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October 31, 1999

by Barry Shwabsky

THIS month, a crepuscular atmosphere pervades the Simon Gallery here, where Judith Murray and Merrill Wagner are showing paintings that are predominantly dark, brooding and introverted.


Sharing that much, though, they remain very distinct artists. Ms. Wagner's paintings, geometrical in appearance, are more formal and reserved, while Ms. Murray's, vigorously painted and full of flickering lights amid the general darkness, more easily reveal their romantic affinities. Even the titles they give their works show the differences. Ms. Wagner's are terse, undemonstrative, almost logical or mathematical in implication: ''Length,'' ''High,'' '''Extend'' are typical. Ms. Murray's are descriptive and experiential, even a little melodramatic, and above all they are quite explicit in naming the nocturnal mood her paintings convey: ''Midnight With Rain,'' ''Edge of the Dawn,'' ''Camouflage for the Moon.''


Still, the difference may be just the one between reticence and ingenuousness. And then, in the broader context of contemporary painting with its vast spectrum of stylistic options, the differences between Ms. Murray's work and Ms. Wagner's might seem smaller than when their two oeuvres are alone together in a single room. Ms. Murray is no wild-eyed expressionist purveying exaggerated emotionality, any more than Ms. Wagner is some kind of latter-day Bauhaus rationalist. Both artists combine sensibility and restraint, and their work is in the mainstream of contemporary abstraction.


Ms. Wagner's works may be characterized by the simplest geometrical divisions of the rectangular surfaces on which she normally paints -- a few horizontal bands whose possible invocation of landscape is neither accentuated nor contradicted -- and minimal display of the painter's hand. But their smoky, seductive atmospheres owe a lot to the example of latter-day romantics, whether abstractionists like Mark Rothko or representationalists like Edwin Dickinson.

Celestial Temptations 46x50_ 1996 - 1997

work by Judith Murray at the Simon Gallery

At the same time, her paintings are refreshingly plain-spoken and un-arty. They are painted with drab, workaday Rustoleum paint on steel sheets, and the unpretty shades of blue, black and gray often seem to be mimicking the dull sheen of the metal itself. But then, surprisingly, the big, exposed areas of unpainted metal, with their rhythmically fluctuant surface markings left over from the milling process, by contrast take on something of the lyrical expressiveness one might have expected from the free play of the artist's hand.


In fact, Ms. Wagner is one of those painters for whom the eye takes precedence over the hand. Her painterly interventions exist as much for the sake of framing and editing -- of directing the eye to what was already there in the steel, which for her is more than a neutral ground -- as for their own interest. Thanks to her mastery of scale and internal ratios, the paintings are never arid or flat, but rather subtly dramatic, as in ''Length'' (1996), whose seemingly nondescript title turns out to have been well chosen when you realize how the slenderness of its two central bands help make it seem so much more expansive -- longer, in fact -- than its mere size would justify.


If Ms. Wagner is something of a closet romantic, then Ms. Murray crosses paths with her by way of being a temperate lyricist. At first, one of her paintings may seem a welter of spirited brushwork, but she rarely lets the impulse of a moment obscure her path toward a coherent architecture for the canvas as a whole. (Only when faced with the challenge of a nearly all-black painting, the 1998 ''Midnight With Rain,'' rather than a merely dark one, does she let structure weaken. The painting collapses under the weight of its own obscurity.)


If anything, one might almost fault her for being too prudent. Of the paintings shown here, only ''Mars'' (1997) shows much of the painterly impetuousness that seems to lurk somewhere just offstage, just beyond the edge of the canvas, like the violence in a Greek tragedy. More typically, Ms. Murray's brush strokes, rather blunt in form and often (for example, in ''Night Fishing'' and ''Camouflage for the Moon,'' both from 1997), are roughly aligned with the edges of the canvas, as if reflecting a neat, orderly grid on the surface of a gently rippling pool.


Any chance of lyrical abandon is further counteracted in her paintings by a fundamental geometric subdivision of the canvas. Geometry, Ms. Wagner's primary compositional tool, is reduced by Ms. Murray to a marginal presence, although a more important one than may be apparent. On the right side of each painting is a monochromatic vertical band, with width and color varying from painting to painting, but with a constant function: to set off or qualify the otherwise dominant chiaroscuro, to remind the viewer that it forms not the totality of the pictorial experience, but perhaps simply its most obvious part. A cooler, clearer, quieter force may be mostly hidden but remains in control.


Both these artists make rich, many-layered paintings. It's a bonus that the harmonies and contradictions between their styles make a deeply satisfying duet.

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