File Note 126: Elizabeth Murray - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Anna Katz



Elizabeth Murray and the Art of Maximalism Images References Quote Biography Credits

Elizabeth Murray and the Art of Maximalism

That in some quarters painting was considered dead by the time Elizabeth Murray came to New York from Chicago by way of California in the late 1960s, and that her response was, “Oh really? Well, to hell with that. I’m painting,” has by now become a familiar trope in the literature on Murray.1 She reflected, “When I came to New York, the definitions of what one could paint and do were closing down. It was a very strict, conceptual scene. I wanted to open up my painting, to be inclusive.” 2 

Following a period of experimentation in the early 1970s with linear and grid-based abstractions rendered in wobbly lines, in the late 1970s Murray began to produce the rambunctious paintings for which she is most celebrated. Featuring ungainly, bulbous, bouncing forms reminiscent of comic book and cartoon illustration in high-key colours and thickly encrusted surfaces, they consisted, by the early 1980s, of multiple eccentrically shaped canvas panels, which at the end of that decade became increasingly three dimensional. Murray’s mature paintings brim with life — and with the history of modern painting: they voraciously consume and spit out Cubism’s fragmentation of the plane, the biomorphs of the Surrealist imagination, Abstract Expressionist scale, the commercial colours of Pop, and the animated language of graffiti.

Further, that Murray’s defiant response to the alleged “death of painting” was simultaneously articulated by a great many artists, especially women artists and artists of colour, has recently become a current in the history of American art of the seventies.3 In a word, numerous artists of historically marginalized identities possessed a keen sense that they had not yet taken a crack at art history’s most prized medium and therefore would not subscribe to the notion that painting was a fully exhausted and evacuated proposition. 

The Pattern and Decoration movement (or more familiarly, P&D) is an important, if too long overlooked instance. Clustered around Holly Solomon Gallery, the women’s cooperative Artists in Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery, and the feminist journal Heresies, P&D was dominated by abstract painting. It saw artists such as Valerie Jaudon, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, and Miriam Schapiro drawing motifs, colour schemes, and materials from the decorative arts, freely appropriating floral, arabesque, and patchwork patterns, and arranging them in intricate, almost dizzying, and sometimes purposefully gaudy designs that pointedly referred to an eclectic array of sources, from wallpaper to Persian carpets, Japanese kimonos, and quilts. P&D was intended as a recuperation of decorative forms historically discredited on the basis of their “femininity” (needlework and other “minor” arts associated with women’s activities in the home) and their status as craft (traditional arts associated with non-Western cultures, from weaving to pottery). P&D understood modernism as a puritanical art of exclusion — of progressively stripping away or excluding forms and materials deemed extraneous — and sought to create an art based on both aesthetic and political principles of inclusion.

Evincing sympathy with P&D are Murray’s early Empire State paintings inspired by cartooned monograms from baby blankets; references to the canvas as a fabric in paintings shaped like laundry on the clothesline, twisting in the breeze (The Garage, 1985); multipartite canvases which recall the logic of patchwork and pieced quilts (Flying Bye, 1982); and “vulgar” colour combinations that provoke questions of taste and class. Yet, Murray did not exhibit with Pattern and Decoration artists; the comparison here serves not to count her in their group or make a claim for their influence, but rather to flesh out the meanings and consequences of making “inclusive” painting in the 1970s. For both Murray and P&D, this entailed a maximalism that flew in the face of the reductive, cool aesthetics of Minimalism, Conceptual art’s demotion of the hand, and, generally, modernist ambitions to purity. 

In the first place, Murray’s maximalism was demonstrated in her magpie incorporation of a range of art historical references; non-hierarchical use of high and low visual vocabularies; and jumbling of genres — seemingly abstract, they are nominally still lifes, populated by cups, chairs, shoes, and utensils, and contain allusions to body parts (internal and external) and domestic interiors. However, Murray’s disregard for conventional hierarchies and binaries should not be confused with pastiche, or with gestures of “quotation.” Murray’s paintings emphatically do not keep their forms at arm’s length, at a distance designed for detached analysis, but rather hold them close; this is the reason why so often the shapes in her paintings seem pressed up against the surface, eager and earnest, and why entire constructions seem to wish to leap off the wall. Much as P&D was a sincere, unironic embrace of all things decorative, Murray’s painting is sincere in tone, heartachingly so.

For Murray, inclusive painting was also that of excess — the lushness of paint, the impossible scale of a nine-foot-tall coffee cup (Wake Up, 1981), the sumptuousness of deeply saturated colour, the pleasures of visual and embodied sensuality, and the joys of a bawdy sense of humour. According to one critic, Murray “heralded painting’s desire to get wet again, to roll around in pigment, humour, narrative, and sex.”4 By the artist’s own account, her imagery was related to birth and sex,5 “penetration and assholes and other body parts.”6 Pleasure also obtains in her work’s corporeality: as the shapes of her reliefs swelled and the planes torqued, Murray’s paintings came to seem almost engorged. Operating well beyond the stringency and orthodox of utility, of form following function, or of essence, Murray’s personal, messy, funky, even promiscuous paintings proffer a rowdy affirmation of impurity.

With the arrival of Neo-Expressionism, the sincerely intended pluralist direction in which both Murray and P&D artists had pushed painting was cynically aggrandized, in some ways leaving Murray and P&D artists alike out in the cold in the international art world of the 1980s. Robert Venturi’s witticism “Less is a bore” is too droll a version of maximalist seventies painting’s rejection of Mies’s famous dictum “Less is more.” “More is more” points better to the fulsome promises of inclusive painting.


1 Elizabeth Murray quoted in Paul Gardner, “Elizabeth Murray Shapes Up”,  Artnews 83, no. 7 (September 1984), 51

2 Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Kathy Halbreich and Sue Graze, in Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the Dallas Museum of Art and the MIT Committee on the Visual Arts, 1987), 131.

3 Murray understood her alterity as an artistic license: “I think the greatest part about being a woman in the world of painting is that I’m not really a part of it. I can do whatever the hell I want.” See Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Joan Simon, in Elizabeth Murray: Recent Paintings, exh. cat. (New York: PaceWildenstein, 1997), 8.

4 Nancy Grimes, “Review, New York: Elizabeth Murray, Whitney Museum of Art”,  Artnews 87, no. 7 (September 1988), 151.

5 See Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Kate Horsfield, Profile 5, no. 3 (Summer 1986), 19.

6 Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Joan Simon, 14.

Clark, T.J., ‘The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers’ in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Dickinson, Emily. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (New York: Back Bay Books, 1976)

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1872)

Holman, Bob. Bob Holman’s the Collect Call of the Wild (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1995)

Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child. (New York: Basic Books, 1990)

Morgenthaler, Walter. Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli. (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1992)

Powell, Dawn. The Golden Spur (New York: Viking Press, 1962)

Stevens, Mark & Swan, Annalyn. De Kooning: An American Master (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Tolstoy, Leo. War  and  Peace (New York: William S. Gottsberger, 1886)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus logico-philosophicus. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922)

And all things Paul Cézanne, Eva Hesse, Jasper Johns, Edvard Munch, and George Seurat

Fantasia (Walt Disney, 1940)

The New World (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2006)

Presley, Elvis. Don’t Be Cruel (RCA Victor, 1956). 

Simon, Carly. Anticipation (Elektra, 1971). 

And all things Maria Callas, Leonard Cohen, Erik Satie, and Barry White

   ‘I want my paintings to be like wild things that just burst out of the zoo.’ Elizabeth Murray, The New York Times Magazine, 1991


Elizabeth Murray (b. 1940, Chicago; d. 2007, Washington County, New York) earned a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago (1962) and an MFA from Mills College in Oakland (1964). Her work is held in over sixty public collections in the United States and has been the subject of over eighty solo exhibitions worldwide. Her mid-career retrospective, Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings, jointly organised by the Dallas Museum of Art, the Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center, MIT, Cambridge, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened in 1987, and travelled to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Des Moines Art Center; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, closing at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1988. In 2005, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized a career retrospective that travelled to Institut Valencià d’Art Modern in Spain. Her work was featured at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.

Murray was the recipient of numerous academic and institutional honours, including an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York (1984), to which she was elected as a member in 1992. She was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Painting, New York (1986), and was named a MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (1999).


Anna Katz is Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Supported by the Elizabeth Murray Exhibition Circle with thanks to Pace Gallery and The Murray-Holman Family Trust. Special thanks to Jason Andrew.