Seeing into the Abstract

Viewing paintings and making them are separate but overlapping enterprises. For one thing, they operate at different speeds: no matter how long you look in a concentrated way at a painting, it is unlikely that you will match the hours the artist spent constructing it. And to make matters more complicated, that single painting also encapsulates a larger section of the artist’s history: each work of art contains the jostling ghosts of numerous earlier ones. This disparity between making and viewing is as it should be. There are things you don’t really have to see, or that can be better seen obliquely, or simply intuited. Rules are one of them. All artists have them. In different times, and in different cultures, they are delineated precisely: this saint is always shown with the symbols of her martyrdom, that deity must be portrayed with his hands held just so, a marriage portrait should contain the accepted symbols of fidelity, the donor kneels over there. While art has throughout the centuries moved away from those sorts of formulations and expectations, it would be a mistake to imagine that aesthetic regulation has disappeared. In fact, abstraction has proved to be particularly fertile ground for it. Early Modernism was given shape by the emphatic manifestoes and edicts of Futurism, Constructivism, Purism, De Stijl, and a host of other movements. Postwar art had its grand pronouncers, too – Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Ad Reinhardt, and Donald Judd, to name a few – but in recent decades rule-making has become a less generalized affair. Rules have either been made part of the overt, conceptual substance of the artwork, as in Sol LeWitt or Mel Bochner, or they have sunk below the surface to form an element of the individual artist’s own slowly evolving practice. That sense of evolution is key. A painter’s precepts are boundaries, meant to be pushed up against. What do you change? What do you keep? How apparent should they be, or how hidden?

Judith Murray’s work is a particularly telling example of the power of the covertly bounded. Her paintings over the last thirty years have displayed clarity, discipline, and structure that function in marvelous counterpoint to the intuitive, the playful, and the evocative. In her earlier works, such as Ballast I (1976) or Pearl Street (1975), crisply delineated forms hover at the center of rich, black fields. These forms, combinations of the curved and the straight, the planar and the linear, the ideated and the animate, are held in place by what feels almost like a magnetic force. They seem ready to move and transform themselves, yet their positioning and their configuration have a rightness that, paradoxically, conveys a greater sense of permanence and stillness than would a more static format.

Murray’s use of an asymmetrical central form, or forms, placed in a charged relationship to the ground and the edge continues throughout the 80s, in paintings like Bishop (1988). While some things have changed in Bishop — formerly flat areas are now gently modeled with a dappled stroke, and the ground has become more atmospheric, with clouds of soft reds and yellows emerging from the darkness around the edges — certain key things have remained the same. The shape of the canvas is horizontal, a bit off the square; there is a thin vertical bar running along the righthand edge of the painting; and only four colors are used — red, yellow, black, and white.

These elements persist in all of Murray’s paintings, from those of the 70s to the most recently completed. They form an underpinning to her project that is all the more powerful for being understated. The bar, for example, has simultaneous uses and meanings. While it clearly gives the central forms a charged edge to play off, heightening the sense of negative space, it also creates another, more ambiguously sited field – one that could be next to, on top of, or behind the primary arena. It marks, as well, an activated border, keeping the shape of the painting in flux, constantly adjusting its sense of squareness. That feeling of the square approached adds to the work’s allusive and elusive qualities. The square is both logical and mystical, with neither a referential nor a somatic orientation: it doesn’t look like a landscape or a portrait, and it doesn’t address the body’s position in physical space. A nearsquare, however, is protean. It can cast itself in any of these directions, depending on the compositional thrust of the forms it contains. In her choice of colors, too, Murray allows for the possibility of chromatic austerity, or, on the other hand, for a controlled lushness. Again, limitation opens rather than closes doors.

It is important to keep Murray’s constants in mind when looking at the group of paintings that she began in the mid-90s, for they anchor the work formally, conceptually, and spiritually. This body of work contains some of her largest and most ambitious paintings. Gestural, evocative, painterly, and romantic, they have a grandeur and presence, a sense of scale, that persists even in such small works, as Camouflage for the Moon (1997) or Remembrance of China II (2001). In the new paintings, the clear central image might be replaced by a lush welter of short brushstrokes, but the image feels as if it is still there, pushing up against our perception – potential rather than actuality. This is particularly evident in such works as Dark Before Light (1997), where the clumped aggregations of black and gray horizontal strokes are backlit by a wash of warm yellow, or Splendor (2002), where something large, cloudlike, and dark seems to be forming behind the foreground’s metallic gold. The near-square shape functions, more than ever, as a container for space – an arena where the abstract equivalents of light, air, and water are brought into play.

As for the bars, they are now a more emphatic presence, since their geometric, hard-edged quality is no longer echoed in other parts of the painting. In compensation, however, the variegated brushstrokes, glazings, and scumblings of the main field will often appear within the confines of the bar. Sometimes they seem to dissolve it, as in Transformation of the Romantic (2002), or Description Without Place (2000), while in other paintings, such as Celestial Temptations (1997), the bar is worked in much the same way as the field but is tonally distinct, its paint manipulation giving it a modeled, almost sculptural presence. The color in the new paintings, though they are the same black, white, yellow, and red, seem to be even richer than before. The combination of distinct brushstrokes and an expansive field allows for extensive color modulation. This is accomplished by selecting a main color or colors and subtly varying the hue, tone, or saturation stroke by stroke; in other paintings this is achieved by interjecting smaller contrasting color areas within larger fields.

The discipline Murray brings to her paintings is not a mere tool, nor is it a rationalizing process that has been superimposed on an essentially intuitive act. Instead, it is a way of negotiating the terms for painting. Each artist must come to grips with history and innovation, the timebounded, and what one chooses to construe as the timeless. For Murray, painting is an act of discovery and, as such, a way of approaching the spiritual (which one must always do with discipline) and a means of furthering the dialogue of twentieth, and now twenty-first century abstraction. It is a formidable task but a necessary one. For many years Judith Murray has worked with intensity, focus, and consummate skill. Innovation, particularly in painting, is a process unfolding in time—for the artist, it is of necessity a slow one. For the viewer (particularly when looking at a catalogue such as this), however, the process is compressed and comprehensible. Murray has done something very difficult. It is our good fortune to see her achievement as a fait accompli.

Richard Kalina
from exhibition catalogue 2003

Richard Kalina is a painter who writes on art. A contributing editor at Art in America, he has written and lectured extensively on issues in contemporary abstraction.