Unreal Nature

August 29, 2016

In the Prismatic Matrix of Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… giving the public a chance to see where the art of their time really went, regardless of where it was supposed to go.

This is from the Introduction the book that accompanied her MoMA retrospective; Elizabeth Murray by Robert Storr (2005):

Since it first came into common usage in the mid-1940s, the idea of the “mainstream” has been a comfort to the aesthetically timid and the aesthetically authoritarian alike. For much of the ensuing half-century this article of blind faith constituted a pact between them, assuring the former that they would make no errors in taste and the latter that they could be confident of due deference as good taste’s infallible arbiters. To all intents and purposes, Clement Greenberg introduced the phrase to art criticism …

… [Greenberg implied] that the writer [critic] was in a position to foretell history’s direction and could thus assess the degrees of congruence with or deviation from the progressive course of art that individual talents were taking.

… the assumptions upon which this model is predicated, assumptions imparted to generations of artists, critics, and members of the general public, continue to echo through the dialogue around contemporary art.

… when it comes to painting and sculpture — the only things of any real interest to Greenberg and to those he most influenced — the conviction lingers that although the channel carved by the mainstream may have widened slightly, or taken a few unexpected swerves here and there, it nevertheless proceeds along the magnificent trajectory it always has, fed by tributaries but never in danger of being lost in the marshes that periodically bank it.

[line break added] While many have come to fear that it may ultimately spill into a dead sea, the prospect that it might instead flow into and disperse throughout a fertile delta is rarely considered, despite abundant evidence that that is just what is happening. According to Greenberg’s paradigm and its many, equally tendentious variants, the challenge to artists is to travel the dominant currents and stay in the lead of art history’s regatta.

[line break added] Opposing those currents is absurd, riding the shoreline is treacherous even as it appears timid, and exploring bayous or branching rivers is a time-wasting detour, if not the prelude to being lost sight of altogether.

… the history of critical contention and triumphalism, as distinct from the history of art or ideas, repeats itself. Once the principal constituencies in such debates have declared their favorites and acknowledged their nearest rivals. the relative positions of all the rest fall into place, with mavericks distinguishing themselves only by their equidistance from their most touted competitors.

[line break added] Publicity blitzes, market euphorias, and other factors may temporarily draw attention to previously unnoticed or underestimated artists, and, when sustained, may reshuffle the order of priority, but long-term legitimacy hinges on being seen as part of the pack, if not ahead of it while moving in the same direction. That’s the way history’s mandate is determined; that’s the way the game is played.


Elizabeth Murray … has periodically ridden the mainstream but more often has charted her own way.

… Pluralistic by temperament, though far from vague or tentative about her work needs, she once told an audience of students that “to be right, it is not necessary that everybody else be wrong.” By “right,” of course, she means able to locate one’s own creative vector; maneuver independently within it to the maximum extent that the demands of freely chosen materials, processes, formats, and iconography will permit at any point; and, out of the decisions made, produce arresting, demanding, and authentic works of art.

… Given the visible effort her art takes, and the eclectic precedents she absorbs and transmutes, the freshness of her work is a triumph over easier — less strenuous, more novelty-based — solutions to the hard problems posed.

Elizabeth Murray, Dust Tracks, 1993

[ … ]

… This book … offers the chance to make arguments on behalf of Murray’s work that the artist might not make herself, and in some cases might not wholly endorse, but that, without distorting perspective, broaden the angle of view from which her work may be approached, and so amplify its resonances and expand its meanings.

[line break added] And that is what museum retrospectives are intended to do: place a unique undertaking in the prismatic matrix of art and watch the effects that other bodies of art have on it and that it has on them. The point is not to historicize the new but to refresh the historical, in the process giving the public a chance to see where the art of their time really went, regardless of where it was supposed to go.

Elizabeth Murray is one of the most dynamic American painters of the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, and one of the hardest to assimilate. There are reasons for both of these things; the exhibition is a demonstration of the former, the text that follows an attempt to account for the latter.

Elizabeth Murray, Worm’s Eye, 2002

To be continued.




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