More than fit to print

Cantor Arts Center features rarely seen graphic work of nationally known painter

The medium of printmaking is associated with careful planning, attention to detail and the methodical use of a stone, plate, wood block or silkscreen that has been worked upon by an artist. It is a formulaic technique, designed to produce multiple editions of a work of art, making it less expensive and easier to obtain by the masses.

And yet, over the centuries, artists have found ways to break away from the rigid parameters inherent in the printing process. The 42 works included in the exhibition "Her Story: Prints by Elizabeth Murray" at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University are a fun, lively and colorful example of how a contemporary artist can take a traditional process and turn it on its ear. Through the use of multiple plates, hand-torn paper and collage techniques, the prints are a wild ride of bold colors, shapes, sizes and three dimensionality -- definitely not your typically staid print show.

Cantor Arts Center Director Connie Wolf suggested the idea for the exhibition, which was curated by Hilarie Faberman. They worked in collaboration with collectors Sally Randel and Paul Fearer to organize the show, which is only the second major exhibition of Murray's prints, and the first time they have been shown as a group. On view through March 30, it is the exhibition's only venue.

The title of the show refers to a series of smaller prints that Murray (1940-2007) created in a collaborative project with poet Anne Waldman. These works are quiet, intimate renderings of abstract forms that illustrate Waldman's text. It is noteworthy that "Her Story," a riff on "history," is being presented at the Cantor directly after a major exhibition of the work of Carrie Weems.

Both Weems and Murray were recipients of MacArthur Foundation "genius" awards. Faberman said this was not planned, but "I thought it was kind of terrific that the MacArthur folks are acknowledging artists who happen to be women."

Murray was, like many American children, strongly influenced by the art of comic books. Growing up in Chicago, she encountered masterpieces by artists like Paul Cezanne at the Art Institute, but it was her love for all things Disney that influenced her decision to become an artist. Years later, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where her emphasis switched to painting. Following her graduation from the Art Institute in 1962, she came to California in order to attend graduate school at Mills College. At the time, the prevailing art trends were minimalism and process art; painting was deemed to be obsolete and without value. Murray was not deterred, however, and moved to New York City, which was by now the recognized center of the art world. For a period of 10 years, she continued to paint small canvases, mainly in an abstract manner. She married, had two children and struggled to find her own personal style.

Like many women artists before her (Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot) Murray turned her focus upon the small objects of domesticity such as cups, saucers, shoes, chairs and decided to use them as a way to express her inner-most emotions. At the same time, she became interested in Buddhism and Za-Zen. What resulted was the shaped canvas, a format she would explore and perfect for the next 30 years.

It is not a stretch to imagine that an artist who would take such liberties with the format of painting would also apply those ideas to printmaking. Working with Universal Limited Art Editions, Murray experimented with both lithography and intaglio processes to create the 42 prints in the show. Like her paintings, they are bold and colorful, created on multiple plates and often using overlapping sheets of paper.

"Wiggle Manhattan" is a frenetic depiction of the city, with squiggles of lines running north/south, east/west over an abstracted map, creating a Looney-Tunes topography of the island. Where Piet Mondrian portrayed the city using precise geometry and primary colors in his "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," Murray expresses its chaos and energy with free-form abandon.

"Shoe String" is a real standout in the exhibition and features a unique curved frame. Made from 36 plates on hand-torn paper, its three dimensionality and soft colors make it appealing and attention-grabbing. You just don't expect to see objects extending out from a print.

For those who practice yoga, "Up Dog" and "Down Dog" are an absolute delight; the Picasso-like disjointing of the animal's form and the implication of movement are both intriguing and fun.

"Jazz" finds the artist returning to one of her favorite motifs, the coffee cup. While the object is usually a source of sustenance, here it is cracked down the center, and its handles dangle in a helter-skelter way.

Frank Stella first introduced the idea of moving away from the standard rectangular format for a painting in his works of the 1960s. As a painter, Murray took the idea even further, and in larger scale. The paintings begin with a small drawing that is blown up on an overhead projector. Two studio assistants cut the framework out of wood, which are then covered with canvas and sized with gesso. Murray would then paint the three dimensional form with objects that were an interplay between the realistic and abstract. The shaped canvases were well-received by gallery owners and collectors, and soon Murray's work was included in major museum exhibitions. At the Cantor, visitors have a chance to see -- in addition to her prints -- three of her shaped canvas paintings, which are on loan from the Anderson and Fisher Collections. "Chain Gang" (1985) is a good example of how the blurred line between sculpture and painting is demonstrated in Murray's work. Inspired by the Sam Cooke song and the notion of imprisonment, it is darkly painted, with forms that suggest an enveloping or closing in, and two spoon-shaped forms that reach out into the viewer's space.

Murray died of lung cancer in 2007. In her Time Magazine obituary, critic Richard Lacayo credited Murray with "bringing painting back to life." In "Her Story," we can see that she did much the same for printmaking.

Sheryl Nonnenberg is a Menlo Park freelance writer.


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