Tension and Abstraction in Realism

Catherine Murphy’s provocative and tense  graphite drawings defy category, leaving the viewer wondering if she is tightly rendering abstraction or abstracting realism.

by Lisa Dinhofer

Mowed Field
1985, graphite, 14 x 17.
All artwork this article private collection
unless otherwise indicated.

A lone cake in a lit oven, a cat-scratched chair, the back of a crudely stretched canvas, and a pile of sweepings from a dirty floor—these are the unusual, yet oh so ordinary, images from the extraordinary draftsman and painter Catherine Murphy. Unusual because the images chosen are rarely presented as subjects for large, complex, beautifully rendered drawings; and ordinary because they depict everyday, common experience. After all, who hasn’t swept a floor?

Catherine Murphy is at once a minimalist, a realist, a Northern Renaissance-style master, and a 21st-century abstract artist. Is this possible? Are these contradictions? Or different facets of the same gemstone? Let’s take each idea separately: Murphy composes her pictures as an abstract painter would, observes from life as a realist painter does, renders every detail like a Northern Renaissance master, and treats her surface equally—millimeter by millimeter—as would a minimalist. “Contradiction is the way toward harmony,” Murphy said in a recent telephone conversation. This may be the key as to why Murphy’s artwork has intrigued and beguiled the New York art world since the early 1970s.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1946, Murphy came to New York City to study, graduating from Pratt Institute and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in the mid-1960s. The timing here is crucial. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a time of great ferment in the New York art scene. It was the time of abstraction versus representation—never can the two be reconciled, was the widespread critical thought. The established and recognized artists were the Abstract Expressionists. “The figure is dead, therefore figurative painting is dead!” was the common cry.

Never say never, and never say dead. Alice Neel, Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz, and Neil Welliver on the East Coast—along with Wayne Thiebaud, David Park, and Richard Diebenkorn in the West—revived the figure. Representational painting was reconsidered. Catherine Murphy came of age at this time. Her first New York show was at the cooperative gallery named First Street. She was quickly picked up after this introductory show by noted dealer Xavier Fourcade and is now represented by Knoedler & Company of New York City. Murphy has received numerous grants and awards from organizations such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Today, she is a senior critic at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, and continues to show her artwork regularly. Her most recent solo show of new artwork was at Knoedler Gallery in 2008.

2007, graphite, 36 x 42 1/2. Collection
Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation
for Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

What distinguishes Murphy as an artist is the arc of her growth from her first known drawings in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the present. Mowed Field (1985) is a beautiful landscape drawing without prejudice, but safe. The viewer is positioned at a conventional distance from the scene, far enough away to look at this lovely space through a proscenium arch of branches and sunlight. It is a beautiful landscape, but a predictable one we have experienced before. Compare Mowed Field to Split (2007). We are no longer at a safe distance but instead forced deeply into a scene in which a dead tree trunk has been split by man and nature. We see its inner core and feel the texture of its rotting wood as it returns to the earthen floor. Every grain is drawn, every weed exposed. The scale has also changed from the small and intimate (14" x 17") of the mowed field to the large and aggressive tree trunks that are drawn on a 36"-x-42 1/2" surface. Murphy has pushed her imagery into our faces. We have become a physically active participant in her work.

This is radical. This is dangerous. Few artists ask so much of their audience. In Oven Light, we bend over to peer into an open oven at a bubbled layer cake, tin and all. The corners of the drawing are rounded to enhance this recognizable experience.

Murphy takes no shortcuts in her rendering; there is no blank space in any of her drawings. There’s no place to catch our breath. We are forced to slow down and to actually experience it all. It’s very hard to quickly walk by any of these pieces. This artwork takes time to look at—and a great deal of time to create. Split took three summers of sunny mornings to get the right light, according to the artist. Oven Light took up to six months to complete, with the artist freezing the cake in the tin every night. Most of Murphy’s drawings are meant to be finished pieces; they are not preludes to a painting. Some drawings, according to the artist, can take more time to complete than a painting.

Many of Murphy’s drawings express a moment in time—that is, the period between an action and its resolution. In the drawing Spill, we are witness to a broken glass with the spreading spill of milk on a wood table. We catch sight of the spill just when a beautiful window reflection hits the pool of milk. Happenstance? Hardly. None of Murphy’s still lifes just happen.

Oven Light
2008, graphite, 29 5/8 x 37.

The vision may be fleeting but the rendering is not. Constructing this setup is a carefully engineered process. How do you contain the image of spilt milk for months while you wait to see just the right reflection? In answer, Murphy spilled white gesso on a wood table and allowed it to harden and dry. The gesso unfortunately dried matte, which was the wrong surface to catch the light, so Murphy brushed acrylic medium on top to give the spill a glossy, reflective surface.

Originally, according to the artist, the glass in the drawing was unbroken. “The drawing just didn’t work,” relates the artist. “I would come into the studio day after day, and it just didn’t work. Finally I took a hammer and smashed the glass, and there it was.” This is why Murphy’s drawings feel immediate. They surprise us because the artist is willing to risk a six-month piece with the smash of a hammer. Now, Spill has a story line with a violent edge. Who spilt the milk, and why? Who broke the glass, and how? Who is going to clean it up on such a beautiful sunny day?

All of Murphy’s recent drawings are black and white and completely tonal. These are two distinct choices. A tonal drawing is one in which the surface is built up over time, obliterating the lines that separate the edges of the objects to the ground. “For a drawing that may take months, I spend about an hour on the initial line.” Murphy states. One way to study an artist’s technique is to look for areas that may not be complete. In these areas we can observe the artist’s hand. In Murphy’s case, the best place to look is at the edge of the image, where the line of demarcation occurs between white paper and graphite. Normally this area is covered by the mat in a frame. Studio Shelves, when observed closely, reveals a heavily built up surface of graphite on heavyweight paper. Murphy uses Arches paper from a roll, usually 140-lb, and 5B Prismacolor Turquoise graphite pencils sharpened to a needle point. She builds the graphite surface by working into the darks, leaving the white of the paper as the lightest highlight. At times the artist works from left to right, gradually layering the drawing with graphite and reducing it with erasers until the right effect is achieved. Working from a roll of paper instead of individual sheets allows the artist to choose the size and shape of her picture plane. For example: Studio Shelves measures 29½" x 36 3/4", Split is 36" x 42 1/2", and Swept Up is 25 5/8" x 33 1/2".

Studio Shelves
2008, graphite, 29 1/2 x 36 3/4.

The choice of black and white is significant. Part of the emotional experience of observation is taken away by the removal of color. These drawings become journalistic in their presentation. The focus is the objects, the relationships between objects, and the light that falls on them. Interestingly, in order to create a believable object in value, the artist must be well versed in color reaction. Each gray portrays a different color—in Yellow Beads, the gray of a yellow bead is completely different from that of the flesh color of the sitter’s neck or the green of her blouse. Drama is another element inherent in a black-and-white drawing with a wide value range. The narrative of the image becomes key, as in Scratches. Here’s the tale of an unseen cat, a family chair, and the destruction thereof.

Asking an artist to name the artists he or she most admires is a tricky business, mainly because taste and opinion change so frequently. Today’s influences will probably change in the morning. So what—we ask anyway. Murphy’s reply to this question was interesting. Minimalist painters Robert Mangold and Ellsworth Kelly are major influences. In minimalist painting and drawing, the idea becomes key, and style becomes irrelevant because there’s very little, if anything, on the surface. What interests the minimalists is the geometry of the picture plane. Catherine Murphy loves geometry—it’s the way she composes her page. For example, Swept Up portrays an oval of debris with marks from the broom pointing toward that oval. Murphy treats her surface evenly from left to right, and with no change of focus this can flatten the picture plane, as in some minimalist artwork. But here the influence stops. For some, minimalism is an end. For Murphy, it is just the beginning.

2007, graphite, 28 x 40.

Murphy’s true passion is in observation—being true to what she sees. Being true to one’s physical vision brings a whole slew of new elements to the page, not the least of which is the psychological and the physical dimensions of the subject. For example, Eileen’s Back is a geometrical study of a woman’s back. Yes, but one can’t dismiss the fact that this is a middle-aged woman’s very freckled back, the composition cropped at the neck to focus attention on the shoulder blades between her bra straps. We touch her skin with our eyes. In Swept Up we have a mouse’s-eye view of a pile of dust. In short, the minimalists push us away, but Murphy brings us up close and personal. Sometimes too close, and too personal? Certainly, she shows us the overlooked corners of our lives. There’s poetry in those corners, and music. But no romance—Murphy’s art is the art of the real and unvarnished.


About the Artist

Catherine Murphy was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, and at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. She has been the subject of numerous solo shows and has been a senior critic of painting at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, for two decades. She is represented by Knoedler & Company, in New York City.

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

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