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The life stories and work of painters Elizabeth Murray and Carmen Herrera could not be more different, and yet, as told in documentaries about each of them now playing as a double-bill at Film Forum, they share at least two traits: absolute commitment to their instincts and success in spite of art world sexism.
Herrera, now 101 and coming off a major solo show at the Whitney Museum, developed a style of hard-edged geometric abstraction in the 1950s and ’60s that received none of the praise heaped on her male contemporaries working in a similar vein, most obviously Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. Murray, who enjoyed great success in the two decades prior to her death from cancer in 2007, kept at her colorful and often enigmatically figurative paintings on formed canvases through the years when Minimalism was king. These compelling if fairly conventional documentaries — the hour-long Everybody Knows … Elizabeth Murray and the half-hour long The 100 Years Show — tell the stories of two artists who never wavered in their certainty that what they were doing was worth continuing to do.
Biographically, Murray and Herrera have virtually nothing to do with each other, a sharp contrast that makes these films’ pairing all the more interesting. Born in Chicago and raised in the Midwest, where her family was constantly on the move because of her father’s gambling debts, Murray escaped the extreme poverty and precariousness of her childhood in large part thanks to a high school art teacher who paid for her to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduating, she made her way to New York and, eventually — in large part thanks to a stint teaching at CalArts — bought a loft in Tribeca that served as her primary home and studio for the rest of her life.
Herrera comes from a family of influential intellectuals in Havana, where her father founded a newspaper and her mother was a journalist. After marrying an American and living in Paris for five years, during which she honed her style into the popping juxtapositions of duo-chromatic geometry we know today, she and her husband settled in New York. Meanwhile her family in Cuba, which supported the revolution, suffered greatly under the ensuing dictatorship of Fidel Castro — her brother was even thrown in jail for five years. She toiled in virtually total obscurity for decades — her home and studio, atop a tiny building in Manhattan wedged between office towers, seems the perfect architectural manifestation of her outsider status — until a chance inclusion in a three-artist show at Frederico Sève Gallery in 2003 set the ball rolling toward her Whitney retrospective.
Both documentaries benefit from extensive interview footage; in the case of Everybody Knows, much of it filmed during the final years of Murray’s life, while The 100 Years Show was shot as Herrera prepared for her Whitney exhibition. In Murray’s case in particular, director Kristi Zea includes a lot of candid studio time, giving a sense not only of Murray’s practice but also the pretty elaborate carpentry that went into making her formed canvases. In Alison Klayman’s film on Herrera, art making takes a backseat to her subject’s admittedly fascinating life story and incredibly endearing on-screen persona.
It might seem obvious, but these two artists from incredibly different backgrounds did struggle against a shared antagonist: the sexism of the art world. “She told me, ‘You know you could paint circles around the men I have as artists, but I am not going to give you a show, because you are a woman,’” Herrera recalls being told by a woman gallerist. “I was so overwhelmed that a woman would have that mentality.” Murray, perhaps because she did not face the double disadvantage of being Latina, began to gain momentum much earlier in her career, and in no small part thanks to a female dealer, Paula Cooper. Still, she was excluded from the all-male group of figurative painters who shot to stardom in the 1980s (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, etc.), and for whom several of Zea’s interview subjects — including Cooper, Roberta Smith, and Deborah Kass — credit Murray with setting the stage by serving as the bridge between Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism. “Making abstraction personal was unbelievable,” says Kass. “It was such a big jump. Everybody was always looking for something new; well, Elizabeth did something new: she put content into abstraction.
Both films honor their subjects beautifully — Everybody Knows even features Meryl Streep reading passages from Murray’s diaries in voice-over — and their juxtaposition at Film Forum puts the differences in their careers into sharper relief than seeing the documentaries separately might. The support network of Latin American artists, curators, and dealers that championed Herrera’s work stands out even more by its contrast with the Lower East Side scene of women artists, many of whom were also parents and shared babysitting duties, who helped Murray launch her career in the 1960s and ’70s. They confirm the truism that there’s no sure path to success as an artist, that uncontrollable factors like revolutions and poor health can throw careers off track or end them abruptly, and that ultimately it’s worth sticking to one’s guns even if it means toiling in obscurity for a hundred years.