Caution to Viewers: Murray’s Paintings May Induce Vertigo

For devotees of the shaped-canvas aesthetic, the exhibition of paintings by Elizabeth Murray at the Museum of Modern Art is likely to be embraced as a pictorial paradise. The shaped canvas has never before been as multi-shaped as it is here. Moreover, the eccentrically shaped canvases are not discreetly installed in the usual MoMA manner to emphasize their individual qualities. On the contrary, this assemblage of paintings sort of explodes into a scattering of shapes, colors and images that have no immediately discernible relation to each other. I’ve forgotten who it was that coined the expression “Whirl is king!”, but it could easily serve as the title of Ms. Murray’s show. Viewers susceptible to vertigo may need to approach with a certain caution.

Is the show really worth all the commotion? I frankly doubt it, and I find ample warrant for that doubt not only in the show itself but also in the introduction to the catalog, written by the curator, Robert Storr. This is the key passage:

“That Murray is unafraid of ‘error’ is demonstrated by her constant redrawing of images, heavy reworking of surfaces, dramatic changes of local color, and, in her increasingly complex polyptychs, her radical editing and reconfiguration of panels, processes of change that go on until the last phase of each painting. It is as if a jigsaw puzzle were being recut as it was being solved, right until the moment when the final piece fell into place. But few of the works that Murray makes and remakes lock in with the neatness this comparison might suggest. Rather, they are held together—in a pulsing force field of keyed-up hues, bulbous or angular blocks, and animated drawing—by the kind of innate sense of balance found in dancers, whether jazz, jitterbug, rock, or modern, who throw themselves around in combinations of sinuous arabesques and herky-jerky flailing without ever colliding too brusquely with other dancers, bumping into the walls, or falling off the stage or into onlookers’ laps.”

And yet—sundry whirligig effects notwithstanding—almost everything in this exhibition looks vaguely familiar. We’re given quick glimpses of Keith Haring, a great many references to Andy Warhol, a heavy dose of Frank Stella and a good deal of cartoony rubbish that remains to be identified. Above all, we’re given the remains, so to speak, of the kind of Abstract Expressionist painting that Harold Rosenberg dubbed “Action Painting.”

What with all the “herky-jerky flailing,” Ms. Murray may be said to be the most active and hard-working Action Painter of all time. Yet hers is the kind of Action Painting in which every gesture dissolves into chaos as every form struggles for survival; her self-consuming “actions” offer more gratifications to the artist than to the viewing public.

Needless to say, Mr. Storr has a very different view of Ms. Murray’s work. “Elizabeth Murray,” he writes, “is one of the most dynamic American painters of the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, and one of the hardest to assimilate.” Well, I can agree, at least, with the last observation.

The Elizabeth Murray exhibition remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 9, 2006, and will then travel to the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern in Valencia, Spain (June 8 to Sept. 3, 2006). It’s accompanied by an abundant catalog.