside the mainstream, leaving her to go her merry way until the importance of feminism and femaleness in art diminished, until her work could be seen in an asexual light. Her shaped canvas, Stirring Still, dating from 1997, was typical of her later work. It vigorously resists categorization, much as does its creator. Suggestions of babies, hands, lovers, brushes, shoes, palettes, spoons, telephones, all come to mind in her oddly shaped, sometimes ballooning canvases. And, one can search for influences and infer quite a number of them, but in no case are they overt. In the final analysis, one would have to say that her strongest influence was Elizabeth Murray. She died in 2007.

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