by LILLY WEI
detail: Judith Murray, Conveyor, 2018. oil on linen, 36" × 40"
It’s the smell of paint that gets you, that gets to you as you walk into Judith Murray’s West Broadway studio. For some, its heady bouquet is more bewitching than the most alluring perfume. It is also tells you that you are in a painter’s studio, a familiar odor that embodies the long history of painting. It might also remind us that painting, as a medium and practice, is flourishing, in great demand again and has been for some time.
Murray’s studio (and loft) is one of those spaces that excite a case of severe square-footage envy—the reward for homesteading in SoHo in the gritty days of its mythic, pre-gentrified youth. At the moment, it is filled with an abundance of paintings and works on paper in sizes varying from small to extra-large, most from the past couple of years. Hung up, stacked against walls, laid out on tables, many are about to be sent off to her gallery’s Chelsea space for her upcoming show in September.
Judith Murray, SoHo studio installation 2018
Murray, in the early 1970s, as a neophyte artist, vowed to work with only four colors—red, yellow, black and white—a vow she has kept up to the present, presciently knowing even then that this foursome would be more than enough to occupy her for the past five decades. That they are only four colors, however, might not be immediately apparent in looking at these works, as the later ventures diverged from the original paintings: bold, hard-edged, idiosyncratic shapes verging on the surreal that were clearly painted in red, yellow, black and white. The later canvases became more modulated, all over, the colors mixed, dependent on mark-making, on brushwork for their imagery and energy.
Murray is a colorist that in wizardly fashion multiplies her quartet into countless permutations that clash and also harmonize, reveling in the variety that even one color has. From this curtailed palette, she has coaxed out an infinite range of tonalities in an ongoing and singular investigation of color and materiality as she searches for the unique identity of each painting, demonstrating time and again that her limits are no limits at all.
If she wants a shade that approximates green to cool down an area or balance it, she will apply yellow over black. Reds go violet with the addition of black, including a plummy, often translucent purple that appears in many of the works, summoning up a color once strictly reserved for royalty.
She adroitly alters the paint’s qualities as well, from matte to glowing, from opaque to sheer, the brushwork fat, thin, silken, coarse, short, staccato, or drawn out in a slow glissando. Sometimes the paint lies on the surface like thick curls of buttery icing, as in Polar (2014), the title belying its lusciousness (although, as an abstract image, it could be snow, and much more). Either way, it begs you to dip your finger into it, then lick. Some approach bas-relief status; Murray also revels in paint’s materiality, tactility, voluptuousness.
Judith Murray, Polar. 2014, oil linen, 20" × 22"
To this restricted lexicon, she added a bar or a band that extends vertically from top to bottom in each painting, another hallmark that has defined her work almost from the beginning. It fixes the surface, acting as a more emphatic boundary, an additional commentary about the painting, in dialogue with it, an appendix of the specific impulses that make up this particular painting. It draws attention away from the edge to the zone near the edge, making it less certain where the painting ends, re-framing the composition—and slows down the gaze, persuading the viewer’s gaze to linger. Many of the paintings are also off-square, but appear square, she pointed out, because of the bar. The slight disruption between what might read as a square and its actuality as off-square is a visual misperception that might cause an optical stumble of sorts. That in turn might cause a certain heightening of impact, of tension as the eye (similar to what the body does to regain balance) re-adjusts, the mind re-processes.
Drawing that line that will become the band, she says, has always been a way to begin a conversation with a new work, since she starts with nothing. There is no premeditated image, just a brush, a process. The line that she draws in the beginning, however, doesn’t necessary remain in place. Nor does anything else as the work progresses; everything is contingent, subject to change until she senses it is ready.
Once the line is drawn, she begins her underpainting. She uses acrylic for this because it dries quickly and she can make continuous alterations as she goes. The color is raw, bared, exposed, but that changes when she switches to oil, painting over the acrylic, making what will eventually be the final painting, its ultimate layering a translucent glaze. She explains some of what she does, which sounds like a performance, with palette knives scraping, brushes whooshing back and forth, rags and fingers blending, rubbing, whatever is at hand at the moment, whatever occurs to her—which is plenty. She mixes on a palette, on the canvas—it’s the repertoire that in a skilled painter’s hand produces pure magic.
Judith Murray, Tempest, 2018, oil on linen, 50" × 54"
These new canvases, the tenor of which varying from somber to the exuberant, with many a combination of the two, are some of the best she has made, brimming with marks, slashes, strokes, each application of paint compelling the next one. The result is a teetering, intoxicated, allover weave of paint strokes, supercharged with compressed energy, as in Tempest (2017), with its breathtaking whirl of paint strokes, Quarry (2017), Threshold 2018), the magisterial diptych Breakaway (2018) extending 90 inches—actually, all of the works. Part of the new appeal is the increasing physicality of the brushwork that gets better and better at capturing the light that crosses its path. Raised from the surface as if embossed, they create a kind of luminosity trap, abetted by the beautiful use of gold and silver (a variant of yellow and white) that makes the paintings glow with an added sheen.
Painting is also a form of memoir and is not made in a vacuum, Murray’s colors and compositions are inspired by paintings and places she has encountered all over the world and from many different cultures. But perhaps it is India, a place she fell in love with as a young woman and to which she returns regularly, that is the perennial source for much of her aesthetic as distilled into the sumptuous little red-gold Royal (2018), as only one example. The Florida Keys, where she has a second studio, as parsed in the sun-blasted Trance (2015-2018), is another place she feels a profound connection to and where, in addition to New York, she spends much of her time.
Judith Murray, Trance, 2015 -2018, oil on linen, 50" × 54"
Yellow dominates several of the recent paintings such as Infusion (2017) and Currents (2017), as does white, gold and silver, upping the opulence factor, animating the painting further, but subtly, as a glimmer, an intimation, not a klieg light. The tour de force of the exhibition, in my mind, is the diptych Panorama (2014), measuring 72 by 151 inches total. Mostly yellow, banded by a silvery edge (sunlight edged by moonlight?), it is a triumph of radiance, joyousness, its countless strokes of paint fluttering, caressed by light, as if it contained within itself all the mornings of the world, night in abeyance, a hopefulness we have great need of in these uncertain days.
Murray is not a political artist but is sensitive, reactive, as all artists are, to the tenor of the times.
Murray has also made a sequence of smaller works on linen that is more ethereal, translucent, intimate, succinct, cousins of the paintings. There is Transit (2018), with its lavender diagonal and ghostly verticals; Stride (2017, characterized by its potent horizontal markings, a pretty pink breaking through its more serious colors like runners in a race about to reach the finish line; Slide (2017) and Surge (2018), both looking to me as if they have something to do with tides and water, or exhalations and inhalations, as well as, of course, simply being colors, brushwork. But all these titles, ultimately, are indicative of these works’ buoyancy, their sense of nimble movement and in contrast, their evanescence.
We are in the vast country of process, paint, abstraction, to be further explored, refined, further refined, all resolutions inconclusive, since the language of paint—and art--is inexhaustible, as Murray well knows, as these gorgeous works are evidence of.
LILLY WEI is a New York-based art critic, independent curator and journalist whose interest is global contemporary art.