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Elizabeth Murray

By Jennifer Bartlett

Elizabeth Rose Murray was born in Chicago, of Irish-Catholic extraction. Her father was a lawyer and an alcoholic. He wrote poems to Elizabeth’s mother on her birthday and Easter. As a child she beat up other children, lied, drew realistic pictures of her father’s hands. She had an older sister, Susan, whom she was jealous of, and a younger brother, Johnny, who disappeared after he had been discharged from the hospital during the Vietnam War. He re-appeared married, with children. Elizabeth’s father and aunt were in vaudeville, a tap dancing team. She attended the Chicago Art Institute and believed the Chicago Imagist painters were working out of early drawings she left around the school. The lake was cold and windy; she walked around alone in the dark. Her father and mother ran out of money when she was young. They lived in hotels and would sneak past the clerk when the rent was due. Elizabeth never ironed her clothes or used deodorant like her sister Susan. Her mother would play games to divert them in the hotel room. They would eat Wonder Bread and ride the El all night. Elizabeth attended the Mills graduate school in painting. Her first year she listened to Verdi’s Requiem frequently, ate Grape Nuts at all meals, and fell into a rose bush drunk, talking about Verdi. Her second year, she was married to Don, a Sicilian artist from Chicago, by a black minister in San Francisco. She was fond of Einstein and his friend Steinmetz. Drunk, she told a curator from the Whitney Museum, “I am the James Joyce of painting.”  She laughed, reading Ulysses and War and Peace on the floor, went out with Tim who spent all day watching children through windows. She dreamed about nuns, had black frizzy hair with white in it, a long body of average height, capped teeth, crazed blue eyes, a son Dakota, a regular nose, and wore jeans and tight sweaters. She was often depressed and worried about her work. In a rage she smashed all her windows, adding up the cost of each pane. She wouldn’t talk much about herself and once pushed everything off the table when a friend of Don’s was boring. She had an interest in small measurements. She wrote newspaper articles against rock and roll in high school, published a newspaper called The Monthlies in which there was an article titled “Lady Leaks,” about a woman who saved a penny for each year of her life and stuffed them up her vagina. Feeling ill, the lady went to the doctor who told her to stop doing that. She couldn’t; she had no other way of keeping track of herself. Elizabeth attended a Rauschenberg exhibition, someone put his hands on her shoulders, she turned to face an older man she didn’t know who said, “My god, you’re a girl! You look just like an Irish tough.”  He returned to his wife’s side and both of them watched her as they left the gallery. The same day, teenagers in a car followed her nine blocks. She ducked into Astor Wines and Liquors; she didn’t want them to see where she lived. They yelled “Hey baby, hey baby,” and finally, when she wouldn’t respond, “hey baby, you’re getting gray.” She bought some wine, the clerk gave her the change and said, “Thank you sir, I mean ma’am.” She returned home depressed. As a child Elizabeth tried to kill a large tomcat she hated. “He chased my little cat Queenie into the water and made her break her leg. She limped the rest of her life. I thought he was evil, the devil, an evil cat, I wanted to get rid of him, kill him.” She would wait for the cat to appear and try to grab it. One day she succeeded. Just as she was about to hurl the squirming cat into the incinerator her father appeared. She felt if she had been allowed to carry out her plans she would have felt absolutely no guilt. Elizabeth and Don separated. He went to live in the woods of Vermont, she stayed in New York. Her ceiling collapsed, she moved to a larger loft, summered by the ocean, painted, bought the complete line of Erno Laszlo products for skin care, tried to change, to improve the quality of her friendships, made new friends, began exhibiting at the Paula Cooper Gallery, experimented sexually, entered therapy with a Lithuanian woman, taught in California, painted, took care of her son, energetically started and stopped relationships, became depressed, returned, got in fights, suffered, resumed therapy, had her astrological chart done twice (Virgo sun, Scorpio moon), had her palm read, painted, began doing three hours of Yoga a day, took Shiatsu massage once a week, painted, stopped smoking, started, stopped, stopped eating meat, began meditating (sitting technique), had an interview with a high Tibetan Buddhist, bought a Ping-Pong table as a physical outlet for her anger, and exhibited her paintings. She wrote:

I loved getting your letter.

I’ve started one of the shaped canvases—9 feet it feels exciting! The work came back from California & it still (or finally) looks really exciting to me. This made me feel better. I’ve been really, really depressed in spite of what a wonderful artist I am and what a great future lies in store for me (sometimes after 50 years of pain & agony when I’m drooling at the mouth & trying to find the switch to turn on my motorized wheel chair) I’m going through a lot of things with people & finding out a lot—basically I’m finally feeling all the garbage in me—rising to the surface—big shit balls and tar balls. I just feel a lot of urgency that I’ve got to clean up my act fast and there’s no time to waste anymore. I’m doing a lot of Yoga and reading a wonderful book called THE LAWS OF FORM by G. T. Spencer—if you get a chance pick it up before Japan to contemplate in the monastery. I think I need this time to get prepared for the onslaught of the fall.

Paula is depressed too—she’s out on the Island now though. I haven’t really talked to her. I miss you here. I’m glad it’s going well—it sounds wonderful & beautiful and you deserve it. Sorry about the Laszlo but it’s a small price for a good trip. I love Holiday Inns too—I think they are far out!!!  I might go live in one when I get to my wonderful old age—Say Hi to Yukie for me. I’m glad he’s being good.

Love, Rose

Some titles of her paintings are: Beerglass at Noon, Will, Mars Violet Cross, Red Arc Yellow Painting, Dark Heart, Pink Spiral Leap, Middleground, Heartbeat, Flamingo, Benita, Harry, Southern California, Rise, Rolling Ball, Singing School, Back, Beginner, and, most recently: Desire, Searchin’.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 6, 2007.

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