American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray” is an intentionally ironic title for a documentary about a contemporary artist who had to fight longer and harder for recognition than any male counterpart of similar ability in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. So it is both bitter and sweet that the year before Murray died from lung cancer at the age 66, she would become one of a few women to ever be granted their own retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
And yet she never achieved much fame beyond her devoted admirers and peers in the art world. Invariably, it was other women who gave her a boost—a high-school teacher who paid for her to attend the Chicago Institute of Arts, powerful Soho gallery owner Paula Cooper, who provided invaluable exposure. Her gender at least came in handy when she was a single mother in the ‘70s, struggling to make a living wage. That is when CalArts decided to recruit female visiting artists to its campus. As she says about that period, “The recognition is soul food. I never knew I could make money from it.”
Her work now permanently graces such hallowed museums as the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., and the Guggenheim. But she also proudly provided a 120-foot mosaic mural for the Lexington/ 59th Street subway stop in Manhattan—something not touched upon in the doc. Highbrow was just not her thing. Speaking to the masses as they commuted each day—that appealed to Murray.
But once you see the incredible late-career billboard-size pieces that Murray left behind—unwieldly and intentionally broken canvases willed into unique, brightly hued designs that often incorporated recognizable objects such as coffee cups, shoes and even human shapes amid abstract forms—you will grasp how distinctly disarming her moody yet playful vision was with its stylistic echoes of jigsaw puzzles, graffiti, pop art and cartoons. What is even better is how these bold and bulky pieces with their splashes of color and often biomorphic shapes offer not just a uniquely feminine point of view but also a humanistic one that attempts to reflect the emotional chaos of our everyday existence.