OPEN CITY

Like New York, the city in which many of these paintings were made, a Judith Murray has democracy and depth. New York is a city crowded with individuals. Individuals come in types, of course, and America is very far from a classless society, but in theory at least there are equal rights in this self-styled land of opportunity. Everyone has the potential to be special, even if in reality many simply toe the line of group expectation—wearing their uniform and keeping their head down—however much jostling there is to get ahead. A Judith Murray is dense and busy. Within a restricted palette and a tight lexicon of strokes and shapes, almost every mark is a singular unit. And however “allover” and layered the composition, each mark retains its identity and space.

Structure is fluid and, at first at least, there seems to be minimum hierarchy. Movement is back and forth between complexity and clarity of organization. Paintings take their bearings from a singular bar placed along the right-hand edge of what would be, but for the bar, a square composition. The bar, to pursue our civic analogy, is the constitution: elegant, omnipresent, defining but unobtrusive. It itself has fluidity, when viewed close up, as it is often made of individual strokes or is layered—despite its monolithic appearance—with a different color beneath peeping through. For all its rigor, it is handmade, made indeed in the same hand as all the other strokes: despite its authority, the bar is mortal.

Floating above the mass are privileged, elegant shapes: geometric, but eccentrically so, too individualistic to be nameable. The paint is calmly modulated; edges are crisp; palette conforms to a strict code. These refined elements seem to belong to an old order, and yet they cohabit in a perfectly dignified way with the newer, wilder crowd of marks and shapes and painterly effects. Some of the upstart units look like they want a piece of the action: little dabs have insinuated themselves into corners of the geometric shapes in A Night in Tunisia, for instance, or Compound (both 2011)—minor-gentry offspring of a landed aristocracy. Other dabs mimic the edges of these aloof shapes, hoping some of their class will rub off perhaps and have them stand apart as a distinguished shape in their own rights: social aspirants, a kind of haute bourgeoisie. But generally there are clear demarcations of temperature and speed between the orders: effete facets are cool, calm, collected; the more muscular ones are blustery and sweaty

The way isolated elegant shapes stand out within the brusque maelstrom of marks recalls maps in which anthropologists chart the presence of atypical language types. The way, for instance, in Europe pockets of Uralic language punctuate swathes of Romance. The theory of migrants or invaders from the one language family landing on the shores of the other is countered with the idea of the minority language having once in fact constituted the whole. It is the majority that is the usurper, the isolated pockets being remnants of the status quo ante that once filled the whole map. These new works by Murray feel like a similar instance of layering. The crystalline, sharply focused, almost heraldic signs in black, white, red and tan—in Without Borders (2011) the checks, targets and iron crosses recall long-lost military codes or the signals of some arcane flying club—seem to articulate or punctuate the spread of more diffuse, warm-hued, painterly dabs, some parented by a knife or rag rather than a brush and standing out in their impasto. But then you wonder, in a work like Against the Grain (2011) whether the eccentricity of these isolated shapes results from an overall hard-edged composition that has been invaded by the conflagration of looser golden marks? Who was there first?

The student of Judith Murray does not need to speculate, however, as to how one order of mark has come to collide with another: this new body of work results from a conscious decision by the artist to revisit her past. There was discussion of a retrospective, but as an artist whose hard-won images have always been in demand and who has lived from her work, Murray did not have a supply of her earlier work within easy access. Furthermore, as much as one mode has grown from another, her current style seems so radically divorced from her earlier output. Murray’s work of the 1970s had a crisp, clean, hard-edged sensibility that contrasted quite starkly with the expressive impasto that has become her defining formal characteristic—even though the development from her earlier to her later idiom, from still to turbulent, happened through gradual evolution not sudden rupture. Her shifts in style conformed—in fact, anticipated—those in the painting culture at large, with the emergence in the late 1970s of a resurgent expressionism in both the New York and international painting scenes. Murray’s latest body of work, presented here, is a synthesis in dialectical terms between the smooth and the rough, the hard-edged Murray and the expressionist Murray. This is a breakthrough for the artist, a pinnacle in her career.

How it came about is an amusing tale. A friend asked her to clean one of her earlier works—not as in restore, but literally, to give it a dust down. Because each mark, so emphatic as to be painted almost in relief, needed to be individually cleaned Murray found herself revisiting—literally, stroke by stroke—the original facture of the painting, if not the evolution of the image. Memories of patterns and processes began to assert themselves in the intuitive work of making new images. A playful duel of styles began to take place between the hard edge of the old and the impressionist painterly dabs of the new. The new offered commentary on the old as surely as the old began parenting new forms.

The hard-edged eccentric geometry is directly reminiscent of—in actual fact, quotes from—Murray’s work of the late 1970s. In this period she was true to her earlier designation as a “non-conformist” by John Perreault, writing in the June 3, 1976 issue of the SoHo Weekly News. Set against a black ground were configurations of shape and line in a consistent palette of red, white and tan. Earlier pictographs included schematic shapes recalling a starburst (Pearl Street, 1975) or boomerangs and feathers (Phantom, 1977). These resolved by the end of the decade into gestalts at first recollecting classic Russian Constructivist designs except the return of one shape cutting into another might imply depth or recession that would militate against the graphic logo flatness the eye might expect of such a shape, as in Cross Bow (1981), for instance. As Perreault had written: “Murray’s paintings are logical. The difficulty is that the rules of her logic have been withheld.” In linguistic terms, all her declensions are irregular.

That Murray’s painting begs analogies to social systems—class structure, linguistics and maps have insinuated themselves into this essay—attests to the dual nature of an enterprise that entails humanism and abstraction. She is an artist who favors rigor and rules, but she is equally in tune with the glorious mess that is real life. Since 1975 she has abided by a personal procedural dictate, limiting herself to the use of her four colors—albeit four that can be mixed in any consistency and concentration to produce a spectrum of chromatic expression. Her near-square format is also the product of a foundational operating principle. But she has no rules for the evolution of a painting, starting anywhere and proceeding intuitively. The naming of works follows a similar pattern to the aggregation of gestalt: arbitrary, subject to change, and yet somehow vital to the resolution of the work. The balance of feelings and procedures, the isolation of pictorial elements that are nonetheless limitless in their articulation, are redolent of language or social structure because, like them, Murray’s paintings are rich and concentrated manifestations of human presence.

David Cohen
from "Without Borders", exhibition catalogue 2012


David Cohen is editor and publisher of artcritical, the online art magazine, and a noted critic and scholar. He served as gallery director at the New York Studio School from 2001 until 2010 and as art critic for the New York Sun from 2003 until 2008. He is the founder-moderator of The Review Panel, which takes place monthly at the National Academy Museum in New York. His books include Serban Savu (Hatje Cantz verlag, 2011) and Alex Katz Collages: A catalogue raisonné (Colby College Museum of Art, 2005).