Elizabeth Murray and Tom Burckhardt: A Review from 2006
This review from 2006 is a topical pick from the archives in May 2011 to coincide with the recent show of earlier work by the late Elizabeth Murray at the now renamed Pace Gallery and the current Tom Burckhardt show, closing May 8, at Pierogi Gallery.
Although, at sixty-six, Elizabeth Murray – basking still in the glory of last year’s MoMA retrospective – is surely one of the old masters of the contemporary scene, her recent work doesn’t have any of the characteristics of seniority.
The eighteen pieces on display at PaceWildenstein,dating from 2003-06, include ten of her trademark painted constructions where oil on canvas is stretched on sculpturally shaped wooden supports. These images have as much youthful, boiterous spunk as anything she has produced in an already visually raucous career.
“Old age” style has usually to do with looseness, both in terms of medium application and the definition of forms. But these works stand out within her oeuvre thanks to sharp focus, crisp chroma and clarity of line. “Flight of the Bumble Bee” (2003) for instance is an arrangement of discrete sculptural entities attached, abutting or overlapping one another, each in its own, distinct color range, observing different gravities and perspectives. Some of these forms are common objects like a pink bowler hat or a couple of dog bones, in red and blue. Even where the forms are obstinately abstract, or else, in the case of a skewed light blue square with a yellow frame and a darker blue cross-bar, can be read as variously as a kite, flag or window, the color and application are tight and specific. There is an avoidance of the formal ambiguities and murky tonal mixes that once characterized her work. 
It is no secret that the artist has battled cancer for some while. This only makes the virile humor and graphic punch of her compositions the more striking. “The Sun and the Moon” (2005), one of the pieces on which the MoMA show signed off, can be called an orderly depiction of chaos. The pink skeletal figure recalls something out of the Mexican Day of the Dead, but like everything else in this brightly colored, cartoon-inspired carnival, it exudes a defiant spirit of affirmation.
Another work from MoMA’s exhibition given a second outing here is “Do the Dance” (2005), now in that museum’s collection. That it recalls the board game, Chutes and Ladders, is an apt metaphor for a sensibility that bounces us around recklessly from high to low, with references both to classic modernism and raucous pop and folk culture. As much as the jumble of red sticks at the top center of this image recalls Russian Constructivism, the contour lines and linear accents put us in mind of Keith Haring (the similarity is more overt in “The New World” from 2006). The eye feels like it is on a wild journey through Ms. Murray’s work, liable at any moment to be wisked off towards exhileration or shoved unceremoniously into absurdity.
In whichever state, there is no question that Ms. Murray is – in the best sense of the term – a vulgarian. Her art fuses ribald humor and linguistic experiment in a way that itself constitutes a high-low collision. But then her ability to play abstraction and figuration simultaneously, to deal with life in all its impurities and yet speculate within the higher realms of “pure” shape and color, recalls many classic forebears within the modernist canon, Picasso or Miró for instance, making her a natural for MoMA, a living exemplar of modernism. That these two artistic forebears hail from the same country might not be a coincidence: Ms. Murray was born in Chicago, and although she has made her career in New York, a goofey, Rabelasian life inclusiveness links Chicago art, across several generations, to Spain’s mix of the earthy and the metaphysical.
Another of the dichotomies alive within Ms. Murray’s art is between depth and flatness. Flatness is served by her penchant for isolated instances of solid color, and for graphic devices that although depicting volume and depth are nonetheless obviously from the language of cartoons and illustration, that is to say from the printed page. The cutout shapes on which she works stand proud of the wall, emphasizing the artificiality of the support, further defeating illusions of depth. But then, color and shape are still able to work their trompe l’oeil magic, as in “Baby Snakes” (2006), with its knowing disparites of scale, its optical sensations of protrusion and recession, in the way artfully compressed grids lead the eye around corners and into distances. And her painterly touch, for all its newfound Stuart Davis-like precionism, still has a lushness, an involvement in subtle tonal shifts, that slows down the gaze, militating against the work’s graphic immediacy. Shifts in speed might actually be the wildest game Ms. Murray plays.
An Elizabeth Murray has something for all the family: child-like innocence sits comfortably with artworld sophistication in a way that recalls such protean American pranksters as Alexander Calder and Red Grooms.
Mr. Groom’s sometime assistant [35 words, but reword next sentence] Tom Burckhardt, who is having his third solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy, taps a similar mix of art and life, the earthy and ethereal, abstraction and illustration, earnestness and horsing around. And, again like Ms. Murray, his latest work has a crisp sense of clarity.
Typically of this artist, there is both thematic and formal unity to his show of ink drawings on paper. The leitmotifs are a cutout photograph of artist himself inserted, almost seamlessly, as a collage element within the painted image, and pristine canvases. There aren’t the beligerently disparate scale and touch that have characterized previous work. The images are strongly reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints—not the classics of the Ukiyo-e period so much as twentieth-century descendants of that tradition. Depicting the artist and his canvases coping with crises – whether ecological, domestic or existential – the scenes exude dark humor.
“Studio Fire” (all 2006) depicts the interior of a wrecked wooden barn, the surrounding walls in cinders with brooding sky and pine trees beyond, but in the middle is a pristine canvas on an unblemished easel. The scene could be read in banal literal terms: the defiant artist has set up shop again, unfazed by the fire. But it also suggests an allegory of art versus life, recalling Magritte’s countless images of easels oddly indifferent to surrounding realities. 
In “Vortex” a churning sea sucks canvases in a spiral towards its center, the artist feeding the maelstrom with more and more of them. In “Icarus Launch” the artist flies off a cliff with canvases as wings, faring rather well. In other images he fends off freezing winds with a bonfire of canvases, or survives a shipwreck with a raft and sail made of them. One almost expects sardonic understatement captions with these diffidently ironic images in the style of the absurdist illustrator Glen Baxter and his hapless cowboys.
But despite intentional deadpan, Mr. Burckardt transcends the cartoon idiom to achieve an odd, personal balance of the silly and the poignant. “Conflagration,” a huge work of 80 by 144 inches, melds together illustration and decoration with rare elan. A huge circle of canvases in a barren landscape is doused by the arsonist artist, creating a fireball which, in the heavens, turns into an exquisite patchwork of Stephen Mueller and Al Held-like abstract swirls and shapes. That an iconoclastic act, rendered with nerdish realism, results inthis apotheosis of abstraction comes across as an allegory of style. If the artist himself believes it, his next show will have less irony and more abstraction.
Murray until November 11 (534 W 25 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 929 7000)
Burckhardt until November 11 (724 Fifth Avenue at 57 Street, 212.262.5050)
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 19, 2006 under the title “Gallery Going: An ‘old master’ defiantly at work “