A Modernist Sculptor Finds a Language in the Canadian Landscape
For anyone like me, who is not naturally attuned to large, metal, abstract, brightly colored public sculpture, it takes some effort to muster enthusiasm for the work of Canadian sculptor Robert Murray. Born in 1936, Murray is a standout among his artist-contemporaries, whose works converse with the Canadian landscape. Luckily, I had the benefit of a new, comprehensive monograph, , by art director, designer, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux design manager , whose enthusiasm shines throughout this gorgeously designed compendium on Murray’s lengthy, ongoing career.
“I think Murray’s work is part of a larger body of sculpture in the ’60s and ’70s that became more about experience and creating an environment, rather than depicting a hero on a horse or simply being a decorative object,” Lippincott said in an email interview with Hyperallergic. In addition to a meticulous biography written by Lippincott, the monograph includes a 40-page interview between Lippincott and Murray that covers Murray’s salad days in New York City in the early 1960s; his time as an assistant to Barnett Newman; his relationship with the influential critic Clement Greenberg; and the finer points of his work, including his naming conventions, the idea of sculpture as experience, and his intentions for his public and sited works.“Cumbria” (1966–67) in Battery Park City, New York, as part of the Art in Public Places program. Painted steel. 360 x 180 x 180 in. Collection of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. Gift of Transport Canada, Vancouver International Airport Authority, and friends of the sculpture, 1995. Photo by Robert Murray.
“I liked his line in the interview about [how] it’s kinetic art, but the viewer has to move — one understands and (hopefully) enjoys the work by walking around it and exploring and taking in the ever-changing view,” Lippincott continued. “I think this is in some ways an extension of the ideas that Calder, Rickey, and Tinguely, among many others, were exploring in their work. As well, Rauschenberg’s combines or Di Suvero’s sculptures also offer these kinds of immersive, interactive experiences.” Lippincott also notes that, although there has not been critical exploration of the concept of “color field sculpture,” Murray’s work seems to be a three-dimensional embodiment of the concerns of the color field painters.“Cascade” (1983) installed at the University of Toronto. Painted aluminum, 263.75 x 184 in. Collection of University College Collection UC711 (Photograph by Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the Art Museum University of Toronto.)
Murray’s sculpture certainly manages to develop a unique perspective, despite synthesizing many aspects and themes of contemporary sculpture emerging from New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of his works from the 1960s are minimal, some recalling Calder in their stark geometries, bright monochrome surfaces, and tense angles. In the waterfront idyll “Ferus” (1963), for instance, a tall, red cylinder seems almost to lift an I-beam-shaped dance partner above its head; and the bright yellow “Cumbria” (1966-67), which was installed in Battery Park City as part of the Art in Public Places program, resembles a ski launch. Other works evoke entropy and movement. Murray’s early stint as a rigger in the Royal Canadian Air Force introduced him to metalworking and fabrication, skills he would use throughout his art career to create astonishing, delicate ripples and crumples in structural steel and cast bronze. His 1980s works feel more figurative, resembling waves and blocky waterfalls, and bearing titles that allude to nature, such as the wild “Cascade” (1983), in which sheets of blue-painted aluminum hang from the ceiling of the vaulted chandelier space at the University of Toronto’s Art Museum, like a chunky strand of cut construction paper.
“The use of the landscape as a point of departure for making abstract art is intriguing to me,” Lippincott stated. “I think many people think that abstract work has no connection to real life and observed experiences, and while some work is ‘purely’ abstract, I realized at some point that most of the abstraction I’m most drawn to uses the natural world as a point of departure.” Lippincott also noted that the absence of a monograph on an artist as successful and connected as Murray was conspicuous.“Ferus” (1963) installed on Lookout Island on the Georgian Bay, near Pointe au Baril, Ontario. Painted steel, 142 x 43 x 22 in. Collection of National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. Purchased from Mr. and Mrs. Paul Arthur, 1999. Photo by Robert Murray.
“When I was researching all the various artists in my first book , there were three or four about whom there was no monograph, and I think it’s incredibly important to have this kind of documentation of an artist’s work so they don’t just disappear. He was in many of the major exhibitions and galleries of his time, and has work in important collections, so it’s odd that a book hadn’t happened,” he related. “In addition to thinking highly of his sculpture (and other works), his close friendship with Barnett Newman, his time in New York City, his being part of some of the pivotal exhibitions of modern sculpture, and his engagement with the public art scene of the ’60s and ’70s all seemed an interesting part of art history, and well worth documenting.” From my vantage point, at the opposite end of general enthusiasm for giant metal sculptures, I find myself in rare agreement with one of its ardent advocates.
by Jonathan Lippincott (2019) is published by Design Books is available from and other online retailers. Jonathan Lippincott will be presenting a slide lecture on the life and work of Robert Murray at the Mulberry Street Library ( Soho, at 10 Jersey Street, NYC) on .
will be on view at the Flatiron Project Space (133/141 West 21st Street, NYC), July 31- September 6, 2019.