I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Catherine Murphy is the sort of painter whose work makes you see the world as a huge Catherine Murphy painting, or a grand missed occasion for a Catherine Murphy painting. After you stare at one of her canvases, you may find that every pebble, every pine needle, every hank of wig hair and plastic trash bag will declare and insist on its beauty, its form, its own individual life. Her bright, warm, expansive personality gives hardly a clue to the obsessive, uncompromising maniac who devotes years to a single painting—sometimes working on each canvas for only the few hours each day when the light is absolutely perfect. Our conversation took place in her Hyde Park, New York house, in the upstairs bedroom that serves as her studio—and in front of a painting of a furry, gray tent-caterpillar cocoon, spun and wedged between the branches of a tree.
Francine Prose Oh my God! That is just the most frightening thing I have ever seen in my entire life!
Catherine Murphy I was always terrified by it, but then I saw it as just another very efficient dwelling.
FP It’s a dwelling for things that, if they could, would come out and eat the world.
CM They haven’t come out to eat the world yet. A couple of trees here and there. They don’t chop down rain forests.
FP They don’t build McDonald’s.
CM No, they just look bad. I often ask myself the question, “Why do I make these depictions when the world has no respect for depiction, and yet I still keep having to make them?
CM It’s about class. That’s my theory. If you’ve been to college, especially a good one, depiction or representation is nothing short of believing in Jesus. You wouldn’t admit to doing either one.
FP A similarly low-rent thing to do.
CM Absolutely. But in fact, it’s in your gene pool. There were people who were born to depict and people who were born not to. It’s like sexual choice. In the year 2050 they’ll find a gene for the depictors and the non-depictors. And all the non-depictors were in the closet until about sixty years ago.
FP All right. My questions for you all come under the categories of process, subject matter and vision. So … let’s start with vision. A painter I know can look at a lawn for a minute and pick out a four-leaf clover. Your work is astonishing in that it notices gradations of light and shadow, every tiny pine needle and pebble, every dimple, every shading of flesh … Do you feel that you see more, or with a different focus or sense of detail than other people?
CM No, I don’t think I see any more. If you gave yourself enough time, you would see the pine needles too. Everyone would. We’ve been so prejudiced by the camera. My paintings are not about that one moment of seeing. My paintings are about time passing. Time is depicted in a very different way than most people even think about time—which is cinematically, and through a camera’s eye.
FP What’s so amazing about your painting is that it documents a single moment that in fact takes you—the painter—years to document.
CM You couldn’t see in one minute what the painting depicts. You’d have to stand there and say, “Oh, there’s the light on the leaf, and there’s the light on the car. Oh, yes, I see that shadow, but … hey!” All those things happen, and I let them happen in the painting. I don’t copy a moment in time because that doesn’t make the best painting. Conceptually, the reason I make these paintings is that I want things to slow down. “What’s the rush?” as your grandmother would say. (laughter) Time, that’s the subject of almost all painting.
FP I was thinking of how one of your paintings might be about a pile of dirt, or a pillow, a blanket, an apple and a thigh, a wig, a curtain, a face … In that way they’re very different from the paintings of, say, Neil Welliver or Chuck Close, who work out the same obsessions over and over. Your paintings are also about the same obsessions—but with very different subject matter.
CM The blue blanket and the Chinese pillow and the purple chair are all about rectangles. But what I compare them to, with great embarrassment, and you will understand this, is poems. Certainly in my relationship to the subject and form they’re like poems. I’m not deriding what other people have done before me, but I want to be respectful of reality. Reality is not just there for my own greedy use. If I were to take the blue blanket and paint it over and over, it would be at the mercy of my formalist agenda. But that blue blanket has its own agenda, and I want to respect that agenda. Using it over and over again would lessen its impact as a subject, not just in the eye of the viewer, but in my own eye. I would be … using it. And I don’t want to do that.
FP But these are inanimate objects, Cathy!
CM Exactly! That’s what is a mystery to me. Because there’s something that this object is giving me. I’m taking a lot from the inanimate objects. I’m understanding as much as I can. And I can’t go back and say I expect more from them.
FP Like going back and saying, “That wasn’t quite good enough. Give me more.”
CM That’s also the way figurative painters have skirted around the issue of being figurative painters. They have said, “Really, I’m an abstract painter, and this is how I’m going to let you know it. I’m going to paint the same egg for the next thirty years, so finally after thirty years you’ll understand that the egg wasn’t really that important. It was the form that was important.” And that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. An apple on a table is an apple on a fucking table. That’s its reality. I know that’s not very fashionable philosophically to have the reading of something be the something that it is. And it is the something that it is—but it’s very much more as well.
FP That’s such a religious concept.
CM I was a Catholic girl.
FP It’s almost like the medieval idea that everything on earth corresponds to something in heaven. You just take out the heaven part and put it into the painting. And this brings up something that’s even more insane to talk about, which is that your paintings have a sort of visionary quality, the kind of visionary quality you see if you look at a fly in one corner of a Dutch Master still life—and you see the whole universe in that fly.
CM I was being taught to be a painter within a very narrow view of what representational painting could accomplish—a very narrow place that you were able to go to.
FP And what was outside that place?
FP Oooh! (laughter)
CM Really! We all loved Renaissance painting. And we had to make paintings that had subject and did not have subject at the same time. Narrative painting was all right. The great religious painters were good, but illustration was the bad thing. That was what we were avoiding, the big no-no, the bugaboo.
FP For so many thousands of years, that was all it was about. And then all of a sudden it became …
CM Right! Well, the great religious paintings had great subjects. That is, they had a subject that one could believe in, desperately, above all else. God, the Holy Ghost … So they could make paintings that were not illustrative, because they were depicting something that was sacred. (pause) But life is sacred. I had an epiphany … But for years I said to myself, “No, you can’t do that. That’s too much, that’s over the top.” And finally I said, “Who the fuck cares if it’s over the top?” You don’t realize you’re censoring yourself the whole time. As dear Miss Buckley, my color teacher at Pratt used to say, “It’s only a painting, dear.” (laughter)
FP How did you get through Pratt? There must have been a lot of pressure on you to be an abstract painter.
CM There was, and there wasn’t. I was such a big loud girl that I did very well at Pratt. We were taught the language of Picasso, and I’m very grateful for that. Cezanne allowed me to break up the canvas geometrically. I made representational paintings that were very loose, that looked influenced by the California painters. It was very gradual. I finally decided to commit to depicting what I saw. Planes in their proper place in space. I wanted to say, “Let’s see that happens when I take away the veil.” I also loved work like Robert Smithson’s and Robert Mangold’s. But I thought they had nothing to do with my paintings. Until finally I thought: Why wasn’t I allowing these influences into my paintings? And this voice in my head said, “Because they are the other people. The people who don’t like us.” I call that representational painting paranoia. Thinking that nobody likes us, so we’re not going to like anybody back. (laughter) And that’s all bullshit. Any painter who has any brains has no prejudice against one kind of painting or another.
FP I want you to talk about how long these paintings take you. Let’s start with this one: the curly ringlets of cut-off wig hair floating in water in a bathroom sink.
CM It started off as a painting without hair, a painting about the figure eight, the geometry of the sink with its reflection in the mirror; all beautiful shapes, beautiful geometry. In the middle of the night I woke up and said, “There’s got to be hair.” Because the painting of the sink alone was just too static. It wasn’t going anywhere. It was over too fast. I was doing another painting of a wig at the same time. I had an extra wig, so I tried cutting it up and putting curls in the sink and then quickly into the painting. And what was really wonderful was that the minute I started cutting the hair, I realized I was cutting all the ringlets into small circles to reflect the big circles of the sink and its reflection. When I first started representational painting I would see something and paint it. Now, more and more I set up what I dream up. Anyway, this one winter I was working in a slot of three hours every afternoon. I was doing it with the shades drawn to control the light. We built another bathroom upstairs so I could use this bathroom exclusively for the painting. And then I knew the headache of, “How long is this hair going to float in the sink?”
FP Why didn’t it move in the water?
CM Nobody was allowed to go into the bathroom. I had the plumber stop up the sink so none of the water could go down the drain.
FP Didn’t it evaporate?
CM It evaporates very slowly. I would drip water in … But I was still scared the hair would sink. So this one winter I worked on it every day for five, seven, eight hours … as long as I could stand it. I worked into the night. I finished that painting in two winters. And I was working full time. Right when I was finishing it, the hair started to sink a little bit. It was a miracle. (laughter)
FP You pick an image and spend years of your life painting it, thinking about it … How do you choose one image over another?
CM Really, so many of the paintings come out of geometry. That’s why I’m attracted to certain things over others. Almost always, first, the attraction is in the form, the formality that is set up. And I’m very interested in the surface of the painting, the surface of the painting as subject.
FP Do you set yourself formal challenges beforehand?
CM No. I thought this painting of the shadow on the stucco wall was going to be an easy painting. Smeary, smeary, smeary—I’ll be there in a minute! Then I started and realized: it’s the surface I’m interested in, not the shadow. When you cast a shadow on a surface, a wall, somehow it doesn’t feel like it’s on top of the wall, it feels like it’s coming out of the wall.
FP What about patience?
CM I have no patience.
FP I mean, the patience not to say: “Oh, hell, I kind of remember how this looked, I’ll just … “
CM I’m the most impatient woman in the world. I can’t wait 15 seconds for something.
FP But Cathy, you can wait until next year to catch the sun at a particular moment.
CM Sure, but that’s a different question. What I always say is that I’m a compulsive Abstract Expressionist. My pleasure is to be there when the light is right, when that dappling is moving around. Once I become one with the rhythm of that dappling, all desire is satisfied. So I can wait.
FP And are there ever moments when it eludes you, when it changes too fast?
CM Maybe it will elude you for a week, two weeks, the whole summer … so you go back the next summer. I’m making it sound great. Actually, the buds would come, the wind would come … and I’d sit on the stairs and cry. But this kind of frustration was probably the mother of invention. It finally got me to set up still lives in my studio so I could cope with doing the other paintings.
FP That painting of Harry lying in the driveway—that didn’t come from geometry.
CM No. I’d done a lot of paintings with rocks on the ground, and I started to think about softness and hardness. How do you break up the canvas into equal parts of soft-hard? And then my husband Harry almost died, and I thought, “It can only be one person, this painting has to be about Harry.” And we both looked at each other and said, “Yeah, it has to be about Harry.” It wasn’t about the sadness until afterward—and then it became an exorcism of seeing him almost dead. He collapsed, and I saw him blue—and it was the most horrible moment of my life. Who knows what the genesis of paintings truly is? Maybe this idea of soft and hard came from this dangerous situation.
FP How long did Harry have to lie in the driveway?
CM For two full summers … on cloudy days. There was padding under his head. But it was bad. Real bad. (laughter)
FP Did you say that you wouldn’t accept social engagements because on a cloudy day …
CM Oh, I never accept social engagements unless I have to.
FP You would be somewhere, and the sun would go behind a cloud, and you would have to rush home …
CM I was intent on finishing. Plus Harry hated it so much, he complained all the time. He knew it was going to be awful. But the part that nobody realizes is that Harry can actually sleep in any position. Not a full half-hour would ever go by without Harry falling asleep.
FP And the twilight painting with the curtain—when did you work on that?
CM At twilight! I found that on cloudy days I could actually work out where the branches would go. I couldn’t work out the color of the branches or the color of the sky, but a lot of the work is just figuring out spatially where these things are. I had a piece of deep blue felt that I would put up, and I could work on the curtain during the night.
FP At what point do you know if a painting is going to work?
CM Oh, God, sometimes I don’t know until years after it’s done. I’m happy with a painting about two months before I finish it. And then I actually finish it and it turns into a wreck. And it’s a miserable, miserable thing. I send it down to the gallery as quick as I can, because I know that I’m freaking and I don’t want to go in there and screw the painting up. I don’t want to hurt paintings any more. You don’t need to hurt a painting more than once. If you haven’t learned your lesson, you weren’t meant to be a painter. I’ll hurt chairs and plates, but I don’t want to hurt the work.
FP What about that painting of the mouth with the smeared lipstick? It’s very primal … and unsettling. Is that your mouth?
CM Yeah, it is. It started when I was looking into my compact, putting lipstick on. The compact is a rectangle, so I’m putting lipstick on and I think, “Look at that, my lips are no longer attached to my face. That’s why guys like it so much, you don’t even have a face, it’s just the lips. Lips and breasts.” I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” So I started this little tiny painting. And while I was doing this little study, in my head the demon was saying, “Smear the lipstick. Just smear the lipstick.” When the voice speaks, you listen to the voice. So I tried it. And my heart started pounding. I was almost too breathless to think. It took me less than two hours to paint. Harry came home, and I said, “You gotta come upstairs.” And he said, “It’s really good, but it’s got to be bigger.” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” So I made it bigger. That’s where it came from. But it connected to my entire life, my entire past.
FP And future.
CM Finally it’s a painting about a woman who is totally obsessed with being in control—and who is totally out of control. And I’m sure that’s why I was so drawn to it. I feel like it’s a payback for a miserable childhood. All is forgiven.
FP Are there things that go through your head that you’re afraid to think?
CM No, not really … but the lip one scared me because it is macabre. I thought, “Just a little. You won’t do it next time.” It’s always a dance between “over the top” and “back off” I’m always giving and pulling back. I won’t do two lips paintings. When it’s this close to excess, it’s a sign of insanity.
FP Everything you’re saying makes me think back to this idea of stopping the moment.
CM It’s so pathetic. It’s impossible to be in control, and I know that my entire life is an illusion. However, this is what keeps me sane. Life racing away from me and death clomping towards me—and this, even within its impossibility, is the only thing I can do.
FP There’s a buzz you get when you’re writing, and the work takes off and has a life of its own. Characters say things you don’t expect. Is there a version of that for you?
CM Absolutely! That’s the reason painting is a living thing. And when you’re lucky, it’s better than everything you thought and planned for. You have to race to keep up with the painting. Painting isn’t about being in control, it’s about being better than you are, and that’s a real gift.
FP Let’s talk about your trash bag painting.
CM For years I tried not to do it. The snow is a metaphor for the canvas, which is what the garden hose and the melting snow is about. I wanted to create a space without a middle ground, just a foreground and a distance, because the jump from foreground to distance takes a leap of faith, and I like that leap of faith it takes to get from one place to the other. The minute I set up the trash bags in the snow, I thought it looked like the earth seen from the moon. But I really didn’t want to do a trash bag painting because, well, I didn’t want to do a painting with trash bags. I mean, the iridescent trash bag is an absolutely beautiful thing, but … I didn’t want it to turn around and bite me. People buy subject, not form. And though I have no problem with trash bags in my living room, other people might. But finally my better half wrested control, and I am doing this painting of the trash bags.
FP So partly what you’re doing is making people pay attention, making people see the—excuse the word—beauty of things that they might otherwise not have noticed. They won’t see it in a trash bag, but they might see it in the leap to a painting. It must be frustrating to think that there’s something about the basic intention that can’t be gotten across.
CM It’s really hard for a fat girl. Any kind of prejudice that I can’t surmount is infuriating. Something in me is the Don Quixote of the painting world. And there has to be a way. I keep thinking in my hopefulness that the drawing wasn’t good enough, that perhaps this one painting will make them get past their own prejudice. I want them to see the object and then see past it and get to its higher order.
FP Meaning that someone will say: “God, I never thought that two trash bags could be so beautiful and moving.”
CM That’s right. I’m as much of an anarchist as any painter. I also want to defile. I’m defiling the regular perception of a beautiful snowy day with these very dark black-green trash bags. And I want them to love the defilement. I want them to love the anarchy of the moment. I want them to embrace the whole thing, the whole concept of defilement as a beautiful thing. That’s a lot to expect. One of the things that paintings do take—more than patience—is an act of faith. My paintings are very confrontational. I was talking about taking away the veil—really, I want to confront.
FP Once I read this article in the science section of the New York Times that said that one inborn genetic aspect of personality is the desire to do what you’re told—or else the desire to go against the grain. And I thought, I was born wanting to go against the grain.
CM By the time I reached adolescence I wanted to go against the grain. I had friends, I had boyfriends, but I wasn’t the cheerleader or the homecoming queen, I was outside what was normal. So of course I was trying to upset the apple cart because I wasn’t in the apple cart. (laughter) It is probably all spite. My mother used to say, “You’re a spiteful girl. You’re so contrary.”
FP When did you discover you could draw?
CM Third grade. Mrs. Burgess let me go to the back of the room and do things on the blackboard and cut things out and paint and paste. And when I came out for my confirmation, Cardinal Cushing asked if anyone had a vocation. I raised my hand and said, “I’m going to be an artist when I grow up,” and Cardinal Cushing went, “Nooo.” So that was my first public declaration. And the only paintings I’d ever seen were those little holy cards—and then when I was in junior high, my sister subscribed to that John Canaday series through the Met.
FP I remember that series. They used The Marriage of Jan Arnolfini in the ad.
CM I love that painting so much! I did a series based on it in college. I used to sit on the couch and just look at them and look at them, and I didn’t even know what I was looking at.
FP What about obsession? My experience has been that I keep discovering my obsessions little by little. Something keeps cropping up in my work again and again—and suddenly I’ll realize what it’s about.
CM Well, I was doing this large painting, which took eight summers. Pardon me, it actually took seven summers of sunny afternoons. I took one summer off because I thought I was going to go mad. I so much didn’t want to finish the painting. All I wanted to be doing was this little piece of pink way in the distance of the painting. That’s where I wanted to be, that’s all I was really interested in. I was no longer interested in a very complicated narrative. I’d done a whole series of paintings about people arriving and then departing. And then after that series of paintings, I thought, “Never. No more, done with this. Finished. If you want to paint a little piece of pink in the distance, that’s what you should be making paintings about. That’s when I started closing in on my subject. It didn’t come from nothing, or from looking at other people’s paintings. It just came from satisfying my own desires.
FP It takes so much time, and you don’t ever know if it’s going to turn out to be anything!
CM You have to listen to what’s gnawing away at your gut. If you can do that, maybe you can continue until you die, listening to this gnawing sound, and gnawing away at it. But finally, the painting is just an effort. When they’re not as good as you’d thought they were going to be, then you can move on to the next one. It’s when they’re really good—then you’re stuck. If you look at it that way, then you’re really free to do whatever you want. Which is what you have to be. Because everything is courage. It’s not even brains. It’s just courage.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee