The Recreated Image: Walter Murch at Sixty
The factors that influence a painter's life, influence the painter and his paintings. The choice a painter makes, when a painting is to be made, the effort to paint the secret behind human beings and things. I must not paint the thing itself, but I will paint the air between myself and the thing, and beyond. Of course I accept composition and the fact that the painting will come from paint itself. The lesson of Camus is that no artist can live without reality, but he (the artist) does not tolerate it. I will accept and reject, be logical and illogical. To create, I will recreate.
(Murch, in Art U.S.A. Now, 1962)
In the art of the second half of the twentieth century, the glare of assertion for its own sake sometimes eclipsed the subdued glow of authentic achievement. At his death in 1967, Walter Murch had solidified his reputation among artists and a few discerning collectors as a "painter's painter," but had only begun to attain more general recognition.
Murch's early upbringing in Toronto was suffused more with music than with art. He had taken up the violin as a youth and continued to study it for fifteen years, even playing on the radio. His shyness, perhaps a function of the speech impediment that afflicted him at a young age, may have been a factor in his ultimately moving away from the performing arts and choosing art instead - a profession that would allow him to work in relative isolation.
Not only was Murch's maternal grandfather a singer, his father took singing lessons (when he was not managing a successful set of a three jewelry shops, shops filled with the kinds of diminutive and intricate objects that the son would later come to enjoy painting), and his three brothers were all involved in vocal or instrumental aspects of music. An early statement shows the degree to which this family predilection had affected him as an artist:
A painting should give the sensation of sound the instant one looks at it. To achieve this, the objects one paints cannot be left as objects, to sound like so many bells. They must be transformed into paint-objects that can carry their own instantaneous sound sensations, yet must do so without any deliberate intent. The sensations one produces should be the resultant of actions intended for an entirely different effect. When the priest in the high English service swings the incense to bless the audience, the actual instrument by which this is done makes a metallic clicking sound of it own. So the object painted, by becoming in the hands of the artist, a paint-object, must produce sounds that have nothing to do with the intention of the object itself. Only thus can the artist who is concerned with nature hope to achieve sounds capable of striking universal notes.
(Murch, The Tiger's Eye, Volume 1, No. 4, 1948)
These synaesthetic metaphors clarify an array of Murch's concerns. Not only his involvement with the violin but perhaps the sounds of clocks ticking and chiming in his father's shops had left a deep imprint upon him, stimulating his ambition to give form to sensations both as abstract as music and as precise as the innards of a watch.
His later intuition that the ordinary function of objects must be dissolved by composition and paint into the work as a whole is foreshadowed by his desire to make objects project "sounds that have nothing to do with the intention of the object itself." A painting from 1965, Sound of Silver, (a commission from Vogue magazine, though it was shown along with non-commercial works in his last solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery), does in fact seem to emit a crystalline tinkle.
The Sound of Silver, 1965
This sense of sonic/visual vibration, achieved by the break-up of paint into more and more lively touches and accidents, intensifies as Murch's art matures and he is able to realize a Pollock-like overallness in his compositions (Murch knew and admired Pollock because they both exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery). Unifying color seeps into every part of the canvas, and a particular degree of relative looseness or tightness of touch is adjusted in terms of a total effect, a total vibration.
And yet this intention to destroy the subject in its daily aspect and to recreate it as an element in work of art can be found in Murch's work almost from the beginning. It can even be found in his commercial work, which displayed such a high level of quality that it was recognized by numerous awards. Murch's modesty and integrity was such that he saw advertising commissions not as a demeaning necessity, but as yet another opportunity to gain strength as an artist by doing the best possible job within set limits and deadlines. The dozen covers he painted for Scientific American not only include progressively more of the same innovations with broken paint and atmosphere with which he was experimenting in his private creative work, but they also show a characteristic deep respect for the experimental in realms other than art, in this case that of scientific research.
His admiration for excellence and high endeavor in any field spilled over into his honest and genuinely sympathetic responses to his students. Many who studied with him at Pratt Institute, Columbia, and Boston University, where he was appointed head of the graduate painting program in 1961, have testified to the profound effect he had on them both as a person and artist. The fact that the School of Visual Arts at Boston University had maintained a strong stress on fundamentals allowed him to concentrate more on encouraging students with issues of expression and identity. He took it for granted that they would master the craft element of art and preferred to concentrate on giving them the confidence to make an individual statement.
The gentle support that radiated from him included more than a hint of veiled challenge. While patient in a one-on-one conversation with a student, he would flatly assert that ninety percent of the art being made at any given time was terrible, the clear implication being that much as he might empathize with you as an individual case, you were stuck with finding a way to go beyond mediocrity, and your chances were only ten percent at best.
It is a curious thing to be a teacher. I think you have to be a teacher for at least 10 years before you know what is taking place-that you really aren't teaching at all-you just exist, stand there, and they see you as an example, they use you as a sort of person to bounce their ideas on, and they say to you, "Am I all right," and they, in fact, teach themselves. The thing that is done in the first half-hour, it almost makes me weep - I mean, beautiful things - but they don't know how to carry on, they're afraid, immature. If I had one message, I would say, "Go ahead! It must be done."
(Murch, Art in America, 1961)
His wife Katherine liked her work at the Riverside Church, and they had decided when Murch was appointed to B.U. that they would maintain their New York base. During the academic year, he would paint through the night in his Manhattan apartment, then drive north at dawn to meet his two or three days of classes in Boston, staying in a room set aside for him at the Brookline Motor Hotel, where he also continued to make drawings.
The air seems to be the thing, I think, that I am concerned with and everything I do - for instance I drive to Boston in early morning and see the sun come up about forty miles outside of Boston, and I look down as it were to the Atlantic, and am so keenly aware at that point of the ocean of air around the globe itself.
(Murch, lecture at Skowhegan School, 1964)
Katherine and Walter ran their lives very much according to their own schedule, built around Walter's nocturnal creative work. In a talk at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, Murch underlined Katherine's importance to him by saying that she had been his spouse "religiously," meaning that she had fielded many of the telephone calls that his speech impediment had made difficult for him and in general secured their apartment as a peaceful place so that his time in the studio could be uninterrupted.
On the other hand she shared the rigorously high standard that drove him to keep pressure on himself to produce and, as he put it, "gain strength."In the summer of 1966, two of his graduate students from Boston University, Reginald Case and Earl Fechter, called on him in his studio at the Skowhegan School of Art, where he was an artist in residence. Surprising him at work on the painting Air Filter, they were taken aback to find that Murch's total concentration had transported him into a kind of stupor, leaving him momentarily bereft of his usual politeness. As he recovered himself and accompanied them to the porch of the cabin where he and his wife were staying, they heard Katherine yell from inside, "What's the matter Walter, couldn't you take it?"
What does the mind wander to the most while just painting. For me, the secret seems to be paint the Best (controlled) way you can and to your utmost. But while painting let the mind go way out in space. Let the mind wish or desire for the things you know should be (but are not). Let the mind correct what is wrong. Usually the subject you happen to be working on determines to a great extent the path the mind takes. A whole new world exists and moves in the mind while actually making a painting . . . But the thing to remember is that the world that the mind returns to the most will come out, will show in the completed picture . . .
(Murch, journal note, circa 1951, from Archives of American Art, "Murch Papers," microfilm N68-5, frame 330, quoted p.153 in Judy Collischan,"Walter Murch," Doctoral Thesis, University of Iowa, 1973)
Murch's fingers were massive for a man who covered his canvasses with so many thousands of small individual paint-decisions. A student remembers him walking steadily down the hallway at B.U. holding in one hand, as if it were a paper plate, an iron manhole cover that must have weighed well over a hundred pounds. In conversation he would gesture at a student with his middle finger pointed downward for emphasis, saying, "So you want to be an artist, Malcolm? Then go ahead and (pause) do it!" or, as he said after one student indulged in a particularly pretentious bit of existential rue, thrusting the same middle finger, palm down, at the student's deflated chest, "Stop (pause) suffering!" Or he would say,"To hell with it, its only a painting."
Teaching, he said, did force him to articulate his convictions. The accomplishment of his mature style allowed him to note in hindsight what had helped him understand where he was trying to go. He always expressed delight and appreciation when he read or heard something that seemed to clarify what he had been groping toward through decades of working. While he acted upon his hunches as a painter and not as a philosopher, the kinds of writings he recommended to students give an idea of his preoccupations at the time of his retrospective in the early nineteen-sixties. One of the books he suggested was Albert Camus's study of history, The Rebel, especially a short section on what Camus called "metaphysical rebellion" and art.
Camus posited that through his stylistic choices, the artist refuses to put up with the unsatisfactory nature of reality, a reality in which not only innocent children suffer, but the ravages of time, evil and death must be universally endured. As Murch had written in his statement for Art U.S.A. Now,"The lesson of Camus is that no artist can live without reality, but he (the artist) does not tolerate it. I will accept and reject, be logical and illogical. To create, I will recreate." Creation on this high level "corrects" reality, at least in the realm of art, by making use of style to"'complete" reality in a satisfying way. To a student who showed him a poem that expressed the sadness he felt about killing a rabbit with his car, he said, "Well, at least you did something about it."
Murch not only suggested writings that could support the creative process, but also made it clear to his students that it was not unnatural for artists to lean on other artists in the process of becoming themselves. His authentic humility allowed him to be comfortable in his admission of how much the example of Chardin had meant to him. Pierre Klossowski, the brother of the painter Balthus, has articulated the peculiar way a genuine artist uses and at the same time transcends historical sources:
. . . every true painter facing nature does nothing more than seek a certain already-perceived vision. What is outside makes him remember an inward image. This inward image is of a collective and ancestral origin and becomes conscious through knowledge. In this context, the old masters represent zones of experiences opened-up through their own initiative; thanks to them, these realities appear in their full ontological value. . . So what matters, then, is not the affinity of an artist with an old master, but the still inexhaustible experience which is in the artist but also transcends him. Thus the artist is never isolated but belongs to a common enterprise. He will appear as a conservative or a Johnny-come-lately only to those whose visual habits remain unconsciously dependent on the stereotypes of industrialized good taste . . .
This movement toward intelligibility applies not just to an artist's reliance on self-chosen antecedents like Chardin, but also to the relationship between an artist's earlier and later production. Murch served a very long apprenticeship to the task of rendering visual appearances accurately, but all of this close observational activity in both his commercial and his private creative work deepened what he was able to do as he matured. For a 1960 cover for Scientific American, he could render a series of hexagonal nuts on a machine designed to test the strength of a metal plate and similar hexagonal nuts would remanifest "in their full ontological value" in his 1965 painting Two Doors.
Stress Fracture, 1961 Two Doors, 1965
Murch often directed his students to the example of Monet, because he identified with the impressionist obsession with the interaction of atmosphere and light. In Art U.S.A. Now, Murch wrote "I must not paint the thing itself, but the air between myself and the thing, and beyond." Yet no two artists could be more different from each other than Monet and Murch, one a painter of outdoor air and sunlight, the other of indoor air and electric light.
Murch and Monet did however share the fact that they were both painters who remained on their particular obsessive path long enough to see the "art world" rush headlong past them into more and more "radical" experimentation, while at the same time they both absorbed something from the prevailing climate around them that only deepened their unique ambitions as "closet" modernists. Monet extended the premises of his impressionist work in the 19th century into the huge water garden canvasses of the 1920's, by which time Picasso and Braque had long since invented Cubism. While Monet's work continued to play out its earlier premises, critics look back now and see that it was radical enough by virtue of its large size, flatness and "overallness" to function as an unacknowledged (except by hindsight) harbinger of American action painting.
Murch experienced a similar relationship with the onrush of the avant-garde in his own time. Not only had he studied privately with the surrealist/action painter Arshile Gorky in his early years in New York, but when he came into his maturity, some of the masters of abstract expressionism, like Pollock and Newman, were his friends and co-exhibitors at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Even as he chose to remain with the easel-sized intimacy upon which the effectiveness of his working methods depended, his mature work thoroughly integrated notions of openness to unconscious forces and accidents of thrown or dripped paint. While the naturalistic element in his work echoes Chardin more than Gorky, the teacher and his student have more in common than might be assumed at first glance. In such mature works as 'Diary of a Seducer,' Gorky constructed a kind of landscape of the mind, a genre which is described aptly by James Joyce's term 'inscape.' Murch's intention appears to be similar: the darkness of his studio space at night is recreated in the paintings to suggest that the image is more a thought-or, by extension, a poem-than a 'prose' souvenir of visible reality.
I particularly like Pollock's statement that the painting is in control at all times: "When I'm in the painting, I don't know what I'm doing. After a period of getting acquainted, I begin to recognize that the painting has a life of its own. If I lose contact with its life, the painting is a mess, and, if I keep harmony with it, it turns out well." As the art historian observed about contemporary art, the new concept is simple enough so that it is possible to discover a work of art in the process of creating it.
(Murch, "Taking on the Task," Christian Science Monitor, 1965)
Harold Rosenberg elaborated upon what it meant to "discover a work of art in the process of creating it" in his famous essay "The American Action Painters":
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or "express" an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
Could such a program be applied to painting that takes off from and remains with a figurative motif? Murch's late work affirms this very possibility. Murch often used the vocabulary of action painting to describe his own processes, especially the idea that he never knew at the outset how the work would turn out, that he was working his way into the unknown. He contrasted two possible attitudes toward the subject in painting in a way that recalls Rosenberg's description of the canvas as "an arena in which to act" and confirms his intention to make the image into an interiorized "poetic thought":
The artist [in the first way] paints or draws around a subject in the picture area, and whatever mood is achieved by the artist tends to be related to the subject . . . therefore negating the artist and what his real feelings are. If, however, the picture area is the subject [the second way] . . . there is a more direct and intimate appeal to the mind of the observer . . . the artist is saying in the first example, I am trying to duplicate the real world-which is impossible-and what I feel is relative to that duplication and not to me. In the second example I leave no room for the observer to think about the subject within the world of the picture, but the picture area becomes the subject, the artist has brushed aside the subject, picture and observer are now face to face, the observer now looks directly into the mind of the artist.
(Murch, Art in America, 1961)
Braque said something similar in his notebooks: "My aim in art is not the reconstitution of an anecdote, but the constitution of a pictorial fact." These ideas find their patrimony early in the history of modernism. For example, the poet Ezra Pound wrote in 1914: "There are two opposed ways of thinking of a man. Firstly you may think of him as that toward which perception moves, as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions; secondly, you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely reflecting and observing."(from Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, NY, New Directions, 1960)
Murch had had plenty of experience with "receiving impressions," or as he put it "trying to duplicate the real world-which is impossible." He had undergone a very long apprenticeship, at the beginning of which it was more difficult for him to get beyond the exact depiction of objects, including their "romantic" or nostalgic qualities, for the sake of the painting itself. Later he no longer needed an emotional tie to the object-as he said, "A certain arrangement seems possible. It just looks right." He had realized a confident trust that "the painting would come from paint itself."
This Pollock-like interest in paint for its own sake and the transformation of ordinary objects into painted forms suggest that Murch's closest artistic kinsmen may have been Giorgio Morandi or Balthus, both of whom he admired. The task for all three of these artists was to subsume the subjects used into the painting itself, so that we would not for a moment see them in their former utility, but as abstract fragments that interact to give a work its life. But Murch, at least in his mature work, differed from Balthus and Morandi in his willingness to make use of the accident, to throw paint at the surface in an easel-size equivalent of what Pollock did on a larger scale. The "rightness" of such random marks was a function of the experience of many accidents and many decisions about whether to accept or reject them on the basis of whether they made the work seem more alive. Murch would sometimes jokingly remind students to take care that their palettes were not more interesting than their paintings.
For the sake of this potential interest he would leave the future surfaces of drawings and paintings on the floor of his studio or under his easel, where dirt or random paint splatters could eventuate in something he could continue. This radical openness to anything that might give his work more life allowed him not only to incorporate accidents of thrown paint, but to include or even develop half-hidden images that seemed to well up from his unconscious. The architectural fragment that inspired the drawing Stone Capital was rescued from a building that was demolished to make way for the new Massachusetts Turnpike. In the top of the capital, one can make out a fifties-looking automobile shape, side view, or other cars moving toward and away from us. One recalls Leonardo's advice to young artists to look for images in the convolutions and markings of old walls, and to bring them out, develop their form, give them life. The difference for Murch was that it was the work as a whole that he wished to conjure out of the misty potentialities of the surface, and in this process recognizable images just happened. The process was similar for both drawings and paintings; Murch fulfilled his drawing ambitions by conflating the supposedly separate processes of drawing and painting:
A number of years ago I had rejected drawing as being of no value to me. In working with the object, I automatically began to use paint rather than working with the drawing first to see what would happen. In the past three years, looking at drawing, seeing the effect that lead pencil or crayon or mixed media seemed to give, I felt that this way of working was also painting, not "drawing" in the sense in which the dictionary defines it. I think that the master drawings, even those of Rembrandt, were not drawn as much as they were painted. In other words, when I felt I was able to "paint" a drawing, I really began to feel free to make the kind of drawing that I wanted. . .
(Murch, "Taking on the Task," Christian Science Monitor, 1965)
This modest openness to a larger presence, an encompassing mystery, seemed to be what he had in mind when he wrote in Tiger's Eye, of "the choice a painter makes, when a painting is to be made, the effort to paint the secret behind human beings and things." Such an unassuming generality may be illumined by a passage from Etienne Gilson's Painting and Reality about still life:
There is a sort of metaphysical equity in the fact that this humblest genre is also the most revealing of all concerning the essence of the art of painting. If, by the word "subject" we mean the description of some scene or some action, then it can rightly be said that a still life has no subject. Whether its origin be Dutch or French, the things that a still life represent exercise only one single act, but it is the simplest and most primitive of all acts, namely, to be. Without this deep-seated, quiet, and immobile energy from which follow all the operations and all the movements performed by each and every being, nothing in the world would move, nothing would operate, nothing would exist. Always present to that which is, this act of being usually lies hidden, and unrevealed, behind what the thing signifies, says, does, or makes. Only two men can reach an awareness of its mysterious presence: the philosopher, if, raising his speculation up to the metaphysical notion of being, he finally arrives at this most secret and most fecund of all acts; and the creator of plastic forms, if purifying the work of his hands from all that is not the immediate self-revelation, he provides us with a visual image of it that corresponds, in the order of sensible appearance, to what its intuition is in the mind of the metaphysician.
(Murch was delighted when a student showed him this passage and asked for a copy.)
To embody or reveal the mystery of being is something not only Chardin or Vermeer, but also the Surrealists and even the action painters share as an implicit goal. Among figurative painters, perhaps only the early work of Giorgio de Chirico surpasses Murch in his melancholy evocation of the enigma at the heart of existence. Another Murch kinsman, Rene Magritte, whose painting vocation was inspired by De Chirico, evokes the mystery inherent in the ordinary by impossible juxtapositions of common phenomena, like a street at night surmounted by a daylit sky. Magritte defended the poetry of his images against facile explanation by deliberately giving them titles that made no apparent sense. In a similar way Murch strove to present the object in a way that its ordinary function as a brick or sewing machine or onion was subverted and the poetry of ordinary existence, suppressed by mental habit, was mysteriously released. But while Magritte deliberately kept his formidable painting technique at the service of a deadpan illustrational 'stylessness,' in order to give his subversive ideas the greatest possible clarity, for Murch the poetic frisson came from, as he said, "the paint doing 50 percent of the work."
The nonrepresentational painters around Murch who gave him this awareness of the possibilities of paint forced the issue of depicting the mystery of being further by letting paint and color do not fifty but a hundred percent of the work, as in Rothko's luminous floating squares (which seemed to Murch "like the cross-section of an unknown part of the universe"). But for Murch, the encounter with the unknown arose through an intuitional relationship with a "lowly or forgotten object."This relationship changed in the act of painting such objects, because their function in ordinary life was eliminated as they "disappeared" into the painting and became something new. The painting's subject became painting itself, in the same sense that the true subject of Wallace Stevens's poetry is poetry. As in De Chirico and Magritte, the result was not something symbolic of the numinous but something alive with the numinous.
Once Murch heard Robert Graves give a lecture at the American Academy (a version of the talk is reprinted in Graves's Oxford Addresses on Poetry) in which Graves enlarged upon the concept of báraka, Murch told his son excitedly that in this word Graves had touched upon the essence of what he had tried to do in his painting. The passages in the printed version of the talk that seem most relevant run as follows:
The vocabulary of Islam contains an important and powerful word: BARAKA . . . Barak or barka or báraka means lightning. Since lightning is a phenomenon everywhere attributable to the gods, báraka means the sudden divine rapture which overcomes either a prophet or a group of fervent devotees whom it unites in a bond of love: it can therefore stand for the blessedness acquired by holy shrines and other places where the spirit of God has been plainly manifested.
Murch's eagerness to "let anything marvelous happen with the paint itself" allowed him to transmute his childhood fascination with the báraka of interesting gadgets, his memories of the sparkle and detailed complexity of the jewelry and watches in his father's shop back in Toronto, into the báraka, the blessedness, of pure painting.
Murch was too unpretentious ever to admit in so many words that his ultimate intention in art was spiritual or mystical. However, he did mention to his students two essays by Aldous Huxley published together as a short book, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Each of these essays concern the various ways by which artists access the visionary, both the transcendent visions of heaven found in, say, Gothic stained glass, or the pessimistic, hellish visions of a Bosch or Gericault. Huxley affirms the fascination of artists with pure, naked sight, as for example in the obsessive delight they have always taken in the abstract patterns of drapery. He speaks as follows about 'facts' as they are seen by artists and visionaries:
. . . there are in nature certain scenes, certain classes of objects, certain materials, possessed of the power to transport the beholder's mind in the direction of its antipodes, out of the everyday Here and toward the Other World of Vision. Similarly, in the realm of art, we find certain works, even certain classes of works, in which the same transporting power is manifest. These vision-inducing works may be executed in vision-inducing materials, such as glass, metal, gems, or gem-like pigments . . .
While Huxley pays homage as best he can to the capacity of artists and mystics for revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary, his language cannot avoid becoming frustratingly pleonastic-trying to say something in words that may be better said in art. It seems easier to understand what Huxley was trying to get at by looking at Murch's painting than to clarify Murch by way of Huxley's words.
Murch's most extended statement on his art, characteristically more modest and more direct than Huxley, was published in the Christian Science Monitor when his retrospective was on view at Boston University in 1965. He begins with the idea that it makes more sense for him to talk about "a brick I have used in a painting than to speak about myself." (In another interview, he said "As I walk down the hall and my hand reaches out to touch the door of my studio, I literally feel myself becoming what is inside.") His rationale for art in the statement is equally simple and self-effacing:
Why painting? The significance of a painting, to me, is not the artifact bearing my name which may reach a museum's walls. For me, there is an opportunity within the rectangle to cause something to happen on a very high level because you can make a meaningful decision. Would you do this or that? Put the mark here or there? Thus, I depend upon the accident because it compels me to make use of it. It figures importantly in what I want to do in each painting. In recognizing the freedom possible within the limits of the canvas and paints and by using your own limitations, it is possible to control or even create the accidents.
(Murch, "Taking on the Task," Christian Science Monitor, 1965)
The statement ends firmly with the assertion that "What I intend by my paintings is the display of objects, 'facts,' in which no mystification is involved-a treatment of objects which reaches out to the observer and removes the false front of 'reality.'" Whether or not he was a mystic or a believer, this was a person who was trying to submerge his ego in a larger process, something greater than himself.
On the board to which his canvasses were thumbtacked in the studio, Murch had painted the word "duality." Duality is a word that Buddhist thinkers often use to describe an essential dimension of existence. The human being is a subjectivity caught up in a fundamental illusion that subject and object, self and other, beauty and ugliness, are separate, as opposed to interdependent, phenomena. Murch was able to find a terrifying beauty even within the grotesque itself-a dog's head, a cooked eel, a headless doll. In his obsessive willingness to give himself over to something beyond himself, whatever might help him to make a painting-a brick, a bulb, an arrangement of drapery, an accident of thrown paint-he held dualities in dynamic balance through measured consideration: consciously choosing between the accident and the decisive brushstroke, between the precise and the ambiguous, between what Wallace Stevens aptly called "the beauty of inflection and the beauty of innuendo." His method involved an integration of thrown or dripped paint with an almost moral accumulation of considered decisions into the density of the final image.
In his book on Zen training, "Nine-Headed Dragon River," Peter Mathiessen defines the issues of this 'practical mysticism' as clearly as they can be stated in the realm of words and logic, in a way that by the end of the paragraph recalls Murch's style:
The mystical perception (which is only "mystical" if reality is limited to what can be measured by the intellect and sense) is remarkably consistent in all ages and all places, East and West, a point that has not been ignored by modern science. The physicist seeks to understand reality, while the mystic is trained to experience it directly. Both agree that human mechanisms of perception, stunted as they are by screens of social training that close out all but the practical elements of the sensory barrage, give a very limited picture of existence, which certainly transcends mere physical evidence. Furthermore, both groups agree that appearances are illusory. A great physicist [Werner Heisenberg] extends this idea: "Modern science classifies the world . . . not into different groups of objects but into different groups of connections . . . The world thus appears to be a complicated tissue of events in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and therefore determine the texture of the whole." All phenomena are processes, connections, all is in flux, and at moments this flux is actually visible: one has only to open the mind in meditation or have the mind screens knocked awry by drugs or dreams to see that there is no real edge to anything, that in the endless interpenetration of the universe, a molecular flow, a cosmic energy shimmers in all stone and steel as well as flesh.
(p. 77-78, Mathiessen, Nine-Headed Dragon River, Boston, 1985)
Commissioned along with other artists by the magazine Art in America to make a companion piece of drawing to go with a poem of his own choosing, Murch selected a Stevens meditation on duality, "The Glass of Water," to accompany his drawing of the light bulb, reproduced on the cover of Art in America,October/November 1965):
The Glass of Water, 1965
That the glass would melt in heat,
Murch surely saw himself in the persona of Jocundus, contending with dualities physical and metaphysical, the "plastic parts of poems," a phrase suggestive of the fragments that he brought into unity through his painting, just as Stevens had fashioned a "supreme fiction" through his poetry.
In August of 1967 Murch celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Back with his students at Boston University that fall, he expressed his delight in awed tones-"I made it!"-followed by his booming, slightly sepulchral laugh. In every meaningful way, he had made it. A retrospective exhibition of his work organized by Daniel Robbins was touring prestigious museums in the United States and Canada. It would end up that December at the Brooklyn Museum. The work that had gone into his 1964 exhibition at the Parsons Gallery was the finest he had done, and not only was it his best, there was more of it, and the scale of many works was larger than anything he had done previously. In spite of his modesty, he was willing to admit in the last few years of his life that he had realized his potential, telling one interviewer that "he had been working with the disintegration of the color itself, the elimination of solid, flat areas of paint . . . I felt I had really done something."
For me there seems to be no end of wonderful work. There is a release in my mind which makes it clear how I can paint with complete release, (get under control) to paint without any reservations as if you knew how it (life) could be 100 or 1000 or 5000 years from now, one may well paint as you Really would like to that is the important thing. Some of the work hints at this quality so there is really no limit to what you can do-miracle.
(Murch, undated, unpublished note from Archives of American Art, "Murch Papers," microfilm N70-19, frame 110, quoted p.193 in Judy Collischan,"Walter Murch," Doctoral Thesis, University of Iowa, 1973)
This statement is a ringing affirmation that Murch' perseverance along a lonely path had resulted in a way of working that he found deeply fulfilling. The statement may even be evidence of whatever "enlightenment" is possible to the painter who has made his art a vehicle for a deep meditation upon, as he put it, "the secret behind human beings and things." But Murch's gratefulness to be alive was also based in warnings his doctor had given him about his stressful regime. He had been a lifelong heavy smoker-and after his death there was speculation that his frequent use of solvents such as sprayed varnish in a closed studio might have contributed to heart problems.
After a two week trip in the summer of 1964 with his son (the legendary film editor Walter Scott Murch) to tour some of the great museums of London and Paris, he told his students that he felt as though he were just getting started, just as he had told his wife that the retrospective had made him feel as if he might want to take his art in a new direction. But in December 1967, he suffered a massive coronary while giving a fund-raising speech for the Skowhegan School of Art at the River Club in Manhattan. He died almost instantly, validating premonitions, whether conscious or not, in the last two paintings he had completed, one of a motor part that resembled a heart-like pump, and the other of a Magritte-like black bowler hat. He had painted this bowler lying horizontally ten years earlier, but now it was as if he had "hung it up."
The Bowler, 1967
To the end, Murch had "continued to contend" with his ideas and go beyond himself. Subtly unifying glazed lights and darks into an austere silent music, in the climactic years before he died he made works which are the equals in twentieth century terms of those of his early heroes Rembrandt and Vermeer. As Katherine Murch, who died only two years after her husband, remarked with characteristic good-humored acerbity, "I don't know what he would have done with a cyclotron."
Broken Rock and the other rock paintings and drawings call to mind the assertion by the historian of Asian art John Hay that "the rock is to Chinese art what the nude is to Western art," a subject that in the East carries the full weight of an esthetic and spiritual expression. Perhaps Magritte's powerful images of floating rocks, like the well-known 'Castle of the Pyrenees' or 'The Glass Key,' also had suggested possibilities to Murch that he realized in his own very different works that used a rock as a motif.
Broken Rock, 1964
The flatness of format in these late works, their consciousness of the picture plane, is in part a reflection of Murch's awareness of modernist issues, but also it may be a function of his making the most of having only one good eye. Remarkably, Murch had been left almost totally blind in one eye as the result of an early accident. Some of the most articulated spaces in modern painting had been carved out by a man with monocular vision! (Collischan interview with the artists' son, cited p.27,Judy Collischan,"Walter Murch," Doctoral Thesis, University of Iowa, 1973)
Objects are articulated within their narrow space, and integrated with that space, in a way that suggests the attempt to capture depth via monocular cues: subtle delineation of values as descriptors of forms, forms confirmed by strong cast shadows. Clock Face, Transformer (an apt title for the work of a visionary artist), Thermostat, and Bowler Hat hang on a picture plane/wall which is both pushed back by the solidity of the forms in front of the plane and also projects these hanging objects out into our own space. Door Lock (1965) is a demonstration of Murch's excitement with the complex innards of a lock, but the color evokes a wider reference-the greens and yellows suggest other things, such as morning light raking across flowers in early spring. Enlarged Doll is suffused by a Sophoclean majesty and pathos. Two Doors, and Stone Capital, exhibit an ambiguity of scale that turns still-life into a kind of landscape of compressed grandeur. Perhaps Two Doors is also a response to the challenge of making a twin image in the manner of Warhol's diptychs or Jasper John's two cast bronze cans of beer.
Stone Capital, 1964
Other figurative painters have come along since Murch to verify the way that action painting could open up new possibilities for figuration. Perhaps the finest example is Neil Welliver, whose large paintings of the Maine woods put the size and overall patterning of Pollock and de Kooning in the service of a re-creation of natural forms and specific effects of light, light that Welliver renders as differently from Murch as Murch did from Monet. Such is the eccentric momentum of influence, hardly as linear in its progression as art historians sometimes like to think.
The paradox of Murch's work is that, on the one hand, he stayed with his original premises (representation, still-life, easel-sized, muted color) with ferocious single-mindedness through forty years of working, and on the other hand, he absorbed and integrated into that singleness of purpose influences from the past-Vermeer, Rembrandt, Chardin of course, the glazed translucencies of Turner, Monet's "air"-and equally of many major art movements that happened around him-surrealism through his admiration for Pierre Roy and his friendship with Joseph Cornell, action painting through Gorky and the abstract expressionist colleagues he met through the Parsons Gallery. But the end result is unique to Murch. In his straightforward look at the creative process (The Courage to Create, 1975), the psychoanalyst Rollo May defines the "inclusive" or non-dual nature of Murch's level of creative consciousness:
The topic of ecstasy is one to which we should give more attention in psychology. I use the word, of course, not in its popular and cheapened sense of "hysteria," but in its historical, etymological sense of "ex-stasis"-that is, literally to "stand out from," to be freed from the usual split between subject ad object which is a perpetual dichotomy in most human activity. Ecstasy is the accurate term for the intensity of consciousness that occurs during the creative act. but it is not to be thought of merely as a Bacchic "letting go"; it involves the total person, with the subconscious and unconscious acting in unity with the conscious. It is not, thus, irrational; it is, rather, suprarational. It brings intellectual, volitional and emotional functions into play all together.
Someone once asked the painter Franz Kline who among his contemporaries, a circle which included many of the luminaries of abstract expressionism, would be most remembered in the distant future. "Walter Murch," was Kline's unexpected reply-a risky bit of prophecy. One recalls that Vermeer was essentially forgotten for a century and a half.
Because Murch presented himself in such exceedingly modest terms, it was especially striking when he told a student that it might require five hundred years before he was understood. There are many things he might have meant by that. I think one would surely be that he found himself in the position of having apprenticed for many years to a kind of superconscious control, but with access to the practices of the action painters, for whom the accident allowed something marvellous to happen, he could apply his 'control' in an exalted realm that included 'traditional' form, space and light . If Pollock unlocked the door to 'paint itself,' Murch in his late work absorbed the lesson of Pollock but went far, far beyond him into an intention to integrate action painting into the timeless thread of all painting.
Of the full scope and meaning of that intention, we have, other than the paintings themselves, only hints, “hints followed by guesses” (T.S. Eliot). Among Murch’s papers was an undated drawing with this note: “Ask god what he wants to be in me not what does god want me to be. This corresponds to Tillich.” (p. 368, Judy Collischan doctoral thesis on Murch, cited from Archives of American Art, Murch Papers, microfilm N68-5, frame 373)
Even this implicit confirmation of conventional religious belief (though note the non-capitalization of the deity) ought not to diminish the overwhelming evidence, again most of all via the art itself, that Murch was an explorer and questioner, one who recommended to students the works of such post-Nietschzean thinkers as Wallace Stevens and Camus.
But Murch also recommended that his students read Tillich, himself a post-Nietschzean explorer. Paul Tillich was one of the most impressive theologians of the twentieth century, and he often preached at Riverside Church, where Murch’s wife worked as a secretary. Murch’s hard-won affirmation of the numinous was not so much a testament of belief, but of what Tillich called “ultimate concern,” which was as close, Tillich believed, as humans could come to the unfathomable mystery at the heart of all being. Murch’s ultimate concern was to be as responsible as possible for his art, but also to let that art be enriched by unknown forces larger than himself.
Winslow Myers, December 2002
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