Although recently much ink has been spilled proclaiming the death of abstract art for the duration of the 1980s, there are contemporary artists who doggedly refuse to be swept up by prevailing currents. Judith Murray is certainly of this mind and the canvases she paints are a reflection of her unswerving commitment to the proposition that abstraction is meaningful for both the contemporary maker and viewer. Her approach to painting has always involved the establishment of self-imposed limits or boundaries that she continually and persistently respects even as she progressively alters other aspects of her work. Her canvases speak straight-forwardly, combining what one reviewer has called eccentric geometry with a poetry and rhythm not often captured in hard-edged abstract painting. Her bold shapes are crisply defined, but never confined, by her strictly limited palette of white, red, black and tan. And each unique configuration is place on a rich, deep black ground. Then almost as if to remind the viewer that all is not what it may appear to be, she incorporates a tan bar down the right-hand edge of each work. This serves both an anchor and source of an all pervasive motion. Virtually swaying with energy, these paintings translate rhythm and motion into one dynamic force.
Since 1975, Murray has been working consistently in this manner and thus one might be tempted to recall cavalierly the sameness of her oeuvre. But rather than duplication, Murray presents the viewer with an astounding variety of combinations of images. Her approach, like that of a symphonic composer, provides a series of simple notations that are complexly interwoven as the exposition reveals itself. Her canvases are full, deep, rich expressions whose essence is an undeniable emotional unity. Her passion for painting thus creates and directs an idiosyncratic system of ambiguously balancing forms that both hover in and carve out deep areas of space. Within this precise system the artist conjures up shapes that are neither absolutely organic nor geometric. In fact, there is an almost mannerist quality in her unusual, often bizarre, forms.
Murray begins each painting by making a series of drawings, then translates this to underpainting on canvas and finally, slowly, methodically she builds up the qualities of color and surface. Employing no artifice such as a ruler or masking tape in this process, she relies instead on her own ability to sense the rightness of a painting’s space and proportions and ultimately, nothing is as it seems in Murray’s work. Her canvas dimensions are almost a square but not quite and her forms just barely skirt the edges of each stretcher. How all this is determined again involves the artist’s intensely personal internal system of logic. No painting is larger than 72 by 76 inches and this, more than anything, relates to Murray’s own diminutive stature. When describing the scale she employs the artist explains, “It’s the relationship between my physicalness and its (the canvas’) physicalness.”
Arrow, 1979, 52" x 57"
Beginning with Constellation, completed in 1979, the work has almost magically progressed from the presentation of relatively few isolated elements on a field to the enormously complex interaction of form and gesture of Paradise Paradox, executed in 1981. Always maintaining a precise sense of tension and balance, the configurations of sweeping curves and sharp angles become simultaneously more individually physical and more dependent on and demanding of each other. They seem to dance in space, cutting in and out of the luxurious black ground and thus establishing a dialogue between the picture plane and the illusion of deep space. Black Pearl of 1980 clearly confirms Murray’s interest in the surface texture and expressive quality of paint. With this work the artist begins to explore the effect of layering a single color upon itself so that, in essence, she creates a canvas that includes two black shapes, one matte and one glossy. In later paintings she incorporates double reds and double whites as well. By 1982, individual brush strokes appear on the canvas surface. Applied with relish, one senses Murray’s renewed delight in expressing the physicalness of paint, the recording of the artist’s unique mark. This declaring of process appears to be a new, important emphasis in Murray’s recent work, and with it she adds yet another degree of complexity to her images.
When approaching Murray’s painting, one is reminded of futurist imagery, especially that of the Italian artist Giacomo Balla. In his paintings, sculptures and collages of 1915 the apparent integration of form and movement in space is not unlike the dynamic energy manifested in Murray’s canvases. In addition, aspect of Murray’s work exhibit an affinity to the paintings of Ad Reinhardt who used closely valued reds and blacks to delineate forms that slowly, mysteriously emerge from within the painting structure. By invoking these modern masters, Murray grounds her work in the undeniably potent tradition of geometric abstraction. Her gestures, shapes and lines are depicted with clarity and precision while they explore and reveal an eloquent ambiguity, perhaps a reflection of the human condition itself. An awareness and questioning of the tenor of our times is also expressed by her painting titles: Constellation, Broadway Magic, Fugitive, Ham and Eggs, and Paradise Paradox address both feelings of wonder and displacement. Rather than intellectual, the works are intuitive and experimental and as Murray has stated, “I think my paintings are more above something I believe rather than something I know.”
Curator of Contemporary Art