Thursday, May 1, 2014

ART PART, a Painting by Elizabeth Murray

Today I am going to tell you about a piece of art that is at the gallery where Mom works.  This painting is called Art Part, and it's a really, really big painting.  You can't tell by looking at the photo how big the painting is, and I have not seen it in person because dogs are not allowed to go in the museum, unless they are therapy dogs.  So we just have to take Mom's word on this.  And what Mom says is that the painting takes up one whole wall of the gallery, and it's at least as big as twenty chihuahuas stuck up there on the wall, or maybe twenty-five.  Which is pretty big, if you ask me.

Art Part, 1981
©Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Actually, this piece of artwork is not just one canvas.  Instead, it is 22 separate canvases, and if you measure the whole bunch of them together, the dimensions are 9' 7" x 10' 4".  I was alarmed to see that the painting was in pieces, and I thought maybe it got broken while some museum guard was not paying attention.  But Mom told me the painting is supposed to look like that.  And when I did some in-depth research for 10 minutes or so, I found out Mom was right!

The artist, Elizabeth Murray, was born in Chicago in 1940.  Sadly, in 2007, she died of lung cancer at the age of 66.  She graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then got a master's degree from Mills College.  When a lot of artists were doing minimalist art that just looked like stripes or blocks of color, Ms. Murray started painting figures that you could recognize, even if some of them looked sort of cartoonish.  After a while, she got to be famous for her "shaped canvas" paintings.  In these paintings, the canvas is some shape besides just an ordinary rectangle or square.

Landing, 1999, by Elizabeth Murray
Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

When I first saw Art Part, I thought it was a painting of a rocket ship.  Mom said she thought the same thing when she first saw it, but the picture is really of a paintbrush.  And that green thing turns out to be a hand.  Probably, it is meant to be the artist's hand.  She made this painting when she had just got a divorce from her first husband, so she was likely feeling like her life was in pieces.

Ms. Murray's second husband was Bob Holman, who is a poet.  He founded New York's Bowery Poetry Club.  He's also been an author, editor, publisher, performer, emcee, theater director, producer of films and TV programs, university professor, and several other things.  One of the poems he wrote was about his wife's painting, Art Part.  It's called an ekphrastic, which is what you call writing that comments on some other type of art.  So here it is, if you would like to read it.

Art Part
  --Ekphrastic, after Elizabeth Murray's painting

This rocket this pen this brush to end
All brushes.  This hand that holds grabs
and points works and wiggles.  Five ways
to do everything, each finger simultaneously
waving bristles bristling canvas canvassing
so luxuriantly over everything's under, whistling
"Lay it on me, Elizabeth!" so rough it scumbles
notching twenty-two count'em separate cells,
rooms, birdcages, verses, dynamite sticks,
mirrors, prayer rugs, peanut butter sandwiches,
mockingbird tales, screams'n'dreams, separately
and together, the awesome whatever, your hair
covering (that brush, too) and in conclusion, a
painting. A part of a painting. A part of painting.

Not to mention the dog under the table,
the life outside the studio and the woman
who left her hand behind to carry on.
Elegant Elizabeth, as if the signature might
connect two worlds.  Painting progress
not.  Magenta paint.  Blue line.

©Art21, Inc., 2003