Elizabeth Murray, 66; abstract painter used vivid colors

Times Staff Writer

Elizabeth Murray, an artist who painted richly colored, evocative, abstract works after the Minimalist art movement had reduced the art form to a fleet of monochrome canvases, has died. She was 66.

Murray died Sunday at her home in Granville, N.Y. The cause was complications from lung cancer, said Jennifer Joy of PaceWildenstein gallery in New York City, which represented Murray. She had been a resident of Granville and New York City.

As an artist Murray’s eclectic influences included the Post-Impressionist paintings of Paul Cezanne, the shaped canvases and assemblages of Cubist artists, and the free-floating forms of Surrealism, particularly in the paintings of Joan Miro.

While her work appears at first to be purely abstract, human figures soon emerge, along with tables, coffee cups and other items from domestic life.

“A Murray painting is easy to recognize,” wrote Deborah Solomon in a 1991 profile of the artist in the New York Times. “More often than not it consists of a big canvas loaded up with forms and colors that bounce off one another in an anarchic, ebullient way.”


Many critics noted the cartoon-like quality of Murray’s images, which she attributed to her childhood fascination with comics. The playfulness, however, did not disguise ominous undertones, critics observed.

“Murray’s paintings have long possessed a clownishness that embraces dark and light, a slapstick joy coexisting with abject terror and rue,” wrote reviewer Stephen Westfall in Art in America magazine in 2006.

Such complexities add to the “psychological intensity” of Murray’s art, he wrote.

Murray was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up in a household unsettled by financial insecurity after her father developed a nervous condition and could not hold a steady job. The family eventually moved to Bloomington, Ill., to live with Murray’s grandmother.

She enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1958 where she planned to study commercial art.

She changed course, however, and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree. She earned a master of fine arts degree at Mills College in Oakland in 1964.

After a decade of experimenting in various painting styles, she concentrated on lush colors and biomorphic shapes as seen in such paintings as “Pink Spiral Leap” of 1975.

Over time her painting surfaces became more extreme. Some of her works are 9 feet long or more. Some are shaped, with upturned edges or bulges across the surface. Others are made of an assemblage of canvases.

She continued to borrow motifs and images from Cezanne in such paintings as her “Madame Cezanne in a Rocking Chair” of 1972. Murray repeated the Cezanne-inspired portrait in a grid of small compartments.

“He was the first painter I felt I understood,” Murray said of Cezanne in 1991. “There is a fullness to the forms. He pumps them up.”

From the 1980s critics referred to her work as eloquent. In 2006 she was given a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, an honor few women have received.

For many years Murray taught art at various schools, including the University of Buffalo, Bard College near New York City, Yale University and California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

She exhibited her paintings at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City starting in 1974. More recently she was affiliated with the PaceWildenstein gallery.

Murray’s work has been included in dozens of group shows since her 1972 debut in “Contemporary American Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was given more than 50 solo exhibits.

Murray was married twice. She is survived by her second husband, poet Bob Holman; her son, Dakota Sunseri; and her daughters, Sophie and Daisy Murray Holman. She is also survived by her sister, Susan Murray Resnick; brother, Thomas Murray; and two grandchildren.