There’s an ironic, needling slant to the title of Kristi Zea’s “Everybody Knows … Elizabeth Murray”: Most people outside the New York art world would not be able to place the abstract painter’s name.
Murray is hardly alone as a female artist whose work, however influential or groundbreaking, isn’t generally regarded as central to the canon. Yet as Zea’s inspired and intimate portrait demonstrates, with an exuberant attention to detail that matches Murray’s own, there’s an epic sweep to the successful career she carved out. Ten years after her death at 66, the film pays stirring tribute to her vision, devotion, hard work and category-defying inventiveness.
Zea, an accomplished production designer (“Goodfellas,” “Philadelphia”) making her first documentary, lovingly captures the physicality of Murray’s cartoony, boldly colored creations, with their sculptural, custom-shaped canvases. Gallerists, critics and fellow artists attest to the ways she put her own distinctive spin on minimalism and made abstraction personal, infusing it with figurative references.
Murray herself is a vibrant presence, even in footage of her working while very ill, her shock of curls thinned by cancer treatments. At the time of her diagnosis, she was preparing for a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, making her at the time only the fifth woman in the museum’s history to be so honored.
Though she might not have achieved the star status of such contemporaries as Frank Stella or Julian Schnabel, Murray built the life she wanted, struggling through lean times as a single parent (in downtown Manhattan when it was gritty) but never losing sight of her calling. In excerpts from her journals, imbued with aural radiance by Meryl Streep, she grapples good-naturedly with such matters as ambition and mortality.
Her ebullient subway station murals go unmentioned, but an hour couldn’t cover it all. Within the concise running time, Zea brings a remarkable life and body of work into dynamic focus.
Running time: 1 hour
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills