Elizabeth Murray & Jessi Reaves: Wild Life
On ViewCarnegie Museum Of Art
September 3, 2021–January 9, 2022
Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007) had an astonishing capacity to develop. Looking just at the works in Wild Life, her two person show with the sculptor Jessi Reaves (b. 1986) curated by Rebecca Matalon, the distance between Night Empire (1967-68) and C Painting (1980-81) is amazing. The former is a superior-quality head shop painting, an image of the shining lights atop the Empire State Building. And the latter is a majestic, highly original, shaped canvas construction, held together by her black quotation mark shapes, which run across from the small panel on the right to the larger irregular shape on the left. In this majestic abstract painting, the sensibility behind Henri Matisse’s late cut-outs is radicalized. Tangled (1989-90) sets a blue and pink tangled grid on a dark basket shape, constructed from oil on canvas on wood. Jessi Reaves, who was born 46 years later, seems by contrast a fast starter. Her Idol of the Hares (2014), composed of oak, polyurethane foam, silk, cotton, aluminum, and ink, looks like a reclining chair having an anxiety attack, with the lining popping out. Reaves originally planned to study furniture making in art school. And although she actually studied painting, she makes sculptures built from furniture. Her Muscle Chair (laying down to talk) (2016), constructed from Suede, steel, sawdust, bun feet, resin, and foam, is a reclining chair, the back peeled down, an artwork ready to come apart.
Everyone who has organized, or merely attended art history lectures has seen the left screen/right screen slide comparisons. The lecturer contrasts the classical art on the left with the Baroque work on the right, Salon painting on the left to Impressionism on the right, and so on. But how should we understand Wild Life, which is a left/right comparison realized in the museum space with Murray and Reaves, figures of different generations who are very different artists? How should we understand the relationships between Murray’s shaped paintings and Reaves’s deconstructed furniture sculptures? What, I am asking, motivates this two-person exhibition, built around a series of juxtapositions?
Initially I found this pairing deeply puzzling. While I enjoyed both Murray’s paintings and Reaves’s boldly original sculptures, I didn’t understand the meaning of showing them together—and the good catalogue essay by Rebecca Matalon didn’t help. There seemed to be no particular personal connection between the work of these two women. And so I sat down on Reaves’s sofa and closed my eyes for a moment, and an old memory came to my aid. Sometime in the 1980s, looking at art with David Reed, we ran into his friend, the sculptor Scott Burton. And Burton gave us a great one liner: “You, David,” he said, “make the paintings, and I’ll make the chairs for people to sit on to view them”. It set me to thinking. Murray takes apart painting, and Reaves deconstructs furniture. I realized that this convergence defines their elective affinities.
What traditionally defined painting was a very familiar convention: pigmented, flat bounded rectangles. In the era of late Modernism, Murray was one of many painters who, rejecting this convention, experimented with the shaped canvas. What defined and defines furniture is adaptation to serve practical functions. Reaves’s Twice Is Not Enough (Red to Green Chair) (2016), made of wood, sawdust, steel, foam, silk, leather, and cotton, is a padded chair cut across at its left-hand edge. You could almost sit on this three-dimensional sculpture. What is sculpture if not a three-dimensional assemblage? And what is painting? An object hanging on the wall. Reaves and Murray share, then, the desire to critically challenge the entrenched definitions of these media. And if their artworks look so very different, that is because sculpture and painting remain, still, very different art forms. Murray is concerned with color and composition and Reaves with organization of three-dimensional forms borrowed from furniture.
Usually, art historical narratives go from past to the present. In these familiar accounts, the sculpture of Donatello leads to Michelangelo in a narrative that goes on to Bernini. And analytic Cubism is said to lead to Jackson Pollock whose painting inspires Morris Louis. You describe the influences of an artist in order to understand how he makes use of the traditions. But it may be more productive to present a reverse narrative to see how the most recent art teaches us to understand slightly older works in new ways. How past art is understood often depends to some degree upon artworks from the present. “The past cannot act on the present—it’s always the case, rather, that someone in the present acts in response to the past.”1 This happens when a contemporary artist teaches us how to look at work from the past, in a way that’s decisively informed by contemporary work. And that’s what happens in Wild Life when Reaves teaches us to see Murray in new ways.
- Some years ago Joachim Pissarro suggested and I then developed the conception of a reverse art history. The quotation comes from my Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 161.