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Full Episode
Everybody Knows... Elizabeth Murray

This intimate portrait of maverick painter and printmaker Elizabeth Murray explores the relationship between her family life and career, and reconsiders her place in contemporary art history. Excerpts from her journals voiced by Meryl Streep, verité footage and home videos show Murray’s internal struggles and incredible ambition. Exclusive interviews with art world luminaries describe the thriving New York art scene within which Murray challenged and captivated her viewers. In 2005, Murray was the fifth woman to be celebrated with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Breaking convention, Murray’s paintings still defy efforts at categorization. Through them she made an indelible imprint on the contemporary art world. This film chronicles her remarkable journey from an impoverished childhood in Chicago to the extraordinary art world of lower Manhattan, before she lost her life to cancer in 2007.


 

Transcript Print

♪♪ Murray: The more you try to correct a mistake in a painting, the worse it gets, until it's such a mess that you have to start over again.

The way it looks is just the way it looks in the end.

And I think a nose is a good comparison, because, like, if you're born with a great, big schnozzle, you know, you can get it pared down, I suppose.

But then people get nose jobs, and they're a big mistake.

And then your face is ruined. [ Laughs ] I think making a painting is like that in a way.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Baxter: 'So Long Maryanne' I'd like to have where the title is.

Man: Okay. Baxter: I think, you know, right in front of the front door.

So it's, you know, under the skylight.

Those big paintings demand a lot.

People realize that, which is why they don't necessarily want to live with them. [ Woman laughs ] That wall was made for that guy.

Elizabeth made this in the barn this summer.

She knows that the smaller paintings sell more quickly than the big paintings.

For that reason, I'm certain she doesn't do them.

And if I don't remind her occasionally, she might do a small one.

[ Laughs ] Close: If you're going to make a drawing and have a stretcher built, which is a real commitment -- Now, if you're going to try and paint on that, what are you gonna do, other than just decorate the surface?

Baxter: Just be careful not to, you know, break anything off 'cause Elizabeth's coming in 20 minutes.

Close: If you know how hard something is to pull off, you also know how easy some effect is.

I'm telling you, as one painter to another, the idea of putting paint on preconceived and pre-built sculptural-shaped canvas and finding any way to make that not look like frosting is a miracle.

It's a miracle.

Storr: A good many of these paintings overlap with her illness.

So here is somebody who is desperately sick and, at the same time, putting all of her energy into her work and literally betting the farm on something new at a time when just painting itself was a real challenge.

Murray: Finishing 'The Sun and the Moon' painting was really more in relationship to me and having been very ill and on my studio wall when I got sick.

So getting myself up and into the studio and working on that painting was a huge thing for me to do.

And it made me feel that I was really back in my life again and that I could maintain my life and my work.

♪♪ ♪♪ Streep: 'How does one -- How does one become an artist?

An artist signifies not just someone who crafts art.

It is a way of thinking about life, a consciousness of the magic of life.

And once someone has this click, the world is never the same.'

♪♪ McCafferty: So, there's gonna be two hanging brackets.

This will go on the wall, and then this will go on the wall above it. Murray: Okay.

McCafferty: And then it will create that composition.

The very first thing she had me do is take a matte knife and cut the face of one of her paintings.

I was like, 'Um, I'm not really comfortable doing that.'

And she's like, 'Well, it has to -- You know, that's where it comes apart.

So you need to do that.'

And then she goes, 'I'll touch it up when it's re-installed.'

Scanga: She's tough, man. She knew what she wanted.

She didn't...around.

We were scared of her. McCafferty: [ Laughs ] Murray: I don't think I've ever made anything yet that you just sort of said, 'I don't think you can do that.'

Scanga: There wasn't that much interpretation because there was a full-scale sketch, so we could follow her lines exactly.

Murray: I get the idea usually very quickly.

I just am scribbling around, put it into my overhead projector, and blow it up on the wall, do a big drawing.

Then these two young artists who are the carpenters who make these cut out the wood. Woman: Oh, my God.

McCafferty: I think the most complicated thing was just how to engineer, like, all these seemingly disparate, or these kind of organic forms, and getting them all to tie together and then sit on the wall.

Hashey: Lord knows how her brain organizes from the idea and those sketches on the wall in her studio to what ends up being a total single thought.

Bennett: When I first started to work for her in her studio, I came in one day, and she was painting, and she said, 'You know, I still don't know what I'm doing.'

I remember just being a little bit, like, flabbergasted, like, 'What do you mean you don't know what you're doing?

You're Elizabeth Murray.'

She struggles with them.

McCafferty: 17 1/2.

McClelland: There are a lot of paintings in those paintings.

I'm guessing that she has ideas about things, and then sometimes the paintings go beyond that notion and that the ideas kind of appear and disappear in the process of making.

There's a lot of just sheer ambition there... Bennett: Yeah. McClelland: ...in each one.

Bennett: And she's always pushing it and changing it.

Scanga: Oh, my gosh. She turned the ladder into a figure.

McCafferty: Right. Hashey: I'd march in and say, 'That's it!

Put the brushes down!'

It would never happen.

Elizabeth has always carried everything all the way through her way, period.

Storr: You do actually hear things from sophisticated people that make you wonder how sophisticated they really are when you take an artist like Elizabeth and put her into the mix because she does upset the conventional wisdom.

And most people who upset the conventional wisdom are not thanked for that.

Glimcher: Extreme originality is a curse. [ Laughs ] And she was not a minimalist artist, and she was a minimalist artist.

She was not a pop artist, and she was using popular material.

And she was an artist who broke down all of the boundaries.

She made shaped canvases.

Were they surrealistic?

Were they biomorphic?

There was no easy way to categorize these works.

Weinberg: Words like 'zany' and 'goofy' are not words that one associates in a way with kind of high art, and I think there's something about it that kind of connects to the vernacular qualities of American life.

I think there's something so honest and so humorous in a way that it doesn't always quite connect for other cultures.

Saltz: She has her own idea of beauty, so when people reject her work, they're rejecting a very original idea of what beauty is.

♪♪ Cooper: I was always amazed at private collectors, actually, because her paintings were unwieldy, sort of, not easy.

Saltz: She paints beds that are hopping around and jumping around, fetuses stuck here or there, wombs.

Man: Heads popping out or... Saltz: Coffee cups.

Man: ...a figure climbing off.

Big paintings of cups.

You're looking at a 10-foot cup.

Cooper: The cup is a metaphor.

Joel: There's a lot of, well, you know, a little bit more than canoodling going on.

I think there's a little -- pbht -- poking, a little penetration.

Troupe: It was wacky. You know what I mean?

It was good, but it was wacky.

Porter Troupe: It was unusual because of the constructions.

Saltz: I find myself kind of titillated, more often than not, by some of those paintings.

Although that must mean I'm from the planet Warpo, just like she is.

♪♪ Streep: 'People sometimes ask, 'How do I want people to feel when they look at my paintings?'

Ridiculous and modernist as it seems, even embarrassing, I would like them to feel as I feel when I listen to Maria Callas sing.

I feel lighter.

As she raises her voice in song, I feel like some of the burdens of history and myself are lifted and float away with the note.

I feel centered and hopeful.

And I have wanted this since I was 20 years old.

This is what I want my art to do.'

♪♪ Murray: I drew from the time I was very little.

I was good at it, and the adults complimented me.

Phelan: When Elizabeth was in high school, Elizabeth and Susan -- They lived in Bloomington, Illinois.

Murray: I had an incredible high-school art teacher named Elizabeth Stein.

She thought I was talented and I had nerve.

Phelan: Elizabeth's in high school, and Ms. Stein comes to the house.

Murray: And sat down with me and my mother, and she asked my mother if it would be okay with her if she sent me to art school in Chicago.

She paid for it.

Phelan: But that's kind of, like, this bolt from the blue, you know?

'Yes, you are meant to be an artist, and this is gonna happen.'

♪♪ Murray: I remember coming to class the first day and wearing my Pendleton skirt and my saddle shoes, and this guy made fun of me, and I was totally embarrassed 'cause it was so uncool to look that way.

You were supposed to wear hip boots.

And I caught on fast. [ Woman laughs ] I came from this little town called Bloomington, and before that, Three Rivers, Michigan, and I didn't know bohemia from a hole in the head.

Everybody was just so serious.

It intimidated me.

There was a group that called themselves The Hairy Who.

I so admired them.

The art was very funky.

They didn't do large work, but they were kind of cartoony and colorful.

I wanted to be a part of it -- to be an artist, to sit in the cafeteria with coffee and a cigarette and discuss Picasso.

♪♪ I was so lonely.

That's where I met Don Sunseri.

And he seemed so glamorous.

And he wanted to avoid the draft.

So he really wanted to get married.

It was an incredible time for me to be in this city where I was born and to be doing something like -- You know, I never thought I'd get to go to art school.

Never. It seemed beyond my wildest dreams.

And there I was.

♪♪ The thing that was great about being here was to see so much work and to learn how to look, really, to learn how to -- to learn how to feel how alive a painting is.

I wanted, at that point, to paint like de Kooning.

And the way this painting happened was by running upstairs and looking at how de Kooning moved the paint across the painting 'Excavation' and running back and trying to get my arm to do that.

And it never occurred to me then that all my mentors were men.

Those kinds of things grew on me very, very slowly.

♪♪ ♪♪ Sunseri: Mom grew up and had a really hard childhood.

It is a miracle thinking about where she started and where she's ended up.

Holman: Elizabeth never had a home when she was growing up.

There were nights that she and the family spent the night on the 'L' in Chicago.

Tworkov: Her father was a lawyer, but a gambler, and so they never had the rent money.

One of the things they would do is sleep on trains all night, and another thing they would do is to check into these hotels, and then, in the morning, they'd all be -- Like, their father would herd them down the fire escape and out into the street.

They would leave.

Streep: 'I had a lousy and hard childhood. Sad.

I feel it all falls back to my movable past, how my parents, after a certain point, never had a home... how unhappy they were... and how many regrets they had.

But I turned it around, and things have improved for me a thousandfold.

I am driven.'

[ Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' plays ] ♪♪ Murray: I'd been waiting to get to New York for years.

Years!

So, we moved in to 28th Street.

There's something about New York, and I still feel it.

I'll just be walking down the street, and I'll look around, and I'll just think, 'Thank God I got here.'

Abramovic: Art must be beautiful.

Zimmerman: That was a weird time in the art world because there were so many things that took people away from painting.

All those articles about, 'Painting is dead,' and, you know, 'It's not relevant.'

And she kept painting.

People got involved in video or performance art.

Close: There's this incredible mix of ideas with tremendous urgency.

I mean, just knew that you were involved with something different.

Murray: I didn't find an audience there at all.

It was too crazy what I was doing.

Because it was right at the whole conceptual wave.

Mel Bochner, Keith Sonnier, Agnes Martin.

Smith: I hadn't really realized what an extremely strange development she had had.

There were these really bizarre paintings that she had made in San Francisco and when she was in Buffalo, teaching.

There was that huge painting shaped like a pair of pants.

It's, like, billowing pants with spectator shoes.

I mean, a lot of people in New York were making shaped paintings, but they weren't making shaped paintings like that.

Murray: Some things were so bizarre, I threw them away.

I didn't want anybody to know I'd been there.

[ Laughs ] I actually made this ridiculous thing.

Like, well, Don and me naked, riding on a huge marijuana cigarette.

Resnick: One morning, I came in, and Elizabeth said, 'I threw everything out.'

They were digging the basement for the Fashion Institute.

There was this big hole in the ground across the street.

Elizabeth just -- if I had been there, I would have tried to stop her -- took everything, and she threw it all into the hole.

Murray: One of the paintings -- the 'Cow' painting... Resnick: Oh, I loved that cow.

Murray: ...got caught in, you know, that wire they used.

So it was just hanging there.

Resnick: It was huge. It was at least the size of this.

Murray: And these guys were standing there, laughing and pointing, and they were having so much fun with this thing that was suddenly in their pit.

Resnick: [ Laughing ] Yeah.

Joel: But, I mean, rapidly, she really -- Her work evolved.

Cooper: She was influenced by the Chicago artists and comic strips.

And then she went through a period -- They were kind of pure and more minimal, but very painterly.

A wonderful painterly touch.

♪♪ Man: She developed her own response to minimalism, her own version of minimalism, and it's fascinating to watch, one, because the pictures are wonderful, and, two, because it's interesting to see somebody accepting the fact that there is a kind of work out there that is a challenge to what she was doing, which was a kind of Red Grooms, Kyle Sollenberger funk-inflected pop.

Close: Such a different art world than it is today.

There were only about 12 or 14 galleries that showed the work of living artists.

Murray: I had decided the one person, one gallery I really, really liked -- Paula.

Cooper: I was friends at that point with Roberta Smith.

Smith: I was working for Paula Cooper, and Jennifer Bartlett was in the vicinity.

She had been really pressuring Paula.

Cooper: 'You've got to go and see Elizabeth's work.

You must visit her studio.'

Bartlett: Oh, I think I just said that I thought Elizabeth was an absolutely terrific painter to Paula and she should really see her work.

And I'm sure Joel backed that up.

Joel: It was very -- I mean, her touch was there.

Cooper: Yeah, very painterly.

Joel: Elizabeth's hand was there from the beginning.

Murray: Paula eventually came over, and she liked it.

I couldn't believe it.

Cooper: She was living with Dakota on Cooper Square.

Murray: I had put some drawings on the floor, and he walked on the drawings.

Paula was like [Gasps] But she was cool 'cause she had two kids.

I think we liked each other.

I didn't know that that could happen.

You could actually like your dealer, and you might feel connected in some way.

Cooper: I invited Elizabeth to be in a three-person show.

Murray: I almost fainted.

It really was one of the most happy moments of my life.

Close: It was hard to break in, but if you did get a show, you knew that every artist in New York was gonna see it.

And that's what success was -- was getting your work out in front of other people, then going to Max's Kansas City and debating it all night long, you know?

♪♪ Murray: I don't think I was ever in Max's, 'cause, one, I didn't have money to buy drinks, and I didn't have money for a babysitter.

Close: Being taken seriously as an artist was what it was all about.

Murray: I really, really wanted to hang out at Max's and... Akalaitis: It was really hard.

We were all very, very poor.

The whole idea of the struggling artist -- It was true.

Life was basically trying to do your work and take care of your family.

Bartlett: I don't think anyone at that time in the art world that was a mother had any idea of what it was supposed to be like.

Murray: It's indescribable, actually -- that feeling of being torn.

You know, like, I remember when we brought Dakota home from the hospital, and I started to get ready to go outside.

'Wait a second. I can't just go outside.

The baby's in there.'

And it was the first time it really hit me -- I couldn't just run outside for a quart of milk.

♪♪ Murray Holman: When Dakota was little, she was a struggling artist who was not making a living from her work.

Sunseri: Mom divorced my father when I was 4.

He was in the scene with Joel and Mom and all of them.

And he picked up and moved to Vermont.

And she had to teach.

She would have to go up to Yale.

I would spend many days out of the week with Ivy and Amy.

Ivy: It was like two nights a week.

Sunseri: Two nights a week.

Ivy: And then I would spend about one night at their house.

Amy: We were all very tight, you know, and together.

I was a single parent, and Elizabeth was a single parent.

Woman: She was really juggling a lot, to have no money, raising a boy, have a job, living in the Lower East Side when the Lower East Side was not the greatest neighborhood, and be a full-time painter was difficult.

Murray: It was make-it-or-break-it.

[ Laughs ] [ Woman laughs ] ♪♪ Streep: 'The issue is, how do you move?

How do you change and take your work somewhere that you do not think you know about?

First, you have to admit the yearning, the desire to go beyond what you have done.'

Sunseri: When I was 7, she got a job at Cal Arts.

Celmins: So, what they did at Cal Arts in the mid '70s is, they invited women from New York who were beginning to show to come teach.

Sunseri: Which was a big deal for her.

Ivy: Yeah. Sunseri: I think it paid $15,000 or something like that.

And, I mean, I think it was right then where she really started selling her work.

Murray: The recognition is soul food.

'Oh, wow! I can do this!

I never thought I'd make money from it.'

Sunseri: She was able, I know, when we came back, to buy, you know, the loft on White Street, a 5,000-square-foot loft with 17-foot ceilings in Tribeca, for $37,000. Ivy: [ Chuckles ] Sandler: There was a real yearning at that moment for painting.

People wanted something sensuous, something tactile, something felt.

♪♪ Kass: When I saw Elizabeth's show at Paula Cooper, my entire life changed.

It was so clear to me that, for the first time, for whatever reason, these were her most, probably, formalist paintings, the first show, you know?

But they were absurd.

There was kind of fantastic screaming color in them.

Murray: I really wanted to use strong color, and nobody was using color.

People were using color, but not the way oil paint looks.

And I knew I wanted that and that I could learn to get that and to do it.

Close: Even though they were -- There was very little going on, they were very reductive, there still was a physicality to the piece that was lovingly made.

And she'll probably hate this -- the fact that it looks like a woman made it.

[ Woman laughs ] Woman: I remember the surprise of seeing 'Beginner,' you know, where she went really big -- you know, taking on the kind of formal power of abstraction, and also moving away from abstraction at the same time, 'cause, you know, 'Beginner' had that -- what we all called this big Tweety Bird shape in it.

Murray: I was trying to not have an image and have an image.

♪♪ Kass: Making abstraction personal was unbelievable.

It was such a big jump.

Everybody was always looking for something new.

Well, Elizabeth did something new.

She put content into abstraction.

That was new.

Weinberg: There were many artists of her generation which the Whitney was paying attention to, and yet her voice was distinctive and was like no other.

This was a work that was purchased just before the '79 Biennial, so clearly, the curators had been watching her and thought, 'Well, we need to get her work, and we need to put her in the Biennial.'

Sandler: Chuck Close once said to me that an artist was very fortunate when, at one and the same time, he did his own -- or her -- own thing at the moment that the art world wanted that kind of thing.

And Elizabeth was at that moment.

Murray: People liked it.

And when I got encouragement, I just used more and hit it harder.

[ Chuckles ] [ Woman chuckles ] Man: I think that Elizabeth's paintings really grew and exploded themselves in the early 1980s.

Man #2: All of a sudden, it gave way to the cracked painting, to the broken stuff.

Cooper: I remember the first time I saw broken pieces of canvas in her studio leaning against the wall.

And I thought, 'What on earth is this going to be?'

Murray: I realized I liked to paint edges.

So I thought, 'Well, if I'm painting them inside the canvas, why don't I just make the canvas look like that?'

Storr: 'Painter's Progress' is the point where having abstracted her imagery, or made abstract imagery by this time for about 10 years, she brings back into play recognizable things, and the first -- one of the first ones, anyway -- is the artist's palette.

And you can see in that particular painting where you fracture the surface of the picture plane into little shards, and then you rebind it together with this continuous, pliable, curvilinear biomorphic form.

Murray: And people immediately said, 'Frank Stella, Frank Stella, Frank Stella.'

I was very insulted, and he didn't like it, either.

Scott: You might say, 'Well, Frank Stella fractured the canvas, also,' but that was very much about abstraction and space and color.

Hers was about figure, domesticity, and representation.

Lewis: Where you see states of a domestic environment, oftentimes kitchens or communal gathering spaces inside, where things are fully upended and in a state of impending kind of chaos, what her work is saying in that '80s period and onward is far more expansive than what anyone says about their life by simply being in kind of a state of chaos in the kitchen.

Woman: There is the kitchen table.

There is the red spindle-backed chair.

There is the letter on the table.

You know, and then in the middle of it all, there's this, like, yowling little face.

Tworkov: Every woman I knew was trying to figure out -- Did they ever want to be with a man again?

Did they want to marry? Did they want to remarry?

Did they want to have children?

All of these things were completely up in the air.

Elizabeth was clear as a bell.

She wanted to remarry, and she wanted more children.

♪♪ Holman: I came in when she was having her painting at the Whitney Biennial.

The big pink heart painting was where I came in.

Woman: He was directing this play, and she designed the sets.

Murray: Very fanciful shapes.

And I made them out of foam.

Holman: Then the actors got to throw it around, roll them, put them down on the ground, and sit on top of them.

Murray: And Bob and I fell in love and got married.

Woman: And she had these two girls in her early 40s, which is pretty damn brave.

♪♪ Man: At a time when people were beginning to say, 'I can't have children and be an artist.

I can't be taken seriously if I'm married,' she appeared to make virtually no concessions to anything.

[ Girls laughing ] [ Holman Ellsberg speaking indistinctly ] Woman: She wanted to be a mother.

She wanted a family.

She wanted to cook dinner every night.

She wanted a Christmas tree.

She wanted Christmas presents.

She wanted the dog and the cat and the whole nine yards.

It never occurred to her that she couldn't do that and be a great artist.

Murray: Ohh, you big girl!

You big girl!

You walked right to Mommy!

Jenny: I would describe it as having designed a life so that she was able to have what she wanted more than anything.

♪♪ Murray Holman: She was a successful artist when we were growing up.

So it's different for us than it is for our brother.

Holman Ellsberg: The activity of making art was separate from the activity of being a member of the family, of being a mother, you know.

And it really was like she worked a 9-to-5.

You know, she's in the studio, you know, all day.

Murray: Daisy says 'studio' now.

Holman: Where are you, Daisy?

Can you say 'studio'? Lowry: The thing that one often forgets about great artists like Elizabeth is that they're also human beings, that they have lives outside their art, and that they go through life dealing with all of the same problems that everyone else does, and then they still have to have the inner reserve to create.

♪♪ Streep: 'I dare not dwell on the delight, but I'll use it to go ahead with work in a big way.

Maybe that's the signal I need -- the sign to work now in a big, ambitious scale, along with these smaller pieces.

To hell with it all. Do it.'

Man: And then they just got to this gargantuan size, which I think was astonishing to many, many people.

Woman: And as her paintings got more and more dimensional, they got weirder and weirder.

Saltz: I think that Murray somehow understood that if she did not adopt and adapt to some of the changes that were in the air, specifically some of these big, brutish, bigfoot male painters like Julian Schnabel and others, that she would be left behind, like so many other 1970s artists.

And I think what makes Murray kind of heroic is that she understood that while she might not be accepted into the club, she could still play.

Princenthal: She certainly didn't get the kind of media attention, including, you know, all the mainstream stuff, that happened in the '80s for the very first time.

Woman: This was the start of art as the dealer being dominant, art stars, lots of money and real estate.

Weinberg: I think they were part of a zeitgeist and a verve for painting at that time.

I don't see the work as having a lot of connections.

Her work came more out of a kind of Cubist tradition, I think, as opposed to more narrative storytelling that you find in a Schnabel or a Fischl, where it's really coming from a different place, a different kind of narrative.

Cappellazzo: Those guys made pictures, like, really illustrative, legible pictures.

She was very much against that and apart from that.

She came out of a language of pure abstraction.

Scott: Elizabeth was the one that was the bridge between this minimal conceptual art and this thing that happened with this sort of bombastic explosion of painting in the late '80s.

Akalaitis: Elizabeth has this great progression, this really kind of epic story of rebuilding painting.

All of those guys became the art stars of the moment.

They all benefited from that.

And she has not been granted this central role.

Kahlo: There was an article in and what was wrong with the picture was they were all white guys!

We even did a poster about that.

You know, we basically said, you know, 'What's wrong with the picture?

Melanin deficiency. Hormone imbalance.'

It was shocking that after years of listening to us, would be so crass as to allow a photo like that to be on a cover.

In 1985, we started doing posters and putting them up in SoHo that just listed all the male artists who allowed their work to be shown in galleries that didn't show women or showed only 10% women.

And then all of the people in the art world who were intellectuals and are disputatious by nature -- They kept the argument going.

It was terrific.

♪♪ Guggenheim was opening a branch in SoHo, and they were opening the branch with a show of work by three white guys.

So we organized this great demonstration in front of the museum the day of the opening.

Woman: Whose art? art.

Women: [ Chanting ] Culture is not elite.

WAC is watching.

Kahlo: WAC had a drum corps there.

We had these paper bags with a gorilla head on one side, and on the back side, it said, 'What's happening at the Guggenheim for the discriminating art lover?

Same old isms -- racism, sexism, elitism, ageism,' and then 'phallocentrism.'

[ Laughs ] We loved that word.

[ Women chanting indistinctly ] ♪♪ Woman: All these women were just so frustrated.

Phelan: Do women artists get shafted?

Yeah. [ Chuckles ] Cooper: She wanted to be -- any woman does -- wanted to be compared with men.

Joel: And I think there was, indeed, a lot of prejudice and bias against.

It's tougher for women.

Cooper: Oh, indeed, there was.

Joel: Yeah, I-I know.

♪♪ Streep: 'I think there is a deep way where men do resent women artists that can hardly be articulated.

Deep resentment.

It's hard to name.

After all, if we can give birth to real babies, why should we also be able to create art?

Isn't the real thing enough?

After all these years, trying to sort out the politics -- whose toes I'm stepping on -- I think that's why I do work, because whatever it is I'm making -- God knows if it's art or not -- it's the one instance where I don't give a...what anyone thinks.'

Kahlo: The interesting thing about Elizabeth Murray is that she was a feminist without having to talk about it.

She was the first woman, I believe, to do an Artist's Choice show.

She looked at her condition of being a woman artist, and she wanted to look at all of those women artists that the Museum of Modern Art collected, but never showed.

Murray: The misgivings were really the idea, primarily, of ghettoizing women, of separating them out.

So that was a very big issue for me.

And I don't feel that I have resolved it inside myself.

I still don't know if it's the right thing to do.

But I still just went ahead and did it anyway.

Streep: 'I kept telling myself the show was not political or in any way a critique of the modern collection, but, of course, it is.

And maybe for me, doing the show was a way of looking at questions I've avoided.

I think the germination for the show was in the early '70s, when I was in consciousness-raising groups, and feminism, a word new to my vocabulary, was having a rebirth.'

♪♪ Man: Bob and Elizabeth have a farm up in Hebron that's a second home for them, a vacation spot.

They would spend months up there.

She converted one of the barns into a studio.

Murray: Well, this is my painting wall right here.

My rolling ladder.

My paint table.

Pigeon poop all over the floor.

Odie.

You like it back here, don't you?

Yeah, nice and smelly.

You know, the whole school vacation, we would be up here.

It was wonderful.

And the kids just had a wonderful time here.

Holman Ellsberg: It was one of the few times where we really were kind of, like, handed off.

She was like, 'Pff,' and we were like, 'Pff.'

Murray Holman: She would be in the barn working all day long and would come in for lunch or would go to the garden, but we would be just, like, running around, doing whatever we wanted to do.

And that was what our -- Those were our summers.

Girl: Stick your butt at me, Tiger.

Murray Holman: She was in the barn with, like, the swallows and the cats, and all of this is going on around her, and she's just, like, peacefully painting.

Holman Ellsberg: It was definitely like a sanctuary for her.

Woman: Do you get inspired by the colors out here?

Murray: Yeah.

It's so beautiful.

I get inspired by the spaces, by the colors, by the shapes of the vegetation and the trees and the houses.

DeFrank: She knew that land like the back of her hand.

Lewis H.: Yeah. It always sort of seemed to me like one of Elizabeth's paintings.

You know, the pond is kind of heart-shaped.

DeFrank: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely.

Lewis H.: I don't know. It sort of reminds me of her canvases.

DeFrank: It's like the farm, the house, the land -- You could see Elizabeth's thinking, you know?

And, like, shaping it.

It's like I'm sure that's how she thinks about her paintings.

♪♪ Streep: 'Still obsessing about whether to stay with Paula.

One part of me says, 'Leave before it's too late.'

Another part is in this frozen zone, and I can't move.

I am very aware that my fear about money could be unfounded.

It is so much about my past.

How much does money interfere with me artistically?

I think not at all.

I wish I could paint so people would love and buy every one.'

Tworkov: I think Elizabeth went to Pace because she was very, very ambitious.

She wanted to be with the big guys.

♪♪ Murray: I never realized until I did go to Pace how lucky I was to have Paula for my first dealer.

I absolutely loved Paula, and I was very aware of what a good job she'd done for me.

And it was just plain itchy feet.

I felt bad the minute I said I was leaving the gallery.

You know, because I was so close to her.

Tworkov: But it wasn't just leaving one gallery and going to another gallery.

The whole thing around Paula, the whole kind of family around that gallery -- They were all so completely involved with each other's lives.

So it was huge.

Murray: I think one of the reasons I could go to Pace was because Douglas had worked with Paula for years.

He does things a lot like Paula.

I missed Paula enormously, even though I knew Douglas really well.

And I left into a wonderful situation.

He's a wonderful person who's easy for me to work with.

I think it was good for me.

Baxter: Her character is both simultaneously very sweet-natured and tough as nails.

♪♪ ♪♪ Streep: 'There was a dream.

Bob and I are in a loft out back.

It's night.

Huge explosions.

I know it is a nuclear attack.

And I see two buildings explode in slow motion and crumble, and then I see wind blowing bricks and debris towards us.

So we dive to get under something.

And I realize we are dying.

We will die in each other's arms.

I am not afraid.'

Holman: You know, it was through these windows that I saw the World Trade Towers go down.

Murray: The whole neighborhood all of a sudden became a war zone.

[ Siren wailing ] You felt these souls.

That was what I felt -- that these souls were all around us.

It was an amazing, amazing feeling.

It was so deep and intense.

Something I don't think I'll ever get over.

♪♪ ♪♪ Streep: 'Still can't believe I have it, but I do.

At first, I was thinking I would finally understand the meaning of it all.

Mornings can be hard.

I shouldn't be drinking coffee, or wine in the evening.

But I am.

And then I think, 'I hope I get away with this.'' ♪♪ Ford: We were in a taxi going up to Sloan Kettering for radiation, I guess.

I was holding her hand. We were sitting in the back.

And she said, 'Uh, I never thought this would happen to me.'

And I said, 'Well, Elizabeth, you know, it's not just gonna happen to you.

It's gonna happen to all of us eventually.'

I said, 'You're just the first one.'

So she looked at me, and she said, 'Yeah, I'm the leader of the pack.'

♪♪ ♪♪ Murray: There you are.

[ Indistinct conversations ] Lowry: Elizabeth actually became ill during the process of the show's sort of organization, which just added an urgency to get the show done, and done well, so that she could enjoy it.

Man: This retrospective basically should be a description of all of the things that could have been done by other painters, but weren't.

She's been looked at as an image painter, a color painter, but she has not been looked at as one of the great formalists of her time, and she is.

Lewis: There are not a lot of retrospectives of living female artists.

So it did gain even more attention.

Glimcher: It's an amazing thing to have a feeling for so many years that this artist deserves the accolades that the art world can bestow upon an artist and withheld them.

And then you see this incredible outpouring of bodies of new people recognizing the achievement.

Holman: Opening night was the rampant knockout of -- you know, of Elizabeth's work.

Murray: If it could last forever, it would be great!

♪♪ Sunseri: It was one of the proudest moments I guess I've had in my lifetime.

Holman: Walking through the show was like walking through her life.

Holman Ellsberg: I remembered things that I hadn't remembered previously.

♪♪ Murray Holman: Moments that were deeply connected to these paintings, or just feelings or just times that I hadn't thought about.

Close: It was like watching a chef reduce his stock.

It maintained its flavor.

It maintained its ingredients.

But it just got stronger and stronger as it went along, and celebratory.

It was really a celebration.

Really a celebration.

♪♪ Lowry: The retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was a wonderful summation of her career until that point.

The tragedy for Elizabeth is that just at that moment when she was getting the kind of recognition that she was due was the very moment when she became so ill, and, in a way, couldn't build on what had been achieved.

♪♪ ♪♪ Man: The people who know what they're facing and just keep working and who mourn the things that need to be mourned, but keep moving anyway, and who retain their three-dimensional selves, rather than allow themselves to be constricted by illness, are very remarkable people.

♪♪ Murray: Would you put a little more... ♪♪ Thank you.

Close: You have to figure out your own reason to go into the studio.

It's so life-affirming.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The hours that you work fly by, and the rest of your life is so difficult.

And it's salvation.

Work is salvation.

♪♪ ♪♪ Man: It would have been great to have more action in Europe, but she understood the political situation.

Woman: The Venice Biennial is one of the most significant experiences that you can have on an international stage for any artist.

Holman: She's in the Biennale.

You go to Venice.

End of story.

♪♪ [ Conversing in Italian ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Woman: [ Shouting in Italian ] Holman: It was the furthest thing from our minds that... ...that Elizabeth would die soon.

♪♪ Elizabeth was happy, and she was ruling, and she was very much in her element over there.

♪♪ ♪♪ Streep: 'Is there an afterlife after life?

What will happen to me?

I cannot imagine not being here.'

♪♪ Holman: We were up there when she died, which was, I know, where she wanted to be.

♪♪ Murray: It sounds naive, but it's true.

I never, in the world, occurred to me that I could make a success of it.

Honestly, I just feel lucky.

♪♪ ♪♪ Man: Elizabeth Murray!

Colors spill all over her canvases!

Yeah, sure, the canvases are created by the colors.

Splashing, spilling, they collect into the shapes.

Let's dive into an Elizabeth Murray painting.

Come on, come on. Dive in a cup.

You dive first. Okay, okay!

I'll jump first, dive headfirst in a swirl whirlpool.

I dive, you paddle.

Praise, praise, praise, praise, which humbly means, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you to you, Elizabeth Murray!'

♪♪ Monk: This is Elizabeth dancing, wherever she is.

[ Mouth harp plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪