'Everybody Knows...Elizabeth Murray': Film Review

A brisk and upbeat introduction to the creator of decades' worth of eye-dazzling art.

Meryl Streep reads from the artist's journals in Kristi Zea's portrait of painter Elizabeth Murray.

A lively and affectionate tour through an art career that, storied as it was, ended too soon, Kristi Zea's Everybody Knows...Elizabeth Murray finds a graceful balance between the personal, the political and the professional. Its subject's easy charm and the accessibility of her color-crammed, playful paintings make this an engaging documentary even for viewers who know nothing of Murray's work, but the film will play best in art-savvy cities before having a long life on video.

Murray, who died of cancer in 2007, often made pictures on cracked-up surfaces or non-rectangular constructions that stretched off with jagged, bulbous arms. She was an uncategorizable figure: Her work was minimalist here, maximalist there; employed pop ingredients but never fit under the Pop umbrella. As Pace Gallery's Arne Glimcher puts it, "Extreme originality is a curse," and though Murray remained commercially viable through several periods of art-world fashion, she watched as her contemporaries got the bulk of the money and fame.

Yet those stars recognized the quality of her painting. Chuck Close describes the difficulty of making her most extravagantly shaped works — of putting paint on those chaotic forms and "finding any way to not make that look like frosting."

"I realized I liked to paint edges," Murray recalls, describing how she decided to create more and more edges to paint in each composition. Critics and gallerists explain how her swooping, exploding forms differ from those of Frank Stella, to whom she was sometimes compared: Where Stella was purely abstract, Murray filled her work with domestic imagery tied to her daily life.

Interviews with friends who endured the same period of struggle in Manhattan during the 1970s show what a challenge it was to raise children and make art, even before one considered how an embrace of parenting might affect one's credibility as an artist. Friends describe Murray as someone who never had a moment's doubt about wanting a family and a home. Having survived the transition from a square small-town life to the hipster art scene of Chicago (her tuition at the Art Institute was paid by an art teacher convinced of her talent), Murray seemingly had a self-awareness and self-confidence others lacked.

As art celebrities like gallerist Paula Cooper, critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz and painters including Joel Shapiro recall how her unconventional work was received from the '70s onward, excerpts from the artist's journals (read with predictable sensitivity by Meryl Streep) capture both her frustrations and the questions that occupied Murray as she developed her voice.

Naturally, the doc draws attention to the way male contemporaries like Julian Schnabel shot past Murray, career-wise. "Frida Kahlo," one of the masked members of the Guerrilla Girls group, says "she was a feminist without having to talk about it." Still, when she got the opportunity to curate a museum show of others' work, it was an all-female exhibition showcasing other under-valued artists like Lee Bontecou.

Murray reached the height of her exposure — with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and a showcase at the Venice Biennale — only when she was in her final years, battling cancer but continuing to make work full of life. The film takes its title from the last painting she made, an exuberant work that alludes to illness but is too colorful to be gloomy. Judging from Murray's interviews here, which are full of modest gratitude for a career she clearly worked hard to build, gloom is not something she often gave in to.

Production company: Rubyred Productions
Distributor: Double Exposure
Director-screenwriter: Kristi Zea
Producers: Kristi Zea, Caroline Goodman-Thomases, Jen Fineran, Madeline Warren
Executive producer: Jacki Ochs
Directors of photography: Anthony Janelli, Bob Holman, John Murphy, Richard White
Editors: Jen Fineran, Jenny McCormack

60 minutes