I have been following Catherine Murphy since 1980, when I first saw her work at Xavier Fourcade. My interests are purely selfish: she is uncompromising in ways that I admire, which is to say she is not dogmatic. Always in hot pursuit of what she sees — subjects so commonplace and underfoot that other painters working in a parallel vein would not think of looking at twice — her subjects have become more memorable to me as the years pass: a balloon floating against the ceiling of a girl’s bedroom; a bathroom sink half full of water, with hair floating in it; a dirty tablecloth; a hole in the ground; a paint spattered studio floor; a cut-paper snowflake taped to a windowpane; a window at night, surrounded by Christmas lights. In these and many other paintings and drawings, Murphy transforms the bedrock bleakness of our daily life into something unforgettable.
During the past thirty years I have seen many of Murphy’s paintings and drawings a number of times and have never gotten tired of doing so. This is one reason why I went to see Catherine Murphy: Two Subjects – Forty Years, curated by Portia Munson, at the BYRDCLIFFE Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, Woodstock, New York (June 28 – August 11, 2013). The other reason was because I knew the exhibition spanned forty years, which likely meant that I would get to see early work that I had never seen before, and which I was more than curious about. I wanted to see where she might have come from. I was not disappointed.
The earliest paintings in the exhibition were done in 1969, two years after Murphy, who never went to grad school, graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA. Her first big break was having a painting included in the Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1971. It is hard to imagine the Whitney would include a painting by a young, unknown artist — especially one without an MFA — in a current Biennial, but that is another story.
This exhibition focuses on two of Murphy’s recurring subjects from 1969 to 2004: self-portraits and portraits of her longtime husband, the sculptor Harry Roseman. During this time, Murphy transforms a rather conventional realist subject into something altogether fresh and, at times, startling. In the crisp “Self-Portraits” (1985), one of the highlights of the exhibition, Murphy depicts herself and Harry, who is sitting nude, before a mirror. Harry is holding a clay self-portrait that he is working on, which is why he is nude, while Catherine is standing at the easel, working on the painting we see before us. We see Harry and his reflection, and only Catherine’s refection, in the mirror. Her attention to the interlocking, connecting spaces, lighting, wallpaper and tilt of the rectangles (mirror, window and door) within the painting’s rectangle is unrivaled.
“Self-Portraits” is a smart, tough and tender painting in which Murphy reverses the traditional artist/model relationship by having Harry be the model – who happens to be making a model of himself. By this time, it should have been clear to anyone with eyes that Murphy had upped the ante for herself, making a painting that would hold its own in any museum. At the same time, at this point in her career, she still had not quite become the singular artist she is today.
That — I believe — begins to happen between 1985 and ’90. Over the past twenty years Murphy, who has yet to have a major museum retrospective, has created a body of work that easily puts her in the company of Vija Celmins and Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, but, for reasons that I cannot fathom, the art world has not accorded her the same status. I am reminded of what John Ashbery wrote about Edwin Dickinson (New York, October 13, 1980): “Coming on this show fresh from the Whitney’s Hopper retrospective made me wonder once again if we really know who our greatest artists are.”
As the Whitney’s recent record makes abundantly evident we haven’t known who they are for many years. For if the Whitney is any indication, it seems that we prefer artists who take shortcuts and hire others to make the art, perhaps because we have come to believe that outsourcing represents the American way.
It should be noted that Catherine Murphy: Two Subjects – Forty Years does not include all the paintings that Murphy has done on these two subjects, but it is a start, as it reveals something about her growth as an artist.
The early works, circa 1969, reveal Murphy to be a talented and earnest realist painter. The palette — based on complementary colors — is rather dark and toned down. The other thing that is evident is her subject matter. From the outset she often picks drab subjects, but never emphasizes that they are dull or dowdy.
In the largest early painting, “Self Portrait with Poker Table” (48″ x 60″, 1969), Murphy depicts herself in a basement. She is standing on the left side of the painting, beside an easel in a windowless room with a green and tan linoleum checked floor. A glass-topped table sits in the center of the painting, surrounded by a circle of empty, mostly non-matching chairs. A pile of empty boxes rises to on the painting’s right side. Further over on the right, a portable television faces the glass-topped table at an angle. The palette is largely browns and greens.
There is nothing charming, elegant, lyrical or remotely poetic about “Self Portrait with Poker Table.” Just a few years removed from school, Murphy is already paying attention to what other realist painters have largely ignored, an object whose function evokes a lifestyle most sophisticated people have left behind, if they were ever in it. Leisure, the poker table reminds us, doesn’t come without cost or grimness. We prefer artists who are social climbers in both their art and life.
While the space of the painting is conventional and completely convincing, the subject matter of “Self Portrait with Poker Table” challenges our decorum. This is one thing that set Murphy’s work apart from the beginning. She can look at things that most of us, including other realist painters, would rather skip over and do so without an ounce of sentimentality, self-righteousness or anger. In doing so, she went from being an earnest painter to one that is unflinchingly honest.
Although the seventeen paintings in this exhibition provide numerous hints, they do not pinpoint the tine when Murphy’s attention to composition, surface and depth — none of which have to do with style — enabled her to completely transform her project from that of a conventional observational artist to doing something uniquely hers. All that is clear is that, instead of being content with her considerable talent, she challenges herself to do what she doesn’t know how to do — as she does with the complex, believable space and juxtaposed inside and outside views in paintings such as “Self-Portrait at Easel” (1973) and “Self-Portrait with Pansy” (1975).
Not content with being able to do this, Murphy kept pushing herself further, as “Self-Portrait with Apple” (1989) and “Persimmon” (1991) attest to. By the time she makes “Cathy” (2001), “Face Shapes” (2002) and “Slipped Shape” (2004), no one can touch her. At the same time, through all of these changes she remains true to the commonplace. In other words, she refuses to either forget or brag about where she came from, which in America is practically a cardinal sin.
The verisimilitude of Murphy’s paintings and drawings is often the first thing that grabs the viewer’s attention. She doesn’t use a camera or any other mechanical aid to speed up her process. She takes no shortcuts and has never resorted to shorthand for something. Every form and surface is given equal and prolonged attention — whether it is tissue paper found in a gift box, wall-to-wall carpeting, or a ceiling lamp whose frosted covering holds dirt and dead insects. This refusal is simultaneously aesthetic and ethical; it challenges that long held, cherished American ideal: there must be a much easier way to do this, as Mark Twain addresses with a sharp eye in the chapter, “Tom Sawyer Whitewashing The Fence” in Tom Sawyer (1876).
It is also evident that after 1989 and paintings such as “Self-Portrait with Apple.” Murphy changes her whole orientation towards the depiction of space and the relationship between surface and depth. Instead of placing objects within a stable, conventional space — a room, for example — she sets up severe situations: a close-up of a woman’s lips smeared with two much lipstick; an icy windowpane on which someone has written “Cathy” on the other side (in reverse); a close-up of the artist’s face framed by a rectangle painted on a mirror (flanked by a circle and triangle), which takes up the entire surface of the painting.
In these works, Murphy breaks with the traditional on-to-one relationship between the thing seen and the thing depicted. Also, she transforms the painting’s two-dimensional plane into both a reflecting surface (mirror, pane of glass) and a transparent plane, calling into question where the viewer is located. Are we standing on the other side of mirror, seeing through it? By doing so, Murphy integrates the demands of observational painting with a wild inventiveness — something she has passed onto her students, such as Ellen Altfest, Chie Fueki, Joshua Marsh and Karla Wozniak.
Murphy has elevated observational painting into something that is engaging and probative, rather than accepting — which changes our understanding of what it means to be devoted. The space her work opens up enables us to contemplate the nature of time passing, as well as exposes something about this culture’s need to believe there is always an easy way out.
Catherine Murphy: Two Subjects – Forty Years is on view at the BYRDCLIFFE Kleinert/James Center for the Arts (36 Tinker Street, Woodstock, New York) through today.