The 1980’s were a bodacious, hellacious, and most radical decade. Mötley Crüe got it right titling the era (and their greatest hits compilation album) the, “Decade of Decadence!” Intertwined with the rise of hip hop culture and a myriad international styles riffing off the energy of the streets in Los Angeles and New York City, graffiti exploded onto the scene. Artists in New York City in particular found inspiration in the tags, zips, and murals thrown up in endless rotation on subway cars and the buildings lining city streets.
As New York City slid towards bankruptcy in the mid-‘70s, graffiti, with its expressive, colorful, and vandalistic ways, amplified the voice of a significant subculture. “Only the very rich among New Yorkers could ignore the ubiquity of a new underground visual culture, which seemed to be rising like a red tide to cover public spaces: the spray-can art of the graffiti writers,” wrote curator Kirk Varnedoe in his 1990 essay “High & Low: Modern Art / Popular Culture,” “[Graffiti] suggested a city out of control, in which the most basic premises of civility had been surrendered.” Fierce competitive battles of new street styles covered subways and public spaces, and just at the moment the MTA made the elimination of graffiti a priority in the early ’80s, it was hitting the mainstream art world. Artists that once practiced surreptitiously began showing up in alternative spaces — first in the East Village, and then SoHo and 57th Street. The scene celebrated Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and wunderkind Jean-Michel Basquiat.
About the same time, Elizabeth Murray’s reputation was well on the rise. She was counted among a short list of artists credited for resuscitating painting when much of the art world proclaimed painting to be dead. By the late ‘70s she had all but abandoned the traditional rectangular canvas, opting for eccentric, irregularly shaped canvases. The twisting and skewing of her paintings would eventually introduce a three-dimensionality that opened a new space for painting. An important influence we can see in contemporary painters like Ruth Root and Justine Hill.
Although her childhood fascination with comics would remain a major influence throughout her four-decade career, it’s plain to see the impact graffiti had on the paintings Murray made during the ‘80s.
“Popular culture is one part of teeming life that everybody, all of us, are involved in,” Murray told filmmaker Michael Blackwood in 1990, for his film Art in an Age of Mass Culture. She continued:
Whether we know it or not, even if we try to withdraw ourselves from it, we are all really involved in it every day when we walk out into the streets and you hear a … guy walking by with his box blasting a rap song at you. Or in the middle of the subway. Or walking up Broadway. I mean, it’s pouring out at you all the time.
Labeled a Neo-Expressionist along with Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel, Murray allowed for the everyday to enter her paintings: tipping cups, falling saucers, overturned tables, and open windows. “Everything I have done and experienced gets into the work somehow or another—my childhood, my family life, my grad-school days,” Murray told Marlena Donohue in an 1997 interview,
I am a woman, I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a painter. I live in a city where I see bright graffiti everywhere. And I was raised on comics and cartoons. I loved their graphic quality, how things jumped off the page. All of it gets in there.
Murray certainly wasn’t alone in her response to the Wild Style of street art. Painter Joyce Pensato, interviewed in MART-Kaleidoscope for a story in 2014 said, “I’ve always loved graffiti. It’s an act of the moment. In the ‘80s it was all over New York. It was in your face, loud and clear.” And for the same story painter Chris Martin explained, “I got a big studio building in 1984 and was able to spread out and make lots of big paintings. I figured if the graffiti guys were able to go out and bomb a billboard in one night, why couldn’t I make a fourteen foot painting in a day?”
Graffiti was something “you couldn’t avoid in New York,” Murray told Robert Storr in an interview for her 2005 retrospective at MoMA. “You couldn’t help but be excited by those big bloopy shapes,” she said. Shapes that manifest themselves in Murray’s work like “Heart and Mind” (1981), and that mimic the bombing of bubbling letters and jagged tags of the graffiti flaring up at the time. Expanding on Murray’s statement, Storr continues: “Murray seized on the potential of bubble-writing and quickly assimilated it into her art.”. And let’s not forget the photograph of a graffitied coffee cup still pinned to the wall of her downtown studio after Murray’s death.
Murray’s Renegade Approach
Murray’s renegade approach to painting dates back to the ‘70s. In one of the earliest critical evaluations of her work, Donald Kuspit called her attack of the canvas back then “something like war paint […] quirky little arcs and loops, or accent-mark dots and squares.” He also noted their “urgent energy” which could easily describe a tag by the reigning ‘70s graffiti artists like DONDI, Zephyr, and Futura.
Murray introduced her first serious series of thickly painted, shaped canvases in the late ‘70s. These included the star-like paintings “Daybreak” (1977-78), “Tug” (Jul 1978), “With” (1978), “Talk” (1978), “Once” (1978) and “Deliver” (1978), which would all demonstrate the first full commitment to this dramatic shift. In “Tempest” (1979) we see the balance of the sharp-edged paintings with poppy, bulbous, colorful shapes that would come to define her art making in the ‘80s.
Although “F-Painting” (1973) is one of the earliest examples of Murray’s use of the alphabet in her paintings, “C-Painting” (1980-81) is the first to outright register shape and gesture. The sharp, zig-jag overall shape of the painting offers a contrasting space for two dark, concave, comma-shaped forms — their black silhouettes bounce up off the composition not unlike a graff tag off a city wall. “C-Painting” is one of Murray’s first literal uses of language in painting — punctuation animated and suspended in play.
“Murray referred to this comma form rather vaguely as a ‘physical symbol,’ and slightly more specifically as ‘a birth shape,’” wrote critic Joan Simon in Art in America in 1984.
It can be seen equally well as the simple element of punctuation that it is, or as a diagrammatic sperm; its fully modeled version suggests not only an abstracted organic form, but a uterus. That Murray’s first child was born when she began to use the comma shape, and that 14 years later it began to turn up with great regularity and forcefulness when she was pregnant with her second child, lends it an autobiographical dimension. Yet the implication quickly transcends the personal: most recently, Murray has used the comma in pairs, like Chinese yin/yang forms that signify both male and female principles and, more generally, opposites working in harmony.
This “comma” shape reappears in paintings like “Bean” (1982).
Murray’s Letter Paintings
Graffiti’s big, bloopy letters played a vital role in Murray’s work of the early ‘80s. Three paintings in particular parallel the evolution of the street tag: her multi-paneled “Her Story” (1984), “Gga” (1984) and “1, 2, 3” (1984). In these works Murray literally layered letters and numbers as the bases for her compositions. The painting “Her Story,” Murray explained for the publication of her mid-career retrospective in 1987, was about:
now you see it, now you don’t, I was always come back to turning things into something else. The shapes of the canvases are an E and two As with E on top. I was going to do A B C, but thought that was too predictable.
The era’s superstar Keith Haring had something very similar to say in a cover story for Artnews in October 1982, stating, “In all my work there is some degree of content that is more obvious, communicating a specific or a general idea that people will get. But a lot of times the work is ambiguous enough that it can interpreted by whoever.”
Murray’s Punctuation Paintings
In addition to the comma, Murray had a particular fascination with exclamation points and questions marks. The subtext of each added a literal element of drama to her work of the ‘80s.
In the 1980s Murray’s husband, the poet Bob Holman, created a character, which was, Holman told me in a recent email, his “poetic alter-ego, the star of my one-person show.” Holman called him “PANIC*DJ! The Plain White Rapper.” It was a title that “Lou Reed liked and later named a song after,” In 1986, Murray dedicated an elaborate painting of two interlocking “question marks” and called it “L’Amour (For Panic D.J.).” He further elaborated:
I had a white dinner jacket from Trash & Vaudeville that I performed in — Judith Shea had me line it in turquoise. When we were filming Words in Your Face for PBS, the precursor to The United States of Poetry, the white jacket blew out the camera, so Elizabeth painted question marks on a plaid zoot-suity jacket. She also made me a [Pasta Mon Helmet] that PANIC*DJ! donned when doing his reggae number.
In Murray’s “Why? Painting (Traveller’s Umbrella)” (1987), curator Sarah Rogers-Lafferty notes in her essay for a show at the Wexner Center for the Arts in 1993:
The jutting, angular shape of Why Painting is molded by the overlay of three canvases in the shape of the letters “w,” “h,” and “y.” Together they define a rough terrain, over which is painted an equally distorted landscape. Closer examination reveals that the apparent mountain peaks are actually the edges of an overturned umbrella and the dismembered handle plays double duty as the quizzical punctuation mark. Again, here is the great power of Murray’s vision, a vision that can question the essence of painting while making a playful yet serious analogy to the experience of a traveler (artist), lost and turned topsy-turvy by the experience itself.
The same year, Murray finished “Cracked Question,” a giant painting in six parts that harkened back to two earlier fractured paintings, “Art Part,” (1980-81) (Collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri), and “Painter’s Progress,” (1981) (Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Painting and Violence
Murray attacked the picture like any graffiti artist would. “Painting is a kind of violent thing to do. It’s a way of acting out,” Murray told Mari Rantanen for Konsttidskrift Art Magazine. She was fond of explaining that when she approached a new work she would use every weapon in her arsenal to get the job done. This included layering paint with a palette knife and sketching compositions with spray paint. Krypton spray cans littered the studio floor.
In the ‘80s, as Murray’s paintings became more and more dimensional, their spontaneity never seemed to wane, despite all it took to design and prepare her expanding structures. Speed and style were kept in dialogue, and much of the quality of the work depended on this tension.
Being in the City
As the decade of the ‘80s came to a close, in 1988, Murray summed up her work to date in an interview with John McCarron in Shift:
My work is very much about being in the city. It’s very much about the streets and the buildings and the feeling of enclosure. And in that sense New York is very conceptual. I’m not an intellectual, not by any means. I admire those minds very much. But New York is about enclosure and the energy of enclosure, and has a kind of a tough irony. I mean, it’s a city of complete contrasts and some bitterness, conflict, anger, and it’s also a … place of enormous hope.
An exhibition dedicated to the works of Elizabeth Murray from the 1980s will be on view at Pace Gallery from November 2, 2017 through January 13, 2018.
Editor’s note: the author, in addition to being a curator and an art historian, is also the manager of Elizabeth Murray’s estate.