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A Nonconformist Painter



Thursday, June 3, 1976

The amount of conformity in the art world is appalling. I admit that there is more freedom than elsewhere, but that is not saying very much. Free expression and individuality are art world lures, for where else, at least theoretically, is originality so encouraged and rewarded?


In point of fact, the art world, as a system, is slow in rewarding originality. Is it that early success can be damaging for an artist or is it that there have been far too many falling stars?

Betty Parsons show card 1976_web.jpg

Success demands categories. There are circles in the art world. Some of them overlap. Some of them are circles within circles. Some circles do not even touch. Each circle has its star artists, its critics, its collectors, its curators, its farm-teams. None of it makes very much sense beyond sheer economics. There can never be enough art money; there can never be enough spaces for art.


Two words are particularly oppressive: taste and quality. They are abused in order to blackmail people into liking things they do not really like at all, for no one wants to be accused of having bad taste or being against quality. Having good taste means that you prefer what is tasteful, what those who have good taste prefer, what is established. It is too abstract a term. Ideally it might mean selections based upon knowledge and sensitivity. In the meantime it might be better if we limited ourselves to using such phrases as “a taste for” or “my taste” or “your taste”. Quality too has become an empty word. It stops all arguments. As I have written before, whenever I hear the word quality I think of yard-goods. Perhaps we should speak of qualities.


I try to keep my eye open for originality. It is my duty. And I am always delighted when I can go out on a limb. Judith Murray’s paintings now at Parsons- Truman (24 W. 57) are original. They move me in some way and yet they do not fit into any of the accepted categories. Her work should not be avoided simply because it is not all-over or color field.


I have a taste for paintings that do not fit into established categories. And Murray’s paintings have many qualities never quite brought together before. She calls the series “ballast” paintings and all of them but one art thirty by thirty-two inches, not quite squares, “modest” in size, and what would normally be considered easel-size. They are subtle, but I would not call them modest or genteel. Giganticism does not necessarily increase significance. Lately it would seem it has the reverse effect. On the other hand, small is not necessarily beautiful, the economist E.F. Schumacher notwithstanding.


Ballast is any heavy material placed in a boat to insure stability. I also think of sandbags in the basket of a manned balloon, controlling altitude. But ballast is also a metaphor. The paintings are about balance and stability and Murray has set up for herself some splendid problems, most of which she solves, in painting after painting.


Murray’s paintings are not quite squares. She has further complicated that issue – in terms of the placement of her “figures” – by inflecting the ground in each case with a tan stripe running down the right-hand edge. But if the viewer is standing at any distance off to the right, the black of the canvas pulled around the stretcher makes another stripe, flattening the whole image, contradicting the objectness. I am not sure I approve of the canvas folds at the corners, which bump the line of the upper edge – the paintings are unframed – but I do not know how they could be eliminated. But perhaps they are further reminders that whatever we are looking at is physical as well as poetic.


Although the “ground” is deep black, that of a universe without stars or that of the deepest ocean gorge, deprived of its glowing monsters, Murray is not interested in standard figure-ground relationships. There is no figure-ground reversal. Her “figures” float. These “figures” – of red and white and various tans – are absolutely odd. I have no idea where they came from.


Placement is crucial. But I suspect the “figures” are not totally abstract. They are ambiguous. Is that arc a sail, a moon? They are puzzle-like. As a writer, I have to be very careful of words such as “mysterious” and “poetic”. But I’ll risk them here. At first I thought: Miro. He is not, by the way, an artist I despise. But in Murray there is no day-dream quality, no playful lewdness derived from automatism and the unconscious. I see the “figures,” which are exactly placed so that the relationships within and to the black surface/space are not Cubist, as signs rather than symbols. They are diagrams, not creatures. Miro is a miracle, but why must we believe that miracles have ceased?


Murray’s paintings are logical. The difficulty is that the rules of her logic have been withheld. I too have a taste for open, literal paintings, but these are something else.



Thursday, June 3, 1976

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