Momentous: Shows by Catherine Murphy and Sylvia Plimack Mangold
Catherine Murphy: Working Drawings at Sargent’s Daughters
February 26 to March 26, 2016
179 East Broadway (between Rutgers and Jefferson streets)
New York, 917 463 3901
Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Floors and Rulers, 1967-76 at Craig F. Starr Gallery
February 5 to March 26, 2016
5 East 73rd Street (between Madison and Fifth avenues)
New York, 212 570 1739
So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end. […] We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.
In so many words, this poetic excerpt gets at the heart of Catherine Murphy’s work, which is fortuitously on view at Sargent’s Daughters, and is featured in a new Peter Freeman, Inc. publication with a foreword by Svetlana Alpers and an essay by John Yau. The book offers the best possible surrogate to experiencing Murphy’s paintings and drawings in person, further providing a comprehensive, chronological exposition of her life’s work. Yau has clearly dedicated as much rigor and fidelity to Murphy as she herself has invested in her paintings and drawings. The reader is provided with an intimate, formal, conceptual, and even spiritual survey that touches on her personal life and artistic career. Living reclusively with her husband outside New York, Murphy submitted herself entirely to painting and drawing, frequently using the view from her apartment window as the vehicle for her expression. Yau writes, “Often, we find ourselves scrutinizing Murphy’s paintings and drawings in search of a clue to explain why she chose this particular moment and not some other one. The feeling of awe and bewilderment embodied in such concentrated looking is akin to what I experience when I again turn to her views from an apartment window, done nearly forty-five years ago.”
Murphy’s work hangs somewhere between an exacting and invented space. In the book she explains that while measured, it is necessary to avoid the pigeonhole of photorealism. Such a formulaic precision is too easy; rather, her observation must simultaneously bump up against and work with her own invention. As another rule, her invention never relies on overt markmaking and gesture. Despite the personal content, she never cares to assert her ego through those means, but rather aims toward a higher end: to deliver an experience of being in a particular moment.
We see her direct, emotionally reserved hand in the preparatory drawings on view at Sargent’s Daughters. Working Drawing (Getting Set Up) (ca. 1998), for example, depicts a note the artist wrote to herself about the anxiety of getting set up for a painting. Anxiety is literally expressed with words, and even felt in the painstaking accuracy of the picture. But true to the artist’s paradoxical insistence, one also experiences great pleasure in Murphy’s careful rendering of the moment this crumpled note rested on her desk or floor. She is incredibly serious, but always remains open to life in a lighthearted manner. In Working Drawing (Cathy) (ca. 1999), we see her name, apparently traced with a finger on the outer side of a foggy window. Cued by the painted version of this composition done a year later (featured in the book) we know that this was a very sensitive, factual study of a moment in time. But the drawing gives something the painting doesn’t: a cheeky red smudge in the top right corner. An element of chance is revealed in a number of colorful, incidental smudges found on the drawings. This body of work also demonstrates how experimental Murphy is in composing the scenes from her life. Working Drawing (Hand Mirror) (ca. 2006) is comprised of two pieces of paper unabashedly taped together in order to expand the originally conceived composition.
Murphy appears to be preoccupied with a number of relationships. Clarity and ambiguity meet in Working Drawing (Lampshade Reflected on a Painted Wall) (ca. 2000), where a fuzzy atmospheric thumbnail compares to a more linear study. In Working Drawing (n.d.) an economic contour drawing of a chair sits starkly in front of obsessively detailed wallpaper.
One cannot help but think of Murphy’s contemporary, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, who also has a show up at Craig F. Starr Gallery. In the same vein, Mangold insists on acute observation while walking the fine line between naturalistic exactitude and invention, resulting in a variety of mysterious, peculiar pictures. Floor with Laundry No. 3 (1971) brings the viewer into the painting by plopping three white, yellow, and brown pieces of fabric onto wooden floorboards. Because we cannot affirm a particular perspective, it being something between hovering above and sitting on the floor, it is clear that Mangold, like Murphy, paints, with a deeply felt love of perspective and perception, for her experiences’ sake and not necessarily for the viewer’s benefit. Four Coats (1976) is simultaneously intense and simple. Two rulers rest on the right and left edges of the painting to create an immense pressure squeezed between them. But that space between is but a plain, white field — possibly the floor or a sheet of paper.
Murphy and Mangold share a miraculous ability to reveal the extraordinary nature of everyday happenings, the ordinary. Perhaps in this present time, in dealing with the immediacy technological advances impose, we can find their work especially vital. We can look towards these artists who have clearly shown us how to slow down and wake up to life.