Educated in Chicago, painter Elizabeth Murray created a genre of her own

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Elizabeth Murray (pictured in her New York studio) is the subject of an “American Masters” documentary. | © Brigitte Lacombe

Of the many elements that attracted Robert Storr to the ebullient, cartoony paintings of Elizabeth Murray, none was more important than their sheer dynamism. “In every little bit of her painting, there is energy,” said the esteemed artist, critic and curator who organized a retrospective devoted to her at New York’s Museum of Modern art in 2005-06.

Murray, who died of lung cancer in 2007 at age 66, is featured in a one-hour documentary from the ongoing “American Masters” series on PBS. In Chicago, “Everybody Knows … Elizabeth Murray” will air at 9 p.m. Friday on WTTW-Channel 11.

The film includes conversations with the Chicago native and scenes of her at work as well as interviews with Murray’s family and friends and an array of art-world personalities including Storr, artist Chuck Close and art critic Jerry Saltz.

“I think there is more to say about Elizabeth than this film says,” Storr said, “and there are some things in there that I don’t agree with. But on the whole, it’s very good that she will be seen by a lot of people and that she’ll be understood as being a peer with the other people who are in the series.”

The documentary’s director, Kristi Zea, is best known as a Hollywood production designer who has worked with many top directors including James L. Brooks, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese. All of them have made documentaries, she said, but their subjects were invariably men.

“I said to myself, ‘I really want to do a great documentary – hopefully – about a great female artist,’” Zea said.

Artist Elizabeth Murray (left) with filmmaker Kristi Zea. | RubyRed Productions

Artist Elizabeth Murray (left) with filmmaker Kristi Zea. | RubyRed Productions

Around 2004, she approached Murray, whom she had met previously, about being the subject of such a film, and the painter quickly consented. Zea was particularly in interested in exploring the complexities of balancing a highly successful artistic career with being a wife and mother.

After what the New York Times described as a “hardscrabble” childhood, Murray received help from her high school art teacher in Bloomington, Illinois, on her tuition to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she graduated in 1962. She went on to earn a graduate degree at Mills College in Oakland, California, and moved to New York in 1967. Murray was primarily a painter, but she also created many drawings and original prints and even a few sculptures, including “Red Shoe” (1996), a fairy-tale, multi-part work in a wooded area of the University of California, San Diego campus.

Distinguished by shaped, sometimes bulging canvases, bright colors, biomorphic forms and no shortage of humor, the artist’s work exhibits aspects of such styles as surrealism and post-minimalism. But she steadfastly transcended any one category.

Elizabeth Murray at work in 2003. | © Sidney B. Felsen

Elizabeth Murray at work in 2003. | © Sidney B. Felsen

“She fit nowhere exactly,” Storr said, “which is why it took so long to get the recognition that she deserved. But it’s also partly an indication of how ambitious she was from an aesthetic point of view, because she was doing things that nobody else was doing. So, she was on her own.”

Part of her independent spirit can be attributed to her roots in Chicago, where artists felt less tethered to the prevailing, New York-centric art trends of the time and freer to draw on a broad range of influences.

“Elizabeth was deeply influenced by Disney,” Storr said. “She was deeply influenced by surrealism, as one can see. She was peripherally influenced by the Chicago Hairy Who, of which she is basically a contemporary.”

Elizabeth Murray in 1987. | © Barry Kornbluh

Elizabeth Murray in 1987. | © Barry Kornbluh

The fact she was a woman did not help her struggle to gain attention in the highly gender-biased art world of her time. Even now, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, only about 30 percent of the artists represented in commercial galleries are women.

As part of the documentary, Meryl Streep reads selected excerpts from Murray’s journals. Zea knew the celebrated actress from working with her on the 2004 film “The Manchurian Candidate,” and thought she would be ideal in this capacity.

The director suggested the idea to Streep after running into her at a film screening, and the actress readily agreed after seeing a rough cut of the documentary. “We had about six or seven excerpts from her journals that we thought would be very useful for film, and she did them all,” Zea said. “And it was like she channeled Elizabeth. It was really amazing.”

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