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For over fifty years, Judith Murray and Robert Yasuda have been highly respected proponents of abstract painting in New York, throughout the United States, and internationally. Since the early 1970s they spend part of the year in the fabled neighborhood of SoHo New York and the rest of the time since 1980 in the Florida Keys, its ambience the inspiration for much of their work. In their first-ever exhibition in Key West (and rare occasion to show together), Murray will present vividly painted canvases that emphasize her sculptural brushwork, while Yasuda’s work is characterized by shaped and carved panels of subtly modulated colors.
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Beyond the so-called “capitals of the art world” – New York in the late 20th century, Paris before that – there have always been places exerting a different kind of gravitational pull, where artists and writers congregate away from the bright lights to draw inspiration, and to work.
Key West is such a place, and Judith Murray and Robert Yasuda are part of a long line of creative talents who’ve found their way here. Most have been writers – Hemingway, of course, but also Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Shel Silverstein, John Hersey and many others. Unlike, say, Provincetown or the Hamptons, Key West was until recently truly remote, and it’s easier to set up shop with a typewriter than paint and easels. Among visual artists, Winslow Homer stands out as the exception, with his lightweight kit of watercolors exquisitely recording the ever-shifting colors of the Keys.
More than any of the artists name-checked above, but fully in that tradition, Murray and Yasuda have made a genuine home here, dividing their time between the Keys and New York City. They arrived in 1980, a fabled time in Key West, when rents were cheap and the island was crackling with bohemian energy. Though part of that scene, they also stood apart from it, friends with more fisherman than philanthropists. As their careers in New York blossomed, the Keys were where they worked in the winter, shipping a season’s worth of paintings back to New York every spring.
Murray and Yasuda’s exhibition at The Studios represents both a homecoming and a transition, their first exhibition ever in a place they’ve called home for so long. They chose this moment in large part because the emergence of The Studios signals that the cultural life of the island is catching up to them. The Studios, for its part, acts as both an agent of that change, and a response to it, with a responsibility to sustain a place on the island for talent such as theirs, and to recalibrate the island’s creative soul for a more connected age.
I have known Judith Murray and Robert Yasuda for more than four decades and I’ve been familiar with their work for the same number of years. While they have shown (infrequently) together before—most notably in Singapore in 2014—I have never considered their work as anything other than individual endeavors by two very individual artists. One reason I did not make the connection was because they themselves did not, discouraging, for the most part, those kinds of comparisons, protective of their aesthetic autonomy. When asked to write an essay for this exhibition, only the second joint venture of this scope, comprising nearly 25 years of work, I was suddenly struck by how much their practice and their ideas about art have in common, even though Judith’s paintings would never be mistaken for Bob’s, and vice versa. But, as a couple from the days when they were art students, their studios within steps of each other for much of that time, it seems natural, no, even inevitable that there would be multiple correspondences, conscious and unconscious.
For one, they are both preternaturally responsive to place. Bob was raised in Hawaii and Judith in Florida, and they have spent much time in both locales. I’m certain that the dazzling light, the rhythms of water, the soaring skies, the luxuriant foliage and brilliant colors, the languor and upheavals of southern climes are embedded in their being, perpetually on tap, and traceable, drop by light-filled drop, in their art, no matter how it has evolved through the years.
Although they are at home in the world—Kauai and India have been regular and beloved destinations—Key West enjoys special status as their longtime second home. They spend roughly half the year there and the other half in New York, going back and forth. In New York, they live in SoHo, during its pioneering days the undisputed hub of the contemporary art world, and still home to many artists, despite the numbers who have left. In fact, it may become an art center again, as galleries are returning downtown. The Murray/Yasuda loft is enormous, one of the great perks of being homesteaders, and is filled with a very idiosyncratic collection of treasured objects imported from the Keys and from travels that have crisscrossed the globe. It might be considered a personal kingdom and memory palace, with a pronounced southern tilt, enhanced by the astonishingly verdant garden they have coaxed into bloom on their roof, a delightful pocket version of their exuberantly flowering Key West wonderlands.
I have visited several of their homes in the Keys, from a charming houseboat to an airy and beautiful Bahamian style house on Big Pine next to a nature preserve. Their last dwelling was on Sugarloaf Key. Their most magnificent residence to date, it was built from scratch, born from the same kind of creative drive and imagination present in their paintings. And Key West has been, and continues to be, a primary inspiration and collaborator in a process that transforms what was blank, unformed, into something tangible and visually compelling, whether on actual terrain or in their art.
Beyond that, they are both abstractionist although their work, in varying degrees, can be read as sourced in landscape, in the real world, as can the endeavors of other so-called abstractionists, the divide between them and representational artists no longer hard and fast, no longer an issue. And, additionally, they have in common practices based on color, space, light, mark, scale, and a profound engagement with process and materials.
While they are both gifted colorists, Judith, in the 1960s, decided to work with only four hues: red, yellow, black, and white. The reason she chose those earthy pigments was, she once said, in homage to prehistoric cave paintings and the miraculous lineage of painting. It was a significant decision, one that she has never regretted or rescinded, sensing from the beginning that they would offer sufficient challenges for a lifetime. She also has one other unchanging element in her lexicon—a painted bar that runs from top to bottom along one vertical edge, made in specific response to the painting it borders. Among other functions, the bar delineates the boundary between fictive and real space, reminding us that the space of the painting is illusory.
Looking at her paintings, it is not immediately apparent that there are only four colors in them (theoretically, each color is infinite because tonalities are, even if they pass beyond our perceptual range). Her early paintings displayed hard-edged, fascinatingly eccentric shapes and were clearly painted red, yellow, white, and black. The later works are modulated, all over, expressive, one color often dominating, although the three other colors are present. Her materials are classic: oil paint on linen. To refer to only one example, there is the panoramic Once in the Morning, a gorgeous diptych from 2014. It radiates an enveloping golden light and at first glance, you might call it a yellow painting. But looking again, you see the presence of the other colors of her quartet, in a lighter, brighter register: pinks, yellows, whites, grays. The surface is a masterwork of thick, almost sculptural brushwork, lively with quick, beckoning beats, a world in dynamic, skittering motion, in disruption and resolution, throwing off sparks of light.
Bob, on the other hand, has gravitated toward cool colors such as clear greens, deep blues, aquamarines—signature shades summoning up associations with sea and sky—as if to balance Judith’s earthy tones. He also layers ceaselessly, slipping in warmer colors to make it a full spectrum, although he too, seems to verge on the monochromatic at times. That, however, is a feint. Other colors are there, submerged, enriching a surface that is much like that of water, which is never simply one shade. His surfaces are polished, immaculate and appear calm initially, but beneath the top layers, there is movement, swells, the rhythms supple, less staccato than Judith’s. Over the years, Bob has shifted from the cerebral and minimalist to the more overtly sensuous and subjective, although formal issues remain important to him, to both of them.
Bob also maintains constants in his work. One is his fascination with supports and frames. The wooden panels he uses are elegantly, meticulously hand-carved, and sometimes the paintings are edged in strips of black wood, also hand-carved, nudging his panels into the architectural and into relief, often suggestive of ceremonial objects. His “bars” are actual, as opposed to Judith’s painted bands. Lifeline, from 2013, is a good companion to Once in the Morning. It too, is a diptych, but with thin fabric stretched tautly across each panel. The palettes are relatively close, and both are hung with an interval of space between the constituent panels. Extraordinarily luminous, Lifeline emits a visual crackle along the textured, irregular cleft between the two supports, like an electric charge or tectonic plates unzipping. While capturing the phenomenal and transient is something they both pursue, Bob might be said to incline toward air and water while Judith embraces earth and fire, both envisioning their own private paradises.
As I write that, however, I can’t help but note that such paradises, such habitats are threatened, their existence increasingly precarious, as is the state of our planet. There is one other message, then, that they and their paintings might make us think about, at least under present circumstances: that if such places were to vanish, their loss would be irreparable, fatal.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic, independent curator and journalist whose interest is global contemporary art.
The painter climbs ladders, reaches out, moves like a spider spinning across a vast expanse. You don’t often get to see this usually private activity. The first touch of brush to canvas – that ‘stick of wood with hairs on it’ as Robert Yasuda called it – that activity that first took place in the deep caves of pre-history, when our first artist ancestors touched color to the forms of rock. It’s like watching someone dream – that reach into the unconscious, that initiation of conversation with the painting-to-be. I watched both these artists at work, on video on their web sites, and thought of the Yeats poem, ‘Long-legged Fly.’
‘There on that scaffolding reclines
With no more sound than the mice make, his hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence…’
The artist’s first tentative and then surer brush strokes seem to interrogate the painting, to suggest that the whole of it is to be uncovered, released into view. What does the painting know? These paintings know color, they know suggestion, they know the inchoate imagination; they also know that the eye of the beholder will see them change and shift, the longer the gaze, the steadier the contemplation. In the age of the quick glance, the rapid hunger for information, these paintings say – slow down, take the time it takes. I stood in front of Yasuda’s ‘Origins’ hung on a gray wall, and saw it change color, as if it blushed. It was green and then it was pink – it shifted and changed as a sunset does. These paintings are organic, built up in layers, releasing their essence slowly, altered by the light, and by the eye and movement of the beholder.
With Judith Murray’s sparks and showers of gold, a different energy is released – that of the universe of shooting stars, sun-spots, volcanic eruptions. Her palette is that of the cave-painters, yet she brings the viewer into the airy eruptions of meteor and star-dust. Again, what do these paintings know? I watched her in her video begin on a bare canvas, the first marks like hand- or foot-prints, the outlines of a cosmic movement just beginning. The sculptural use of paint, its expression on a flat surface, its thick curls and sharp edges – all this was to follow. Her work is full of a dashing energy, passionate and exact. My eye created fish-shoals, water reflections, rain showers – but that was my own literary side attempting translation. Paint is paint.
A writer longs often for the plastic simplicity of paint. Words are approximations, always, language a scrim for what lies behind it. Here, in the paintings of both these artists, I found the essence of paint as language in itself, its purity, its simple ‘I am.’ It escapes any notion of art as commodity, comes from a time when no artist expected to sell a work – its integrity is decades-old. You don’t get to create paintings like these in less than a lifetime of dedicated attention. And paintings have a home, too, they have a native place, a home port, no matter where they are carried in the world. Key West light informs these paintings, I think, the way the light of the South of France informed those of Cézanne and Van Gogh. It’s not about the literal place, so much as its ambience, the particular light in which landscape and skies appear, and the way that plays in the mind of the artists, as well as that of the observer. The fact that Murray and Yasuda have chosen to show their work together for the first time in Key West – their home port – is a compliment to our island and its inhabitants. It is also timely, born of a world whose fragility we feel. Our obligation to it is to look – really look – to pay attention, and let these paintings speak.
Rosalind Brackenbury, February 2022
Judith Murray: Phases and Layers is a journey of an 8-foot by 9-foot abstract oil painting from blank canvas to finish over a period of three months in 2006. The filmmakers went to Murray’s studio while she was working on the painting to record its development and also her comments.
Runtime: 17 min.
Filmed by Albert Maysles and Mark Ledzian
Edited by Mark Ledzian
Robert Yasuda: Across the River was made for the 40th anniversary of the founding of MoMa/PS 1 in 2016. These site specific works were in dialogue with the original painting installation that Yasuda made 40 years before.
Runtime: 10 min.
Filmed and Edited by Mark Ledzian