Catherine Murphy makes paintings that get under my skin, that haunt me, that seem inexhaustible and mysterious.
Murphy shows viewers things they know — a cherry pie or a pile of broken dishes — in ways that are arresting, straightforward, and extremely unsettling.
At Art Basel Miami Beach, if you only look at the art, it’s an affair worth the trip, because if you want to see the newest art made in Saint Petersburg, Vienna, Barcelona, or Berlin, it’s here.
Catherine Murphy calls herself “an observational painter,” but that modest self-characterization tells only part of what she has been up to for the past twenty years.
When I arrived at Catherine Murphy’s home in Poughkeepsie, New York, I was led down a long outdoor path to her studio. Murphy was working on a painting of a pie crust; she asked her assistant to put the dough on ice while she spoke with me.
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. Murphy transforms the bedrock bleakness of our daily life into something unforgettable.
Stylistically innovative painters outnumber those who have reassessed the accepted conventions of painting. For the most part, artists engaged with issues of style accept certain conventions, particularly regarding spatiality, while those who reevaluate painting find ways to undo assumptions and received tropes. Catherine Murphy belongs in the latter group. Her painting, “Snowflakes (for Joyce Robins)” (2011) is square, a format we associate with high modernist abstraction and artists such as Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin.
This is Catherine Murphy’s first exhibition with Peter Freeman — and the inaugural show of gallery’s large, new space (March 14–April 27, 2013). Although Murphy has been showing regularly in New York since the early ’70s, this is the first time that she has had a space big enough to comfortably display her work, a multi-panel work like “Knots” (2009), a suite of 15 modestly scaled paintings, along with more than a dozen paintings and drawings, with the largest painting ranging six feet in height or width. I felt like the work finally had space to breathe.
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects is a long and narrow space, somewhere between a bowling alley and a railroad apartment, on the Lower East Side. It is within this rather confined space that Marshall Price, curator at the uptown National Academy of Art, installed eleven paintings by artists committed to working from observation. Chronologically, the artists span five decades (or generations), with Lois Dodd and Lennart Anderson, born respectively in 1927 and 1928, being the oldest. The youngest include Gideon Bok, Anna Hostvedt, Sangram Majumdar and Cindy Tower, with Bok and Tower born in the 1960s, and Hostevedt and Majumdar born in the 1970s. The other artists are Susanna Coffey, Rackstraw Downes, Stanley Lewis, Catherine Murphy, and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, who were born between 1938 and 1949. Together, these artists — a number of whom have been influential teachers — suggest that observational painting is a vigorous, various, and imaginative enterprise that continues to fly under the radar.