With the death of Elizabeth Murray at age 66 on Sunday, America lost one of its smartest, slyest, most exuberant painters. Merv Griffin will get longer eulogies this week. But trust me, when The Wheel of Fortune is done spinning, she's the one who will matter a great deal more. And it's precisely at this moment, when so much of the fantasy offered to us by mass culture is calculated industrial product, in formulations arrived at by Hollywood or by whichever multinational is fine-tuning the next big video game, that her work feels especially important. She stood for the adventure of the individual mind, and for its power to reach out, all by itself, to yours.
To begin with, Murray was a crucial figure in the struggle to bring painting back to life in the 1970s and early '80s. If there was one thing that nearly everybody in the art world knew back then, it was that painting was yesterday's news. Real artists did installations, or sawed houses in half or got behind the controls of a bulldozer and piled up earthworks anything other than pick up a hairy brush and use it to drag that ancient mud called pigment across a piece of cloth.
How had this happened? The reasons are many, but one of the most important is that after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, advanced painting had moved down ever more restricted avenues, into Color Field pictures made by pouring paint directly onto canvas or Minimalist canvases of one color. By the early 1960s, the supremely influential critic Clement Greenberg was ordaining that painting had a historic destiny that could be realized only in work in which distinct form and deep space gave way to flat, thin washes of color. Some very good art would meet that description, by Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and so on. But a lot of it had a distinct whiff of the endgame about it.
There was always Pop Art, of course. And in the same years that abstraction was getting thinner and flatter, Pop gave artists a way to reintroduce the recognizable imagery that Greenberg thought was hopelessly retro. But by the '70s the energies of Pop were running out too. Painting appeared to have painted itself into a dead end. It was just around then that Murray, who was born in Chicago in 1940, got seriously to work. Murray had graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1962 and arrived in New York City five years later with her first husband, a sculptor. She would be one of a growing number of artists Susan Rothenberg, Philip Guston, Jennifer Bartlett were some others who were looking for new ways to make painting a dynamic form again. In that search, Murray would turn out to be a brilliant synthesizer, blending influences from Stuart Davis, from Picasso and Miro, and from the comic strips she loved as a kid. She didn't care if her inspirations were high or low, so long as they got her where she wanted to go.