Elizabeth Murray, “Wake Up” (1981), oil on canvas (three parts), 9′ 3-1/8″ x 8′ 9-5/8″ x 1-5/8″, photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery © 2017, The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The most commanding artists are the ones that don’t fit into history. Edouard Manet and Paul Cèzanne didn’t fit in. Neither did Edwin Dickinson or Ad Reinhardt or Louise Bourgeois or Alice Neel. Neither did Philip Guston, who made a memorable break. What about Joan Brown, Peter Saul, Richard Artschwager, and Marcia Marcus? In the present, think of Mary Heilmann, Thomas Nozkowski, Rafael Ferrer, Katherine Bradford, Stanley Whitney, Catherine Murphy or, even younger, Philip Taaffe — all of them love painting so much that they decided to make their own history, rules and attitudes, and all those things that you are otherwise supposed to do be damned.

There is a lesson to be learned from all this, but it is one that the art world has trouble learning. Even when they celebrate an artist such as these, they feel compelled to shoehorn that person’s work into some kind of narrative: they would do better trying to fit the Blob into a Ralph Lauren tuxedo.

A lot of commentary about Elizabeth Murray has connected her to feminism, graffiti art, her schooling in Chicago and acquaintance with the Hairy Who and the Imagists, all of which is true. But when it comes right down to it, she concocted something all her own, and that is really what we should be paying attention to.

Elizabeth Murray, “Table Turning” (1982-83), oil on canvas (two parts), 8′ 10-1/4″ x 8′ 4-1/4″ x 4-1/4″, photography by Ellen Page Wilson © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

What struck me while looking at Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ‘80s at Pace Gallery (November 2, 2017 – January 13, 2018) was not that she didn’t fit, but that she didn’t fit with such confidence. The other thing that struck me is that she was having fun while making art, which is practically a sin, even now. As William Carlos Williams wrote 100 years ago — after dancing naked before the mirror and waving his shirt around his head while everyone in the house is asleep — in his poem “Danse Russe”: “Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household?”

In “Wake Up (1981), one of the first multi-part, shaped paintings Murray made at the beginning of the decade, a coffee cup with two handles is painted across three panels whose inner edges are zigzagged, while their outer edges are bulbous and rounded. The palette goes from muted blue to bright turquoise. While the three separate canvases seem as if they could be fitted together, a closer examination reveals that they actually couldn’t. But it is not something that is evident until you look past the obvious in-your-face presentation of a coffee cup split into three parts with turquoise liquid splashing out of it, as if it has been struck by lightning during an earthquake. The subject mirrors Murray’s exuberance: the painting is a container that can no longer keep the paint inside— it is spilling over the sides, literally and figuratively.

This is what Donald Judd famously wrote in his manifesto, “Specific Objects” (1965):

The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.

In Frank Stella’s shaped paintings — no matter how eccentric the shape — the borders determined the placement of the stripes inside. Less than 20 years later, Murray turns this radical observation upside-down, shakes it, and finds nothing there. There is no need to swear allegiance to that flag.

Elizabeth Murray, “Water Girl” (1982), oil on canvas (three parts), 9′ 4″ x 8′ 5″ x 3-3/4″, photography by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery © 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

What makes “Wake Up” really hold together is the jagged white space of the wall (or negative space) splitting the two large sections. It is a lightning bolt that separate and joins, a paradox. What about those handles? Don’t they look like mismatched ears sticking out? Suddenly the coffee cup is a head.

By the time she gets to “Bean” (1982), “Water Girl” (1982), and “Her Story” (1984), the negative space is as important as the shaped canvases enclosing it. The attention we pay to the painting is restless; it requires us to unpack the forms. The commas and other orthographic shapes, splattered across the wall, become signs of painting’s elasticity. They share something with Richard Artschwager’s splattered corner sculptures, which are often domestic objects. I am not sure why this affinity seems to have been overlooked, but it should remind us how quirky Murray was. She was going her way by 1974, when she painted “Mobius Band,” a figure 8 within a horizontal format with three squares added into each loop. Doesn’t this painting’s title anticipate the direction Murray takes in the early 1980s?

This is really what Murray does so well: no matter how loaded a painting is with visual and visceral information, it still breathes. Her works never feel crammed. The varied paint application feels discovered, not put down according to some idea or theory. The drips along the edges, joined by pentimenti from earlier color choices peeking out along the border of the final layer, underscore the sense that there is so much feeling poured into the work — at once funny and sad — that it is running down the surface.

Elizabeth Murray, “Not Goodbye” (1985), oil on canvas, 69 x 80 x 12 inches, photography by Tom Barratt, courtesy Pace Gallery
© 2017 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Murray’s high spirits are underscored by the shadows the painting’s cast: they want to be even bigger than they are, and she knows it. In paintings such as “Picture Crack-Up” (1985), “Making It Up” (1986), and “96 Tears” (1986-87), the looping cartoony line winding through the canvas is funny, aggressive, deflated: it wants to get out but cannot.

As much as Murray’s subjects seem to be domestic objects — tables, chairs, sneakers, coffee cups — I think of them as stand-ins for painting. The tables are stretched canvases, the coffee cups are cans of paint, and the sneakers are the footwear of the artist as much as they are of the track runner. Stamina, enthusiasm, and a wicked but gentle sense of humor all rolled into one. If a coffee cup is a stand-in for a paint can, Murray is reminding us that art and life are inseparable, that one is always intruding on the other, and compartmentalizing them is really a bourgeois idea. Murray never seems to have been interested in being fashionable inside or outside the studio.

Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ’80s continues at Pace (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 13, 2018.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...