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Painting as Painting, Painting as Sculpture, Painting as Architecture

by Alanna Heiss

In 1978, I asked Judith Murray to mount a solo exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery, the legendary alternative art space in downtown New York.  With the extreme focus on minimalism in the late 1970s, Judith’s work seemed at odds with the sculpture and painting of her contemporaries. She has successfully avoided typecasting to the present day. Her work slowly but constantly evolves, and she has grown into one of the most accomplished and beautiful painters of her time.

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Judith Murray, "Red Angle", 1978, oil on linen, 60.5" x 64.5"

Judith’s early paintings feature irregular geometric figures. Her colorful, abstract subjects brightly pop from a black ground, exemplified by her 1978 painting Red Angle.  Each right-hand edge is branded with an idiosyncratic vertical strip of color that acknowledges the painting’s boundary and objectness. Oddly, the compositions achieve balance without relying on symmetry. Her arrangement of shapes and colors produces a complex viewing experience.

Through the years, Judith’s work continues to have certain characteristics, but the changes are noticeable.  The brush handling is looser and ethereal, and various hues are introduced. She continues to work with the marginal vertical strip; in the 90s, Murray abandoned strict geometry and began to produce paintings that seem to harbor a strange, inner light.  The assemblage of color emanates an “emotional” radiance but also effects a magnetic physicality. Murray employs paint in a sculptural way to produce dense, uneven surfaces that assert a very physical presence, and is particularly true in her most recent works. The unusual balance attained in her early paintings informs her later work; instead of flat, jagged geometry, the subject now is the paint itself, and equilibrium is maintained through both its materiality and color organization. The resultant architecture of the surface, the topography of oil paint, underscores the solid support of its canvas.

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Judith Murray, "Transformation of the Romantic", 2002, oil on canvas, 96" x 108"

Judith has always been a skilled colorist, but has instilled a luminescence in her new work. She materializes this otherworldly character with a lucid meticulousness and objectivity. Her application and juxtaposition of colors arouse a visual devouring and simulate different physical weights and spatial volumes. The bright yellows of Transformation of the Romantic(2002) lift the painting to a wispy dream world while the gray-blues and whites of the equally large Abundance of Matter (2001) condense it to a heavy, alloyed chunk.

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Judith Murray, "Abundance of Matter", 2001, oil on canvas, 96" x 108"

What first appears to be a chaotic assortment of lines and colors is actually a serenely calculated composition whose presence demands to be sensed and scrutinized. Her paintings do not only rebel against the traditional two-dimensional picture plane, but also perhaps more importantly, enact a dialectic – it is the very paint that creates a raw, textured volume that is also able to emanate an intangible, poignant glow whose effect differs with each painting. Thus Murray draws on methods of painting and sculpture to construct a compelling and unique architecture. 

-Alanna Heiss, 2006

Alanna Heiss is the Founder/Director of P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, and The Clocktower Gallery, home of WPS1 Art Radio. Heiss has curated over 700 exhibitions internationally and has received numerous awards including the Chevalier des Arts et des Letters

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