Film Review: Everybody Knows... Elizabeth Murray and The 100 Years Show

Two engaging documentaries about women painters (one known, the other lesser known, respectively) who forged their own paths.
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Success in the art world is elusive at best, its definition amorphous. Clearly, few make a living at it, let alone become household names. Indeed, to achieve a level of recognition even within a small circle of fellow artists is rare. No one disputes its treacherous terrain given the art world’s notorious trendiness (when Abstract Expressionists were in, objective painters were out) and cult of personality. Think Julian Schnabel or Keith Haring. Ethnic/racial/gender identity politics play their role, with sexism heading the list.

At least that’s a central theme in two new fascinating documentaries—Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray and The 100 Years Show—each exploring respectively the lives of distaff artists, Elizabeth Murray and Carmen Herrera.

Murray, who died in 2007 at 66, was known in the art world boasting 60 solo exhibitions following her New York City debut at the 1972 annual exhibition “Contemporary American Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She participated in six other Whitney Biennial exhibitions and her work—identified with colorful non-objective shapes and forms evoking cartoons, graffiti and other Pop Art expressions—can be found in more than 40 public collections in the United States. Still, she faced various obstacles because she was a woman and arguably would have been further ahead sooner, making larger sums of money, had she been a man. None of this is leaned on, but it’s the 60-minute film’s subtext.

Same for the 30-minute documentary about 102-year-old Herrera, who was not “discovered” until she was well into her 90s and finally rewarded with exhibits at the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, among dozens of other international venues. The New York Times described her work—best known for its two-colored, hard-edged geometric aesthetic—as “ravishing,” while The Wall Street Journal dubbed it “exhilarating.”

Earlier on in her career, she was largely ignored and ultimately told by a high-profile Manhattan dealer (a woman herself) that she could not exhibit Herrera because she (Herrera) was a woman. No further explanation was offered. At the same time, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly were gaining international reputations for their work reflecting a similar aesthetic. Today, some critics say Herrera predated and anticipated the whole minimalist art movement.

Despite the disappointments, Herrera continued working. Still, a late-in-life success (selling her first painting in 2004) is an anomaly and I wish filmmaker Alison Klayman had at least considered ageism in the art world, especially as it impacts artists who have spent a lifetime making art without external validation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the longer you’re at it—and unacknowledged—the harder it is to garner credibility. The unvoiced thinking seems to be if you were any good, you would have been recognized by now. Since you haven’t, you’re probably not that good. So, why bother looking, really looking? Herrera was no Grandma Moses, who put brush to canvas for the first time at 78 and thus ironically enough a more likely candidate—certainly more likely than Herrera—to at least arouse curiosity and thereby justify the limelight as a newcomer.

If the Cuban-born Herrera was ever was bitter—and that’s hard to gauge—there’s no evidence of it. Quietly tough with a private, wry sense of humor. Herrera seems satisfied, indeed pleased to still be working (she puts in several hours of painting each day) and gratified—perhaps startled and even mildly amused—to have finally come into her own.

Her major regret is the death of her longtime, adoring husband Jesse Lowenthal, a high-school teacher who supported her work (emotionally and financially) over a lifetime, but tragically did not live to see her success. The viewer also learns—through interviews with friends, assistants and gallery owners—that Herrera is precise in what she wants, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and looks forward to her daily glass of scotch at lunch. She’s had her rugged patches. Still, it’s been a life well lived.

Likewise for Elizabeth Murray, though her story and the film’s narrative—oftentimes focusing on the challenges of juggling family life with the demands of an exacting career—have the ring of familiarity. After a brief early marriage, Murray struggled as a single mom before remarrying, having two more kids, and then helping to support them with various teaching gigs across the country.

Still, there’s nothing commonplace about her journey from growing up in abject poverty in the Midwest to an internationally acclaimed career as a wholly original artist who stuck to her vision—doing large-scale works when smaller pieces was the trend—and beating the odds for her efforts, not least walking off with a MacArthur “genius” award.

A remarkably gentle, sweet and soft-spoken woman, she was terminally ill with lung cancer at the time of the filming, bald and physically ravaged. But true to form, Murray allowed herself to be shot as an affirmation of life and a celebration of her own good fortune that seemed unlikely to her, especially in retrospect. Though clearly weakened by disease and radiation treatment, Murray is nonetheless in her studio working away. Indeed, the title of the film comes from her final piece, Everybody Knows, that some interviewees suggest may also allude to all those who knew she was dying. It’s an ambivalent and evocative title.

The film incorporates interviews with various players in the art world—Paula Cooper, Joel Shapiro, Roberta Smith—commenting on Murray’s contribution and Meryl Streep reading from Murray’s diaries. It’s mercifully a distraction-free voiceover.

Marking her debut as a documentary filmmaker, Kristi Zea—an Oscar-nominated production designer—forges a vivid portrait of a unique talent and personality. She also brings to life the art world with its dealers, gallery owners and pundits all jockeying for position and status.

But it’s Murray’s own recollections that are the most compelling. As a child, she and her parents fled hotels in the middle of the night to avoid paying the bills. Later at the Chicago Art Institute, she arrived dressed in a coordinated outfit, quickly becoming an amusing outlier to her classmates who were clad in jeans, fringes and boots. Murray learned to adapt quickly. But perhaps her most troubling memory is the guilt she felt when she left her long-term, loyal art dealer in order to make the next move in her career. It’s a lucky—albeit difficult—conflict for an artist to have.

Murray died the way she lived; one can easily imagine she wanted to end her days in her wonderful old farmhouse in upstate New York surrounded by sprawling hills and greenery on all sides. It is nature and freedom. Bob Holman, her devoted husband, poetry activist and spoken-word artist, recounts the end.

No one can fully plan one’s life, as so many outside factors play a defining part. Yet within parameters Herrera and Murray did it their way. To use a well-worn description, both women—and the films that tell their stories—are indeed inspiring.

Click here for cast and crew information.