Murray's Edgy Art Masked Deeper Struggle Elizabeth Murray, the renowned painter who died this week at 66, focused many of her colorful paintings on domestic objects — but they had an edge. Many of her works, often painted with bold, primary colors, reflected a long struggle in the art world.
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Murray's Edgy Art Masked Deeper Struggle

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Murray's Edgy Art Masked Deeper Struggle

Murray's Edgy Art Masked Deeper Struggle

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Painter Elizabeth Murray died last weekend at the age of 66. She was one of only a handful of women to ever get a sweeping retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Her vividly colored canvases drew inspiration from styles as diverse as comic books and Cezanne's still lifes. Murray's work in turn inspired many other women in the arts.

NPR's Laura Sydell has this remembrance.

LAURA SYDELL: Elizabeth Murray was a well-known figure in New York's art world. She had a head of unruly gray hair and piercing blue eyes as visually striking as most of her paintings. But fellow artist and friend Chuck Close says despite a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Murray never got the recognition she deserved.

Mr. CHUCK CLOSE (Artist): The reason why is that she was a woman. No question about it. It was very much harder to get attention. And if you did get attention, it was because you acted more like a man.

SYDELL: Close says in the late 1960s and early '70s, there were artists such as Nancy Graves who went by N. Stevenson Graves because she wanted people to think she was a man. But Close thinks Murray's subject matter made it hard to conceal her gender because it was drawn from domestic life.

Mr. CLOSE: She used to hate the fact that I would say something about the domestic imagery that she has. If bowls and cups and fruit and stuff end up in Cezanne, why do they not think of him in the kitchen and why did they think that she was in the kitchen?

SYDELL: In fact, Murray did spend time in the kitchen. She married twice and had three children. She painted spoons, dresses, chairs, feet and coffee cups. The cups and spoons often seemed as if they were flying in space. She liked primary colors and squiggly thick lines. She drew inspiration from Cezanne, Picasso and Jackson Pollock and from cartoons and comic books. Many of her paintings jumped out off the wall, literally - bulging canvases that pushed into the gallery.

Murray's fans say she helped reinvigorate the art of painting at a time when sculpture was in. By the 1970s, the era of the abstract expressionists like William DeKooning and Jackson Pollock was over. It was a lonely but exciting pursuit to be a painter back then, says Chuck Close.

Mr. CLOSE: Painting was dead when we were trying to reinvent painting and it's always a good time to make painting when painting is dead. It's the best time to make it.

SYDELL: But painting was not a path that was made for Murray. She had to find her way. Murray was born in Chicago in 1940 to a working-class family. Her father had a condition that made it difficult for him to keep a job. The family struggled to make ends meet.

Murray started drawing when she was a kid and loved comics. A teacher encouraged her to go to art school, and she wound up with degrees from the Art Institute of Chicago and Mills College in Oakland, California. But she faced prejudice because of her class and her gender. And that comes out in her work, says Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art who curated Murray's retrospective at the MoMA.

Mr. ROBERT STORR (Dean, Yale School of Art): There's a great deal of pain and a great deal of tragedy and a great deal of anger in her work. So she expresses that anger and that pain in forms that seem kind of comfortable. You can get close to them. And then when you really get close to them, you realize that they can bite.

SYDELL: In one of Murray's paintings called "Don't Be Cruel," an enormous bright red table juts out from the canvas. The edges are spiky and the tabletop is cracked. This domestic imagery with an edge resonated with a lot of women. Kathy Halbreich is one. She is director of the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis and curated Murray's first big show in 1988 at the Dallas Art Museum.

Ms. KATHY HALBREICH (Director, Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis): She gave a lot of women a sense of possibility. It was just about being grounded. It was about caring about family. It was about caring for friends. It was about caring about making art because it was important thing to do and a meaningful thing to do.

SYDELL: Halbreich says Murray changed her life. And before the artist died, Halbreich says she sent her a note to tell her so.

Elizabeth Murray died of complications from lung cancer at her home in Upstate New York.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: We've got examples of Elizabeth Murray's artwork at our Web site,

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