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Elizabeth Murray's "Do The Dance" Among Roberta Smith's Favorite Paintings

FAVORITE paintings in New York museums? You don’t have to be an art critic to have a few, or a few dozen. Winnowing these treasures down to five — the assignment here for three critics for The New York Times — is a pleasant, invigorating yet implicitly arbitrary endeavor. The resulting lists can only be characterized conditionally, as personal, partial or provisional. All told the city offers one of the world’s great accounts of the medium. The paintings selected here range from Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert,” from 1480, in the Frick Collection to “Do the Dance,” from 2005, by Elizabeth Murray in the Museum of Modern Art. (The choices are on Pages 26 through 28.) Paintings, like poetry or music, are essential nutrients that help people sustain healthy lives. They’re not recreational pleasures or sidelines. They are tools that help us grasp the diversity of the world and its history, and explore the emotional capacities with which we navigate that world. They illuminate, they humble, they nurture, they inspire. They teach us to use our eyes and to know ourselves by knowing others. If New York’s legions of irresistible paintings could sing, these hills would be magnificently alive with the sound of their music. DO THE DANCE,’ BY ELIZABETH MURRAY, MUSEUM OF MODERN ART Elizabeth Murray’s “Do the Dance” is a late painting, made in 2005 after she had received the diagnosis of the brain cancer that would kill her two years hence, at 66. Made of five separate shaped canvases that create the illusion of scores of individual smaller canvases percolating momentarily into a rectangular cluster, it is obliquely autobiographical, as all convincing art probably must be to some extent. Most of Murray’s paintings can be read as tallies of both the private emotions and events of her life and of the visual sources that fed her art throughout her career. Her vocabulary was built on elements from the work of Braque, Picasso, Miró and Malevich, as well as Jim Nutt and R. Crumb. Like my other choices here “Do the Dance” operates in the lavishly appointed gap between the actual and the abstract. In its lower-left corner we see a character familiar from earlier Murrays — a rubbery Gumby figure whose limbs stretch into ribbonlike extensions. This figure is now apparently the patient, attached to a light-green IV, lying on white and yellow sheets whose red-flecked patterns discreetly evoke blood. Near its head a small four-pronged shape resembles a rubber glove, yet its cartoony, splatlike silhouette is one that recurs throughout Murray’s art, as spilled coffee, for example. (The hospital, like everywhere else, seems to have brimmed with expressive potential for her.) Just above the brown figure a series of white round canvases connected by a blue laddered line that might be a spinal column or a sutured incision implies another figure. This one’s head is crisscrossed with red lines and attached to an oxygen tube. On the right half of the painting two baggy, biomorphic shapes — one yellow, one lavender — occupy their own irregular canvases; they form a couple struggling to stay connected while closely resembling examples of Murray’s earlier work. So does an undulant cloud of purple-brown, punctuated by a white dotted line. Other irregular, bulbous lines snake and coil among and around these larger shapes, suggesting tubes, wiring or cords of synaptic nodes. At the bottom of it all, in the form of a long blue squiggle, lie the waters of Manhattan. “Do the Dance,” Murray tells us, when the end is near. The dance is life. And life, for her, was painting.
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