Elizabeth Murray’s paintings are vibrant, heroic, and wonderfully goofy. I love how they jump off the wall at the viewer—larger-than-life, cartoonish, and yes folks, accessible and beautiful. I met Elizabeth back in the early eighties, when both our daughters were attending the same nursery school. Elizabeth is as unpretentious and down-to-earth about her art as she is about herself. She is also someone with whom I enjoy talking about our different takes on both books (she is a voracious and opinionated reader), and the agony and ecstasy of raising streetwise daughters in New York City. We met for this interview in her downtown loft one morning back in late April; Elizabeth had just finished setting up for her exhibit, which was to open a week later at the PaceWildenstein Gallery in New York. Though she was exhausted from all the last-minute preparations of putting together a big show, Elizabeth managed to have breakfast and lots of strong coffee waiting for me when I got there. Preliminary sketches of her paintings still hung on the walls, so I was treated to a sneak preview: Sleeping, Popping Top, Rescue, Brush Piece #1 and #2... And then we talked.
Jessica Hagedorn How do you get into a painting?
Elizabeth Murray There’s always an idea of an image, and I’ll make tiny notes. I think of drawing as note-taking—they begin very sketchy and become tighter and clearer.
JH As you’re drawing them? Like you’re editing?
EM Right. I’m honing the idea, sharpening it until the line is right and I have just the right feeling. Then, that’s the image. I get myself to start painting by throwing the paint down-splashing, scrumbling, mushing the paint with no real goal except that eventually it will turn into something.
JH I write the same way. I often start with an image, a vision of a particular character. It will haunt me. And I’ll say, this is his or her name, and I’ll play with that; months could go by; or sometimes, I’ll write down a little profile. The story comes from the character. I don’t start with a plot. I don’t know where I’m going, but I do know when it’s on the right path.
EM That’s actually similar. I see the image slowly take form. There’s a suspension for me in making my work. For years, I have painted tables, cups, a few shoes… right now there are little paintings with the light chain. Do you see that? (pointing to a painting) The little lightbulb.
JH No, but I see that now. I was looking at your images as abstract shapes.
EM I’m usually thinking of something specific. I like it when it takes a while for the image to slowly emerge, if it does at all.
JH You pick quite ordinary objects, parts of household furniture or shoes, as subjects.
EM People say that about my work, Jessica, but what isn’t “ordinary?”
JH You’re right, that’s a flawed term. How we see a domestic object is not ordinary. When people say, “You’re writing a domestic novel,” I often wonder, what does that mean? There’s an element of putdown and dismissal about it. Just because it takes place in an intimate, familiar environment, is it less important than an epic novel?
EM I’m very conscious of those terms ordinary or domestic and their implications. Cézanne painted apples and tablecloths and clocks. The Cubists painted still lifes. But when I paint the still life, the critique of my work is that I’m making this feminist statement about the home, and that critique is political. I’m sure that’s true with writing too, that the themes that women take up are looked at in a particular, political light, just as Zola, or Hugo were seen as political because they wrote about ordinary people and ordinary subjects. The reason the domesticity thing has always irritated me is because I feel like I’m being shoved back into the home. Many people refer to my cup shapes as “teacups.”
EM It has that aspect of keeping you in your place. And that’s how it works in society too, they cut you off and corner you, and then they can dismiss your work more easily. But that doesn’t take in the big picture. And I can say, the cup is an incredibly meaningful image, the symbolism and the metaphor of the cup…
JH The womb…
EM Right, it’s all been said: the sexuality of the cup. Hey, Picasso made cups, Cézanne made cups. You know, it’s just fun. It’s a great image. Hopefully, our work can pop out of the package that people want to keep it in.
JH When I look at your work I think: Fun! And fun is something people forget about, even in writing. We’re afraid to have fun and we’re afraid to love beauty. In New York especially, there is a fear of just delighting in a play of words or an image and really immersing yourself in the beauty and the pleasure of it. Teacups or shoes are not important, or edgy, or deep, or violent. Do you feel this fear of beauty, that this sense of gloom is also something about our particular time? I mean, look at the novels that are being published. I like a lot of this dark stuff, but you see what’s being marketed out there…
EM That’s right. You could take a wonderful book like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which was incredibly painful to read but had humor in it, or your own book, Dogeaters; or take Jason Rhoade’s installation, white trash confabulations; or a painting of mine, and Nan Goldin’s gritty and beautiful photographs, and I think you’d have a real comparison of what making something with pleasure looks like. And I agree with you, my work is fun. The play part in my work is essential to it. And since I’ve been painting, the idea of having fun and of playfulness in the work has come and gone. Andy Warhol played. Some think Duchamp was a complete hoax, that he was just playing with everybody. The idea of play goes in and out of fashion. It’s very superficial, but now there is this whole angst thing. When I was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Abstract Expressionists were hitting with this huge bang. They were the big tough guys who threw the paint on the floor and ripped it apart and were flexing their muscles and screaming in agony at the horror of life: “I yearn, I bleed.” Two years later, along came the Pop artists and Andy Warhol and they just said, “This is bullshit. Let’s make fun of the culture, let’s use the stuff around us.” Andy Warhol painted soup cans, and he did it with style.
EM Right. It’s comical, actually, how people forget things and how they are only able to look at one tiny aspect. But that attitude actually affected me deeply, not so much the art, but the experience made a huge impact on me. How things change, one year it’s this powerful, heavy-duty stuff, Abstract Expressionism, and the next year it’s soup cans, and life is fun and games. And then the whole camp thing in the early sixties with Tommy and short skirts, and two years later we’re protesting the Vietnam War. You have to figure out who you are within the culture. You pursue things, I think, in some state between total consciousness and total unconsciousness. I don’t know whether it has to do with my Irish American background, or if your writing comes deeply out of your Filipino background, but you are what you are. All those things in your childhood. My family has a way of denying everything deep, in their own Catholic way, and yet everything is also a joke.
JH How Filipino!
EM Everything has to be seen in the light of humor. The really deep, awful stuff you just cover up. The bad part is that the humor can dissipate into sentimentality, which used to drive me nuts as a kid. They can’t tell the truth about themselves, or anybody. Everything is an exaggeration. Nothing was ordinary. All that cultural stuff that you inherit from your family goes into your work.
JH Why did you paint? Did you always know you were going to be a painter?
EM No. I was going to be a commercial artist.
JH Were there artists in your family?
EM My mother wanted to be an artist. She was really good. She painted miniatures, she drew us when we were kids. But my mother didn’t have a lot of ambition, you know, a typical woman of the thirties. She didn’t have the wherewithal to make herself have a career.
JH Do you have any of her paintings?
EM I do. And I drew when I was little. I loved to draw. Both my parents would say to me, you’re going to be an artist when you grow up.
JH They didn’t dismiss that.
EM Oh, no. They absolutely didn’t, bless their hearts. My father was a lawyer and came from a show business family. They were lower-class Irish people who came here as immigrants and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. But their values were not the traditional ones like you’ve got to get married… So when I got a scholarship to go to art school in Chicago, I went up there and thought I would be a commercial artist, like…
JH Andy Warhol?
EM No, not Andy Warhol, he didn’t exist for me then. More like Norman Rockwell. See, I didn’t know about “fine art.” I knew Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and Picasso, but that felt like a whole other rarefied world. But then, the School at the Art Institute was in a museum. And I saw these paintings in the museum’s galleries and it blew me away. That’s what got me. I love to look at paintings. I would say next to making art, looking at it is the thing that gives me the most pleasure. So then I started to take painting classes, and it was a couple of years of terrible struggle. I was terrified of the idea of painting, but something drove me to stick with it. There were a thousand times in art school where I said to myself, I’m getting out of here, I can’t do this. But it had nothing to do with being a woman at all. In the early sixties for me, feminism didn’t exist. I never thought about it, but I was one of the few women who were trying to be painters.
JH Do you feel differently now, as a painter who is highly respected, considered a success? Do you feel like there’s a big boys’ club?
EM Oh yeah, and I’m really glad I didn’t see it that way when I was younger.
JH ‘Cause it would have stopped you?
EM No, I don’t think anything would have stopped me. But you have to be blind not to see that in the world we live in right now, basically men still run things. I hate to continually dump on the white man, but they’re responsible pretty much for our world view.
JH We were talking about that 63-year-old mother who just had a baby, and all the fuss in the medical community about whether this should be allowed.
EM She carried that baby in her womb. It came out her uterus, down her birth canal—I think that is fantastic. There are plenty of seventy-year-old fathers, and nobody pays any attention to them. They just say, “Oh, wow, he’s still cooking.” It’s prowess really, that sexual pride. That they can still get it up, their sperm is still hot. They’re vital. That’s totally accepted, but there’s something disgusting and repugnant about an older woman having a child. Hell, it’s good for babies to have a mother who cares no matter how old she is. How many grannies have raised their children’s kids, and people are thrilled that they take care of the children? If you’re a woman trying to do something you have to live with those prejudices.
JH Is that why you never thought about the inequities? You just went ahead and painted.
EM That’s just the way the world was. You got hit on and you had to learn how to protect yourself. But in the sixties it never occurred to me, as I think it does to a lot of young women now, “Who do you think you are? You’re a fifty-year-old teacher, get away, I have no interest.” It was what men did and you didn’t have to do it, but it was part of your life as a young woman.
JH When I was finding my voice as a writer, I also didn’t think about the implications of my trying to be a writer, and why my own mother as well never really made a career of painting. I wouldn’t say she didn’t take herself seriously as an artist, but first she was the mother, and the matron. She ran the house and she painted on the side. That was how she was raised. It wasn’t like people told her she couldn’t do it, but nobody pushed her the extra step.
EM And she didn’t have the psychological wherewithal to push herself.
JH Certainly not in the Philippines, even though there were women who painted and were revered, they were few and far between.
EM But there is that part of it, too: I am a woman and I am an artist.
JH Let’s go back to what you said about being self-conscious. I wonder if I would have done all the work I did—because I went ahead and did it anyway and I didn’t stop to think: Well, how come I’m the only woman invited to read at poetry readings? There’re twenty guys reading and there’s only one of me.
EM I was in that situation many times in the seventies, I’m sure you’ve heard: “You’re the only one who’s any good. And it has nothing to do with gender, it’s that your work is the strongest.” And of course, there’s a part of me that was very flattered — “Thank you, boys.” And I think there is a part of me, and I’m older than you are, who’s always really wanted the guys to say, “You’re great.” It’s like wanting your Dad to say, “You’ve made it, you’re one of us,” because it’s as if women are one gender, but men encompass everything. When you talk about humankind, you talk about men. You read stories to your kids, and everybody’s a boy. With my daughters, I used to change it so that there would be girls in the stories. Even in the eighties, and even in the books written by women, the little animals, the deer, the bunnies would all be genderized into boys. Now, at 56, I consciously know this, but you can’t let that be an embittering factor in your work. And I won’t say it doesn’t make me angry, but you can’t let yourself be pulled down by it. It’s a fact of our existence, like the rain, and if it’s raining, you take your umbrella and you go out. You can’t let it stop you, but you can’t be a Pollyanna about it either. All I know is that there are more younger women artists around and they have a different viewpoint from mine. They seem much tougher and more dismissive, and they know it, too. To me that seems better.
JH But you continue to do your work. You don’t apologize for it. By not letting outside forces bring you down and by continuing to do what you do in spite of fashion, in spite of what the critics are into at the moment, what the public is ready to accept, is to me a very powerful way to fight.
EM Maybe there are times when I look at what I’m doing and say, Oh God, I’m a dinosaur. Painting is dead. Can anybody really look at painting anymore? Does anybody have any appreciation of it? And then somebody will say that painting is a standard by which all visual art is judged. I have no idea, but I feel I don’t have any choice. And I feel very lucky, actually. I’ve gotten to explore the world this way and it feels like an incredible gift. I love to paint, it’s that simple.
JH Why do you love to paint? Is it the sheer physical experience, the squish of color on a palette?
EM It’s something about the immediacy of moving your hand with this paintbrush full of a color across this surface and watching what you’re doing change right in front of your eyes. You can see the world changing and you’re in control, or not in control, which is where the frustrating elements come in, especially for an adult. Kids just do it. They make their mark and it’s immediate, they’re not judging themselves constantly. I remember something that happened when I was three years old that was fundamental. I was at a nursery school and the teacher sat me down to color with him. He took a big piece of paper and a big red crayon and he started to color, and I watched him go from the corner of the page coloring the whole page red, and I remember thinking, Wow, that is so incredible. Then I took a paper and the red crayon and I started to color with it, and it didn’t go as fast as it did with him, and I realized that there was some kind of challenge there. That was really intriguing to me, and I’ve often thought about that, a key fascination with the physicality of a surface being covered with a color. That transformation. There is no question that the physicality of the making is very intense for me. Did you ever read the biography of Genet by Edmund White?
JH No, I’ve read Genet, but not his biography.
EM Oh, he’s always been one of my favorite writers. He’s such a beautiful, physical writer. When someone asked him why he became a writer he said, “Well, I started writing when I was in prison when I was twenty, but I became a writer when I was five or six years old, and things happened in my life that were so perturbing that I just had to spend the rest of my life trying to figure them out.” That nails it right on the head. Whatever medium you choose, there’s something back there you have to sort out.
JH Do you ever paint for years and years on the same painting?
EM No, I’ve never done that. I love the idea. I know painters who do that. I would say the most time I’ve worked on a painting would be a year and a half. And that isn’t steady. I think the painting is finished, and I want to get out of it, but I’ll come back a couple of months later and realize there is something in the painting that nags at me. So I go back into it again. And the moment you go back into it, you fuck the whole thing up. Sometimes you have to redo the whole thing. Some things are incredibly difficult to resolve. But once they are resolved, I don’t look at them anymore. I love to get rid of them. I don’t like to be around my own work once it’s actually finished. I want to get on to the next one.
JH You don’t have that attachment of, “Oh my god, I’ve got to hang on to this?”
EM No. I basically keep the painting that nobody else wants. Then later, they sometimes turn out to be the most interesting paintings.
JH Do you feel like the artists you know have different attachments, or non-attachments to their work?
EM I do. For some artists, it’s not that they love their own work, but it’s psychologically hard for them to give it up. It’s difficult to let go of the experience.
JH Your paintings sometimes have a wonderfully goofy, cartoonish quality. Do you like cartoons?
EM When I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist. I used to fight it in the sixties and seventies. The kind of work that was being looked at at that time was Agnes Martin and the Minimalists and I wanted to simplify. So I tried to eliminate that inflated balloon look, but it just would never go. And it’s not that I don’t question it now, but it’s deep inside my way of drawing. And yes, I looked at a lot of cartoons when I was a kid. Yet it’s not appropriation for me at all.
JH What do you think it is?
EM It’s just inside of me. There’s no subtext.
JH Do you ever get sick and tired of subtext and appropriation?
EM Yeah I do. I never trusted it.
EM I think it came out of a deep respect for, and still is influenced by, French structuralist philosophy, and the kind of thinking that takes. It is a philosophical quest for the truth and how to look at life, and yet I’ve always felt distrustful, and I admit, threatened by it. It feels like a way of removing yourself from feeling anything. I do understand that desire. Those philosophers came out of postwar Europe, and to me it has a lot to do with the horrors of World War II and the fact that people anesthetized themselves because they didn’t want to deal with the realities of what had happened.
JH There is a certain detachment, an armor…
EM Europe suffered so terribly and people did such awful things, you couldn’t have real emotions because then you wouldn’t be able to go forward. So in that context, that philosophy makes sense to me. But not so much here and now.
JH You mentioned earlier about the drama of putting a show together. What, to you, are shows?
EM A show is the moment where people see what you’ve done, what progress you’ve made over the last few years. It’s the moment to communicate with other people. There’s something very tough about baring your soul, and on the other hand that’s positive to me. I want people to really see it and enjoy it. Unfortunately, people come into your work with all kinds of baggage. It would be great if they could just enjoy it and take it for what it’s worth. But I do the same thing when I go into a show, I’ve got all kinds of baggage that prevents me from just saying, “Wow, this is really interesting,” because most art is inherently interesting.
JH I’ve heard you use the term “artificiality.”
EM Well, I think what’s artificial is preparing for a show. I don’t do that. I’m doing my work, and every three, four years I have enough work to have a show. I’ve been fortunate that for the last ten years I’ve supported myself through sales of my work. It helps to have a show to sell the work, but the commercial part definitely impinges on the choices you make.
JH Does it bother you?
EM No, to tell you the truth I just wing my way through it. It just seems human and fun and part of life. I have a very strong belief in the work I’ve done, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had two very good dealers who have helped me.
JH Do you think art and commerce will always have this uneasy relationship?
EM Yes, it seems always to have. It would be wonderful if it would change, but I don’t see how it could. When I was going to art school the idea of money was tainted, and at that time in Chicago there was only one gallery, Frumkins. Our idea was that we crawled up into the attic or down into the basement—you found a day job doing some crummy thing, sweeping floors, selling books, waiting tables—and then you went home and you painted, but you never expected to make money from your work. The essential thing was the purity of it. And to be an art star… Well, in Chicago, that meant you’d sold your soul.
JH No one was saving up their money to go to New York?
EM Well, I came to New York via San Francisco. But when I told people in San Francisco that I wanted to go to New York it was like telling them I wanted to join hands with the devil. It meant that I was selling out before I’d even started.
JH When I teach now, I see young people who “wanna-be” writers. I sometimes worry that they want to be writers for the wrong reasons: success, first; having anything to say at all, second. That worries me, because I also came up at a time when we had that romantic idea of ourselves. We were probably kidding ourselves, but it was about having stories to tell and that came first. A lot of students ask me, “How can I get an agent?”
EM Same here, students want to know how to get a dealer.
JH Do you think we’re just foolish, still carrying around this romantic idea?
EM I can’t believe it’s foolish, because I think it inhibits us from our own worst selves. But on the other hand, I feel proud that I’ve made money from my work. I feel lucky, and people say to me if you were a man you wouldn’t feel lucky, you would feel that this is what the world owed you. Well, maybe so, but I don’t think so. If you can manage for a period of time to make some money from what you love to do, I think you’re lucky. Of course, the other issue for artists is who are the people who buy the work? The people who buy art generally have to be rich. It’s not like wandering into a bookstore with an extra twenty bucks in your pocket where you can buy a paperback. Art is a commodity, it’s a high-class product and many of the people who spend twenty, thirty, fifty thousand dollars for a piece of work want to know that if they get tired of looking at the work, they can take it to an auction house or give it back to the dealer and sell it for the same amount of money. So we’re talking investment. And that makes the art market a whole other crazy, complicated thing. I can never quite square myself with that. But there are people out there who are very wonderful, deep people who buy my work and who I think really get a lot out of having it. I also think that women have yet to prove themselves on that resale market, and that’s where you see the gender issue now.
JH What is art to you?
EM It’s the way I discovered when I was quite young of trying to find an equilibrium in the world, a place where I could balance out the different parts of myself. I think of art as a tool. It saved my life. It’s a way to escape. For a few minutes each day I can count on it, I can get out of myself and lose myself in my work. Most people can relate to that, when they’re doing something they really enjoy doing. And it helps you puzzle out the world, and all its contradictions, all the painful parts, all the hilarious parts. It’s soothing to me. And it’s the only time I feel I know what I am doing.
—Jessica Hagedorn’s books include the novels Dogeaters and The Gangster of Love; Danger and Beauty, a collection of poetry and prose; Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, which she edited. She is presently adapting Dogeaters for the La Jolla Playhouse, and at work on a new novel.