Catherine Murphy is one of our great artists. Over the course of a career that began in 1971, she has never branded herself, relied on a format, worked in a series, or produced signature works, which makes her unique. She is an observing painter who does not return to the same source, which is practically unheard of in art. What further sets her work apart from other observing artists is that her paintings are both eerie and emotionally charged.
A doormat in winter; an open suitcase with two neatly pressed and folded shirts; two clear plastic bags filled with clothes, sitting on a broken desk chair in an inconspicuous corner – there is nothing special about Murphy’s subjects. And yet there is something inexplicably disturbing about her paintings and drawings. It is this aspect of her work – her specialization of the ordinary – that is central to why I believe she has become an unrivaled figure in contemporary art.
As a longtime admirer of Murphy’s work and the author of her only monograph, Catherine Murphy (2016), with a foreword by Svetlana Alpers, once again I was impressed by the singularity of vision she achieved in her exhibition Catherine Murphy: Recent work, at Peter Freeman, Inc. (November 12, 2021 – January 8, 2022). Although the specificity of light and scene has been with her work since the beginning of her career, in this exhibition of nine oil paintings and four graphite drawings she seems to have entered a new and foreboding territory, dealing with fragility and aging – a subject that few American artists other than Jasper Johns have tackled it with equanimity.
Formally, Murphy does a number of things that set her apart from other observing painters. Most importantly, she doesn’t use a one-to-one scale to paint what she sees. Rather than stick to this formula, which has been a mainstay of life painting, she increases the scale, with the two largest paintings in the current exhibition being five feet by five feet square. By listing everything, she strengthens the relationship between vision and subject.
The relationship between subject and scale shifts from painting to painting, with “Packed” (2018) – an overhead view of two differently colored, striped shirts with button placket neatly folded in a suitcase – occupying a perceptual zone where we’re not quite sure how far along we are. we from the suitcase. The front view suggests that we are physically quite close to the shirts as we are looking straight down into the trunk. Why did we keep looking so intently, we wonder? It is in this moment of questioning that Murphy’s paintings reach another level. We don’t just look in the suitcase, because the scale suggests that something else is going on. Did we just open it or are we going to close it?
The connection between our bodies and what we look at is Murphy’s innovation in observational painting; she always establishes a visceral connection between viewer and subject, which in the paintings “Flight” (2020) and “Kitchen Door” (2021) is charged with the possibility of what could happen.
In ‘Flight’ we are at the top of a carpeted staircase, looking down at a belted checkerboard robe on the bottom. Compositionally, the staircase begins at the bottom of the painting and ascends more than halfway up the surface, the robe just fitting into the remaining space along the top. Everything is carefully calibrated, but nothing seems contrived.
Seemingly standing at the top of the stairs, looking at the bathrobe, we feel like we are in the painting. While many observing painters make the viewer feel like a distant observer, possibly even a voyeur or innocent witness, Murphy pulls us into a situation as he invites us to find out what’s going on. Whose is the bathrobe? Why is it at the bottom of the landing? Does someone throw the dirty laundry down the stairs because it’s easier than dragging down a crammed basket?
Once you see the painting in its entirety, you begin to notice other aspects of it that draw your attention further. This is truly a Murphy’s masterpiece. She can make a fluffy carpet look blurry. There is no shorthand in her paintings. Everything – from the fuzziness of the carpet to its uneven color and obvious stains from use – is present in the work. At least as we refocus and our attention shifts, this viewer was brought back to the possibility of falling down the stairs, to join the outstretched robe. By making everything in the painting relevant, Murphy forces us to look all around us, which puts us in a more precarious position for not paying attention to where we stand for a moment.
This state of heightened awareness also places Murphy’s paintings on another plane of understanding and interaction. One way she achieves this is through her remarkable ability to mimic the surface of the thing she paints, whether it’s blurry, patterned wallpaper in “Prequel” (2021) or the faded green leather armrests of a commonly used office chair in … “Bags of Rags” (2019), which, as a meditation on mortality and time, is one of the most powerful and silently hair-raising paintings in this mesmerizing exhibition.
In “Bags of Rags”, two large transparent garbage bags filled with clothing are piled on a green leather office chair that has seen better days. We do not know the circumstances, that is central to our experience of the work. The chair has been pushed into a corner and we seem to be standing in front of it, contemplating what lies ahead.
Whose clothes do these belong to and why have they been put in plastic bags, as if they are no longer needed? Are they donated to a thrift store? What about the painted leather chair that is tinted faded green? Just as I think “Flight” is about fragility and the fear of falling, something that preoccupies older people, “Bags of Rags” is about remains and the aging of a broken chair. A strong point of this painting – and there are many, starting with the way everything is painted – is that Murphy never directs our thinking. It is the things themselves that hold our attention, even as they evoke our future.
Whether painting or drawing, Murphy seamlessly combines the objectivity of accurate and direct viewing with varying levels of subjectivity. Her process is always in the service of the looking, and you never see a signature bloom or mark. She’s particularly sensitive to the surface feel of anything, whether it’s the texture of the striped cotton shirts in “Packed” or the mottled and perhaps bruised skin of a young woman’s bare legs in “Head to Toe” (2018).
The angle of the composition and the cutout are essential components of her research, with each painting giving us a different view of a specific thing, the patterned front of the back of a camouflage jacket in “Camo” (2020) or the four angular images shown by a security camera in the tour de force graphite drawing “Night Watch” (2018), which replicates that eerie, alien light from a camera filming the outline of a house at night.
I think one of the reasons Murphy isn’t much more famous is that her work isn’t hip or cool. The views are not theatrical and dramatic, as with Edward Hopper, who was a clumsy painter and a great artist. Murphy’s paint treatment isn’t overly dramatic, but it’s breathtaking, as she seems to be able to recreate every kind of surface, from used leather, to large plastic buckets filled with water, to the perforated rubber doormat in “Kitchen Door” (2021). If “Flight” conveys the fear of falling, “Kitchen Door” conveys the fear of slipping on a winter’s night, starting with the moment you leave your home and step into the world, while “Night Watch” is about a feeling of vulnerability and the need for protection.
Murphy depicts the doormat as a trapezoid rising from the bottom of the painting and tilting forward. The angle of inclination and the close-up image suggest that the viewer is inside, about to go outside. The slanted face of the doormat seems to predict the future, underscoring the fear you might have about falling, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable or vulnerable. It is this state of our physical being that Murphy speaks of. By choosing a subject that is literally underfoot, and paying attention to it, and to the piled up snow and stone paths, she breaks the illusion of security that many people think will never change. Her susceptibility to aging and the sense of defenselessness that can engulf any of us is unique and original, especially in today’s art world and her reverence for signature styles, which can be seen as a misguided bulwark against the passage of time. The art world must do the right thing and honor Murphy’s greatness.
Catherine Murphy: Recent work continues at Peter Freeman, Inc. (140 Grand Street, Manhattan), through January 8, 2022.
This week, a Frank Stella is installed as a public artwork in NYC, the women behind some iconic buildings loot Cambodia, fight anti-boycott laws and more.
MoMA board member Ken Griffin amply requested the document, beating cryptocurrency enthusiasts crowdfunding to buy it.
The painting by David Allan has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland.
Westfall stays true to his love of flat geometry, while finding ways to undermine all traces of predictability and stability.