Forming My Foundations: Coming of Age in the Art World, part 2

This is the second part of a three-part series that traces my experience in the art world through my work for key artists and an art historian and critic, all of whom have had significant impacts both on contemporary art in New York and beyond, and on my own development as an artist. 

I have had the good luck to work for three important and vastly different people in the art world: Barbara Rose, Elizabeth Murray and Martha Rosler.  All three have helped shape both my artistic production and my interaction with, and outlook on, the art world.  That all three of these people are women only struck me recently – and I felt gratitude that with so much and rightful attention to gender equality and fair credit that they have been my role models.

I met Elizabeth Murray as a graduate student in visual art at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.  I had gone to great lengths to be able to transfer from American University to Brooklyn College for a semester specifically to be able to study with her.  She and I were both new to the program: me as a transfer student, and she as a new professor in the program.  Her first class met in a large painting studio.  I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing and hearing her in person and of having a discussion with her in my own studio.  I imagined that everyone else in the room felt the same way.  However, as Murray began her introduction to the class, she was somewhat apologetic regarding her style of work and the disconnect with what she perceived the students’ needs to be.  I was dumbfounded, feeling like I had hit the jackpot with a successful, hard working, thoughtful art hero, yet seeing some faces in the classroom looking perplexed as to who this woman was.

It turns out that the school was undergoing a political shift and some ensuing discord.  The faculty and some students were split between wanting the program to remain a more traditional arts education and wanting to push the program towards a more contemporary space.  I learned this because Murray explained this to me when we first met in my studio.  This first meeting with her allowed me to know much about who she was as a person, artist, and professor very quickly.  This I attribute to the fact that she was honest, largely unguarded and entirely unpretentious.

Murray was also kind, encouraging and generous of spirit.  She told me, upon entering my studio: “Oh, you have a show right here.”  She once introduced me to Robert Storr as “her best student ever” (though I have yet to be on his curatorial radar).  She suggested artists for me to look at along my own artistic journey, ones that I would not have associated as necessarily relevant or at least similar to my own work, but that nevertheless were thoughtful and meaningful connections for me.  The two I recall most were Jason Rhoades and Sue Williams.  On the surface, neither artist has a similar style to mine so the affinity or similarities she immediately saw were not ones I would have likely made.  Her perceptive suggestions to look at their work and think about their process made me search to find the common space and think beyond where my mind already was.  It was an illuminating and expansive exercise for me.

Elizabeth Murray seemed to be ever energetic.  In addition to her studio work, she taught at Brooklyn College and Bard College, and raised three children.  Still, she took students on Saturday gallery walks and then usually ate with us, often at a coffee shop and once at her apartment.  That one day, we had taken a long, cold, and snowy walk through Central Park and back downtown after which she invited everyone back to her apartment for hot tea to warm up and talk about the art we had seen.  She never seemed to tire.  Even when she was sick and declining she wanted to press on with a paintbrush in hand, a fact I know from another colleague who worked in her studio through her final days.

As I write this I feel a deep longing for her presence.  I miss her.  She was wiry thin, simple in her dress, had a natural curly head of white hair, almost always wore a smile, looked like she was always seeking the fun and zany, and worked incredibly hard.  After this glimpse into her home and after meeting her husband, poet Bob Holman, I could not separate her work from her life.  Her work was absolutely an expression of her life and her life philosophy, and she was always sincere and honest about daily life (as she was about her personal dealings and relationships).  She sought the good, the positive, the humorous; she sought a way to make the best out of real life with all of its chaos, joy, difficulty, messiness, and laughter – a way of always pulling through and looking up.  Resilience matters. 

Murray painted shaped canvas with “bloopy” forms (her own delightful word), domestic objects and body parts (mostly internal).  She dealt with subjects that sometimes were and still often are considered taboo – domesticity, fecundity, corporality, sex.  The objects she employed in her paintings exposed the veracity of what real life embodies.  But this idea and these subjects did not dominate her paintings; her message was more that you can look for the happiness in life without neglecting to acknowledge the plain necessities.  The work was always expressive, intensely chromatic, and vital.  She danced the shapes and objects around and through the canvas, taking the viewer on a wonderful and wacky journey.

Wishing for the Farm, Summer-Fall, 1991
oil on canvas on wood
8’11-1/8″ x 9’6-5/8″ x 13-1/2″ (2.72 m x 2.91 m x 34.3 cm) 
© 2020 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph courtesy Pace Gallery

She was equally honest about her process and did not hide her working methods or offer overly complex justifications for it. “Trying to make it work somehow,” was her own explanation for how works came together.  Murray, in this statement, at once acknowledges the intellectual intuition involved in making a painting and deflects praise from herself without being self-deprecating.  As an artist, those words resonate.  One can sketch out or make a composition for or try to mock up a final work, but ultimately, the artist intellectually and physically grapples with the material work in a back-and-forth that cannot be entirely foreseen or explained.  Murray did make drawings, or “warm ups” which she slowly translated into larger sketches for her ultimately very large paintings.  But between the plan and the finished painting, Murray made adjustments, both small and big, and let the actual act of painting and looking guide the work through completion.  She believed in and acted out the physicality of painting and, with it, the intuition of the body.  She loved paint and loved painting; and you can see this from looking at her work.

Study for “Dis Pair”, c.1989
colored pencil on lined notebook paper
5-3/4″ × 8-1/4″ (14.6 cm × 21 cm)

© 2020 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery
Dis Pair, 1989-90
oil and plastic cap on canvas (two parts)
10′ 2-1/2″ × 10′ 9-1/4″ × 13″ (311.2 cm × 328.3)
© 2020 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

Elizabeth Murray was fiercely independent in her work throughout her life and career.  She was never fully incorporated into an artistic movement which gave her a certain freedom to carve her own path.  Some of her feeling of freedom derived from her feeling that art history has been largely male and so she couldn’t and didn’t need to see herself there, liberating her from the pressure to fit into a linear narrative.  While there are certainly influences of Cubism and Surrealism in her work, and she also looked to Cezanne and de Kooning, she was very much her own voice.  

She refused to be categorized – either as being part of a singular art style or as a woman.  She staunchly denied the idea of women’s art, stating that images are not gendered, while maintaining elements in her work that were female – menstruation, birth, lactation.  The meaning of the works could not be reduced to the realm of women or feminism, nor did she wish it to be, and, furthermore, she incorporated corporal images – sex, body organs and death.

In these days of dire uncertainty and grave loss, Murray’s own advice to use art as a means of positive dissent is particularly valuable.  She found joy even in the difficult or mundane – this is what got her through – and she wanted to offer that capacity to others: gaiety as a form of sustenance.  Art can and does lift us in challenging time.

Written by: Katherine Keltner

Katherine Keltner is a Brooklyn-based artist whose body of work includes paintings; drawings; photo-based, mixed media collages; installations; and artist’s books. Her work has been exhibited at galleries and art fairs nationally and internationally. Keltner is a co-editor and a contributing writer for POV Arts.

Top image:

Bowtie, 2000
oil on canvas
85 x 77-1/2″ (215.9 x 196.9 cm)
© 2020 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

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