Judith Murray: Vibrato to Legato
Judith Murray’s lyrical, expressive paintings are the product of an unaffected enjoyment of the physicality of paint, and, perhaps with that in mind, she observes that the subject of her paintings is the paint itself. These are painterly abstractions with oil as medium, often lapidary, and more recently dappled in passages that suggest movement in the reflective surface of a stream, with an infinitude of visual information revealed below. The activity of these lively fields implies an extension beyond the painting’s border, as images resonate, quicken, and deepen with the long pleasure of an engaged viewing.

Murray limits her palette to red, yellow, black, and white, and in the alchemy of their modulation achieves the tones she seeks, mixing white and black with red or yellow to produce a specific effect, altering a tint by adding white to red or yellow, enhancing the impression of brightness, shading with a variant of black. An open-ended and long-lasting exploration with oil as medium, Murray’s exclusive use of these four pigments in the service of achieving distinct light and form has seemed to her, in retrospect, both intuitive and immediate. “One day that was it,” she recalls. “I selected these colors, as I felt I could say anything within that range.” It was 1975. She also felt that these colors, and their mutability, reflected the forms that she was working with at the time, and she was convinced that those forms could not exist without those very colors. In addition to the modulated yellows, red, and white of the paintings’ principal elements and the visual relationships between them, the field of these thoroughly modern, planar abstractions might have five or six layers of a deep, even matte black with the appearance of a velvet, absorbing light. Visiting an exhibition of cave art at the Museum of Natural History in New York, Murray realized that those first artists— her progenitors, her kin— worked with just such pigments: color and form were integral to their work, as they are to hers.

Since that time, whatever their size, the proportion of Murray’s paintings has remained essentially the same—horizontal, several inches short of a true square—and she has consistently emphasized that proportion by incorporating a vertical bar of varying width that defines the right edge of each painting. A signature device, the bar is harmonious with the proportion of the painting and shares in its expression— a distinct, formal element that in the 1970s served as a foil for the activity of the painting. Murray has retained the bar, seeking out and focusing on a greater interplay between the image and the ground. As the work became increasingly painterly, its central form became singular, more iconic, and even heraldic, before dissolving— a moment iterated as a shimmering spirit takes leave of the 72-by-76-inch Paradise Paradox (1981), shown among other related works in an early series, the “Concentrations” exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, in Texas, in 1982. 

By 1993, Murray had increasingly focused on what was around the form, until the form began to disappear as the activity and articulation of the painting unfolded. Through the highly worked articulation of paint as the surface setting, she allowed the paint to evolve in all its physicality, getting the pigment into the surface, painting as a way of seeing. Because Murray is concerned about the longevity of her paintings, she avoids the use of linseed oil or varnishes that may crack or become discolored with time. For the same reason, she uses no drying agents, but she may add a drop of rectified turpentine to thin or extend pigments that are exceptionally dense. Several years ago, she adopted an approach to the prepared canvas that permits the use of quick-drying polymer paint to accelerate the first stages of the process. Initially, she introduces a dominant color to areas in an expanse of canvas that appear to be randomly chosen, perhaps in response to the quality of the afternoon light as it tents down from the skylight high above the arena that is the theater of her studio. By 2001, the vocabulary that characterizes Murray’s work today had been fully articulated. The paintings unfolded accordingly.

With the canvas stretched and primed, Murray scores the bar in pencil— a gesture that, at a certain point, is unseen. Dipping into the paint with a relatively broad, flat brush, she approaches the moment of engagement with confident, even muscular strokes. With the assured fluidity and freedom of a sumi-e master, her hand seems to float across the canvas, defining the edges as she moves around on ladders to get at the upper reaches of canvases that, at their largest, measure eight by nine feet. Immersing herself more deeply in the work, she occupies its corners and edges with a stroke of the brush, follows, enhances, or dissipates the direction of a rivulet, a drip, a stroke, acknowledges the bar with a savvy gesture along the painting’s edge, elaborates deepening surfaces in responsive stages. As the paint builds, she glazes a thin layer of opaque dark color over light, rubbing, scumbling the residue with a soft cloth, seeking out crevices, sometimes revealing the tooth of the canvas that remains from her first address of its surface, at other times becoming thoroughly absorbed in the tactility of the brush and the knife strokes of paint that rest just this side of the picture plane, giving equal weight to each stroke.

The making of the eight-by-nine-foot Magnetic South (2005-06) has been tracked over much of the period of its creation in the footage of Albert Maysles and Mark Ledzian’s episodic Judith Murray: Phases and Layers, a documentary film of the artist at work in her studio. The initial broad brush sketch of yellow with which Murray enters the painting is recalled in the completed work; with yellow as its primary field, the painting is open and sunny, its surfaces in passages worked up in a bravura display of the artist’s mastery of her medium. The vigorous brushwork of what appears to be a modulated white path enters the painting from above, emerging as iterations of pale rose and coral, and cresting at the end of a stroke. Broad passages the color of a magenta bougainvillea emerge from the edges and corners, and there are soft, dove-grays defined by blacks, in places strokes of paint that reflect light next to those which emphasize that dominance and seem to be absorbed, to recede in an inky black. In response to all this activity, and to the painting’s dominant hue, Murray’s signature bar in this instance is yellow— distinct, vigorously applied, and inflected with white. It constitutes a dialogue, a movement between the painting’s largely central organization and the entire figuration, which Murray calls the image— a controlled episode that seems increasingly strong, more distinct with each painting, and more closely related over time.

In the absence of any preconceived idea of where she might go in a painting, Murray says that she follows the impetus to go everywhere— to find the identity, the friend, the personality of the painting as it emerges, emphasizing a passage and bringing it forward, articulating the movement in which some passages appear as substantial streams of light. Added to the arsenal of brushes, cloths, and painting knives are the tools of Murray’s hands and fingers; out of their activity the image begins to appear, and she follows it, building a palette that is specific to the work at hand. The color on top of a stroke may affect the tone of a passage, creating a sort of nimbus around the angular strokes characteristic of a short blade, with broader sweeps particular to one that is longer. By glazing a darker tone over a lighter one or a deep red over a black she achieves a color composition that is nothing short of luminous. On a tabletop in her studio, Murray aligns her tubes of handmade pigments, among them a Naples Yellow variant that is rosy and pink in hue, a yellow that is so intense that it must be shaded, and another that is both strong and clear. There is the rich intensity of Persian Rose, as well as a natural red pigment derived from the madder root. There is the strength and opacity of Mars Black, made from iron metal; blacks made matte with carbon; and a warm purple black derived from grapevines and skins. Portland grays mute the high notes of modern colors, and the whole is informed by the bright, opaque, reflective warmth of Titanium White.

With nothing quite like it in Murray’s arsenal of palette, forms, and gestures, the predominantly gray Primary Document (2006), an elegant fête of a painting, is enlivened by a floating calligraphy.  Its luminous, opalescent whites are suggestive of this broad handwritten scrawl— a brilliant conversation of looping, swirling marks and arabesques. Beneath the glaze of these passages, the artist locates an edge defined by an underscoring in a sort of claret red, a near-electric yellow, and deep, occasionally sooty blacks. Though thoroughly abstract, what appears as the forms of letters and occasional words loops around, over, and beneath at every turn, the lower and upper edges marked with horizontal strokes of paint. Deployed across much of the painting’s field, these strokes seem to cast shadows across the gray-black ground of briefly uttered strokes. Murray’s bar becomes the claret and black of the dominant palette, inviting the conversation of form and stroke that she intends. 

Viewed up close, the illusion of depth in Primary Document is magnified, the gray strokes that run through its core broadening at the lower edge as though spilling over and beyond, where the canvas that wraps around the painting’s edge is also, and characteristically, painted gray— a simple act that, in effect, causes the support of the painting to disappear. If the achievement of these paintings seems to Murray at times hard-won, there is inspiration close at hand—a continuity of technique that proceeds from the matte-black fields and emphatic intersecting forms and planes of the eccentric abstractions she produced thirty years ago. Through her unfailing generosity, Judith Murray’s recent paintings accomplish the fullest range of their delivery, from vibrato to legato.

-Edward Leffingwell, 2006

Edward Leffingwell is a critic and curator based in New York