Nudging and ShapingJohn Haber
in New York City
Joan Snyder and Elizabeth Murray
Some artists leave their mark within a tradition. Others oblige art to begin anew.
Some, however, gently nudge art in their own direction. They make one face the past and discover that it has already changed. They may become most relevant only later, when suddenly one looks around and finds that they were there all along. The trick is to figure out how they got there—and how everybody else did as well.
Joan Snyder stood out in the 1970s and Elizabeth Murray in the 1980s for consolidating and continuing painting when others had declared it dead. They took the the painted mark as artists and critics then liked to describe it—as a formal sign in a strange language or as a continuation of the frame—and gave it the immediacy of a memento or a cartoon. They suffered for that twist, too. Who cared for a woman's private memories or a culture's childish ones, when formalism and irony alike just had to announce art's self-importance?
Now their sense of play and their personal touch, especially Murray's, look downright prescient. They suggest another way that women have suffered and escaped the stereotype of the minor artist, by playing the old game with their own, looser rules. In the end, Snyder definitely nudged painting ahead, but Murray literally and figuratively shaped it. She may seem less exhilarating to me than in 1982, when I was learning the landscape myself, but she still asks me why I look at art. A later, smaller show reveals Murray's growth in the 1970s, and in a postscript, I note her passing in August 2007.
At their retrospectives, one tries to pin down a moment in time and discovers instead a career. It gets back to the old question of Postmodernism as a break. Did it shatter the formal object or extend a century of critique? Did it ridicule Modernism or keep its strategies alive. Did it initiate art driven toward popular culture, or did it allow one to see what already lay germinating? Perhaps the present chaos began with the East Village, perhaps it came a decade earlier when Jennifer Bartlett disassembled painting into wall tiles, or perhaps Modernism itself already served up what I like to call the Postmodern paradox, but what about those decades in between?
Joan Snyder's retrospective holds barely thirty works. That leaves one ample time to consider each one as a resting point or a transition, and the judgment is never easy. Take the paintings that gained her attention around 1970, when abstraction flourished everywhere. Like others then, they work within a grid—either as squares suggesting the red geometry or color charts of Ellsworth Kelly and Josef Albers or, more often, as brushstrokes separated by horizontal rules and bare canvas. In my favorite, the marks recapitulate signature styles of the recent past, from Mark Rothko's soaked canvas and Willem de Kooning's loaded brush to more restrained geometry. They must have looked then like the epitome of formalism, whether in their reference points or in the very idea of painting as self-reflection.
They look just as much, however, like traces of an artist trying things on for size, comfortable in her subjectivity and uncomfortable with logical rules. The color charts include unfinished squares that break rather than derive from the frame. The "strokes" rest within their penciled horizontals like symbols on lined paper or in student notebooks. Where formalism taught one to see the painted image as an object, Snyder treats even the art object as one more image along with those that it may contain.
Before long, those images multiply and become more intelligible, even when they remain within the grid, as in the aptly named Oratorio of 1997, my favorite work of the show. A teacher herself, Snyder takes painting as notebook one step further, incorporating childlike drawing, simple words or names, and a stock of images as familiar as hearts and flowers. She introduces landscape patterns not unlike those of Joan Mitchell, but whereas Mitchell layers her colors until they combine and explode, Snyder's increasingly loose grid emphasizes the sheer separateness of her signs. Colors gain in contrast through the 1980s and 1990s, and both words and images grow more serious, if not downright ponderous. They include refugees, AIDS suffers, and entire verses of Romantic poetry. She cares about politics, of course, and one knows her former husband, Larry Fink, as a social photographer, but her method remains throughout—an ongoing catalog of herself as a painter.
As the painterly catalog's contents imply, she also means herself as a woman. As part of her transition in the 1970s, she began to identify the sensual nature of brushstrokes and the canvas with extensions of her body as well as mind. For a short time she tears and reweaves canvas like flesh. The transitions in her career correspond roughly to changes in her personal life, not only her days in the classroom but also her move first away from New York with Fink and then back again, as a single mother and the partner of another woman. Where she once seemed a comforting figure in the last years of abstraction's unbroken lineage, she soon stood for an emerging feminist art. She has boasted that she predated Neo-Expressionism, whether one takes that as a compliment or not.
The Jewish Museum tries hard to overlook the gaps in her output and her tenuous relationship to Judaism. It quotes her as comparing art to her altar, and it speaks of her sign language as Jungian, enough to make Jackson Pollock fans tremble. Without question, she conceives of feminism as essentialism, but one does not have to look deep into the unconscious for those bleeding, telltale hearts, and I had trouble convincing myself to read figures and other signs of humanity into every sea of colored strokes. I like her best for her work's inconsistency. Like a formalist despite herself, her essentialism lies very much on the surface. She anticipated not so much the end of abstract art as the climate today, when no one has time any longer to argue over the difference between abstraction, realism, surrealism, politics, and anything else that might on over one's hands—and they make me as uneasy as ever at the results.
Elizabeth Murray, too, came late to formalism and early to Neo-Expressionism or Neo-Pop. However, she has a stronger eye for both. Who can accuse her of inconsistency, when she has pushed the logic of the frame for twenty-five years? Who can accuse of essentialism, when she makes motifs from Frank Stella, Edvard Munch, and Walt Disney her own? Yet she herself uncovers inconsistencies in each, and it makes her retrospective a great end to the expanded Museum of Modern Art's first year.
In the early 1980s, Murray practically stood for advanced painting. She embraced both abstraction and the shaped canvas, but she gave them a shape that Stella had never imagined. His Protractors and Mitred Mazes build on the regularity of a stretcher and the tools for making one. His self-reflexivity extends, too, to the painted shapes within, to enamel and primary colors out of Abstract Expressionism or the hardware store, and to the iconic results. Murray generally wields her shapes freehand, and she dares one to keep track of how they come together.
At the same time, however, her work suggests a depth of commitment to the past that exceeds even Stella's. That includes her commitment to drawing and sheer skill. A furniture maker would take pride in curves like these. It includes a restricted palette relative to Stella's art supply shop, but in rich, opaque, blended surfaces out of landscape or anatomical modeling. It includes, too, Cubism's concern for the multiple cues by which the eye perceives space, from the crack in a surface or overlapping planes to the hint of assemblage or the outline of a human body. A dark tentacle here and there—like a small head from Munch's Scream—looks back to Surrealism.
Take the logic of Don't Be Cruel, from around 1985. Sky blues trace the upper edge, which puckers at one corner and twists on itself at another, while black emphasizes the left and right edges of the curved canvas. The same tones emphasize an apparent jagged break down the center, which also supplies the near vertical that the canvas itself cannot. Meanwhile, the earthy, central red tapers into spirals that pick up the overall shape, until one loves the results equally as painting and as sculpture.
That central jagged edge makes one think of teeth from a human being or a machine—perhaps the machine that created the art. Hello, cruel world! And Stella himself got the point. His later work develops quite naturally in the direction of sculpture. He also adopts more figurative elements and narrative titles. He may draw them from literature rather than from Elvis, but then he did receive a good Princeton education.
If all that makes Murray a prototypical figure of her time, it also makes her a disturbing force. Where Stella announces a break, she assimilates everything. Where Stella treats even the wildest turns of steel armature as predetermined, she always finds one too many determinant. Where Stella's time marches on, her images and shapes keep circling back. Look again at her early success, but this time without the formal logic.
For one thing, her curves push against the edge, but they do not coincide with it. In fact, her real breakthrough toward a shaped canvas comes with a rectangle. Black curves sweep against black toward the upper edge of her first truly large-scale composition. Ironically enough, the work now belongs to Princeton. From that moment, her shaped work seems only a matter of time. Later paintings do not just complicate but even reverse the formula, as when the near vertical of Don't Be Cruel allows rectilinear elements to intrude upon the curve.
Where shaping means coherence to Stella, for her it announces a shattering as well. Rather than a shaped canvas, one should speak of the shards of one or the assemblage of many. Like Robert Rauschenberg in his combine paintings, she also incorporates ordinary objects or their images. The gap in one painting mimics a keyhole, as if the eye or the hand could pry open the composition further—or perhaps find its key. One work, punningly titled Euclid, could pass for a pitch-and-toss game.
Obviously she welcomes illusion. The teeth breaking apart Don't Be Cruel do not exist. Moreover, Murray treats illusion as a further reflection on painting and a further stock of images. Anticipating the "neo" in Neo-Expressionism, her cartoon head makes me think of Jonathan Borofsky, and it looks undeniably cute. Yikes, from 1982, outlines a teacup, giving its two parts a story of shattering that never took place. The curved divisions in some later work mesh so neatly, like jigsaw puzzles, that one has to look again to see the arbitrary image, resembling a biological cell.
Her circling back includes the literal layering of canvas, a reminder that her paintings from the 1970s, before the shaped canvases, refer to waves and to Möbius strips. One work from the 1980s has four pieces, with each in turn propped at one end on the next, like M. C. Escher's eternal waterfall. I keep referring to the first decade of shaped canvases because I find these large, impulsive paintings so dramatic, but the frequent later return to earlier motifs continues her fondness for taking stock of painting. Call it one more way for her to complete the circle—or to square it. Like the curator, one could take her entire career as a saga of continuity and disruption, except that she would disrupt that tale and find it again, too.
The warped edges of Don't Be Cruel suggest floating as well as tearing, as in a dream. Those impulsively crafted dream elements, as in the title Sleep, give way in the 1990s to images with everything on the surface. Her biological signs, which invoke at once the material and the unconscious, give way to collectibles. Instead of earth tones, one increasingly sees flat, bright colors, and pop culture references come to look even more like cartoons, and I fear that she will never make a great woman Pop artist, especially this long after the sweetness of the 1960s. The great early shaped paintings ask one to take flatness, drawing, or the canvas literally but not too literally. By the 1990s she seems to have accepted that art has trouble taking anything literally nowadays.
The first shaped canvases have a scale, creepiness, and beauty that stand out compared to the fussiness of her paintings from the early 1970s and of her later work as well. They take soft edges and hard craft and dare one to call them woman's work. They belong more fully to their time and nudge it more completely to art's present-day mess. The later paintings may entertain me more than frighten me, but one can no longer dismiss her career as a cute aside or as painting's last gasp. At the very least, that "gasp" requires an exclamation point and a thought balloon.
When Formalism Broke Up
Sometimes, it helps to take a break and have a beer. For Murray, the 1970s did not exactly start auspiciously. A small brown still life has the musty, thick, and static surface of someone stuck in art school. It can hardly decide whether to take on the Old Masters, Abstract Expressionism, or Cubism—only the long-stemmed glass holds beer. Murray may be struggling, as she said, with Juan Gris, but she was prepared to deal with the tough guys on their own territory. And the glass was about to spill over every which way.
For someone like me, coming to Soho out of college in 1977, that spill was the story of a lifetime. It kept a lot of artists going through fifteen years of hearing that "painting is dead." For Murray, painting never died. It just shattered into shards of color. The decade has plenty of them, culminating in 1980, when her 2006 retrospective really slipped into gear. The two halves of Breaking could never quite fit together, and neither could the colorful geometries to either side, but painters got the (continental) drift.
It did not happen all at once. By 1972 Murray was confronting the geometric abstraction so dominant at the time, with a single curve or deliberately inexact triangle against a rough and splattered ground. Even the harsh yellows of Golden Delicious still feel muted, and the expressionist handling looks to the past. Nothing suggests an artist worth remembering, but change is coming. A figure eight based on a Möbius strip opens up the collision between two and three dimensions, although cautiously, and a diagonal cuts through a big square less as geometry than as a physical break. When a huge dark bubble pushes up against the edges in 1976, the ground has become figure, and canvas has reached the breaking point.
From there to Breaking, the canvas stays perfectly intact, but you may have to look twice to believe it. That early diagonal returns with a jagged vengeance, and so does the tension between its geometry and the brightening color fields. Their cartoon curves take on the splashy color of Pop Art, the kind that dominates the framed bits and pieces of her later work. One can almost hear the explosion from a speech balloon by Roy Lichtenstein. Her jokey titles could come out of Pop Art, too. If the previous generation wanted paint to look as good as when squeezed out of the tube, Murray could be squeezing a toothpaste tube.
Murray was not alone in those years in her loving rebellion against her roots, but no one else quite matched the love or the rebellion. She revives the image, like the "new image" painting of Susan Rothenberg and Jennifer Bartlett (named for a show at the Whitney in 1978), but the image never quite stumbles into representation. The biomorphic blobs parallel Lynda Benglis, but she never stopped painting, and she never gave up competing with the boys. The zigzags match Frank Stella note for note, but she never let the logic of shaped canvas pull her into sculpture. She was not all that interested in formal systems for their own sake or the sake of their inherent contradictions. She never had to worry about the fate of pure painting, because it was never all that pure.
Still, she was painting. She even allowed herself a look back at her beer glass, in the same muddy brown—only once with once with her new wiggles growing out of the glass and once on its side spilling its beer. An insightful catalog essay Robert Storr, excerpted right on the wall, speaks of her "topologies," but she never really gives up on Stella's abandoned dream of flatness. Even with the Möbius strip and the outline of a ladder that same year, the third dimension appears as allusion, not illusion. The paintings break apart in space, but in the space of the gallery. Poignantly, a gallery survey of the decade alone opens with her last completed work before her death in 2007.
Elizabeth Murray died of lung cancer August 12, 2007, at only 66. I am grateful to her for keeping painting not just pertinent, but also a lot of fun. I am grateful, too, that she lived to enjoy her 2005 retrospective.
She was my favorite American painter of her generation and probably my favorite living painter after perhaps Jasper Johns. Only Gerhard Richter—or the difficulty of defining what one means by a painter any longer—could offer her a real challenge. (Do not even ask me about the greatest living artist or what that might mean.) It says something about a critic's pretense to objectivity or at least to a kind of teaching, but I would never have said that in a review. Perhaps it shows through nonetheless. If one cannot separate judging, defining, interpreting, and understanding, as I think is right, perhaps it must show through.
In the 1970s and 1980s Frank Stella kept painting alive in another sense. He stuck to a dogma that many could no longer believe, but with the imagination to pursue its logic to ends that he himself might once have disavowed. Brice Marden deserves credit for worrying painting and drawing itself to death, with the hope that if he got others worrying, too, they might start to enjoy it. Lynda Benglis kept painting relevant in almost the opposite way. She detached it from everything that had defined it—formalism, two dimensions, a fixed outline, a history of great men, and the wall itself.
Jennifer Bartlett, too, made the supposed death of painting into an opportunity, by making a textbook of its working methods and imagery into a work of art. One could go on and on, not neglecting Neo-Expressionists, who could hardly see a problem, and European ironists, who could only wonder why anyone would bother seeking a solution. Or one could just forget the whole thing, and plenty did.
Murray obviously did not. In fact, she makes those alternatives seem in retrospect forced and confining.