For Jesse Murry (1948–1993), painting was a matter of life and death. Following a career as a critic, poet, and professor of art history, Murry entered the MFA program at Yale in 1984, shortly before receiving a positive HIV diagnosis. The ensuing flurry of visual production resulted in breathtaking abstract landscapes exploring consciousness and mortality. Seven canvases made in the last five years of Murry’s life are on view in Rising at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery.
Murry’s paintings are a sublime example of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1927 concept of “being-toward-death,” the idea that true acceptance of one’s inevitable death results in the liberating ability to fully experience life. Murry seized on abstract painting as a means of conveying his experience as an HIV positive gay Black man determined to map the strange terrain of a consciousness grappling with its own impending expiration.
Three works comprise Rising’s centerpiece: Abyss (Radical Solitude), Rising, and Untitled (Rising and Abyss Study) (all 1992).What surfaces immediately is the sheer thickness of his canvases, layered and luminescent in his portrayals of what could be stormy skies and murky swamplands mapping the artist’s inner turmoil. Abyss is a brooding blue and brown swamp where shatters of bright magenta break through like sudden insights. Rising, a soft pink square, offers a moment of clarity, a band of light rimming what looks like cloud coverage over a desert landscape. With no a human presence in Murry’s landscapes, the emphasis lands squarely on his psychological negotiation of the deterioration of his own body.
Within these three paintings, we get both ends of Murry’s spectrum, akin to the split visual field. The horizon line features prominently in all his paintings, bisecting the landscapes as both a point of departure and reconciliation. Rather than grounding, the horizon marks a state of dislocated tension between rising and falling, the liminal space from which Murry painted.
The theme of duality runs throughout Murry’s work. Deluge – After Turner (c. 1990–1991) is a clear homage to JMW Turner’s famous nautical scene of Slavers, Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840), an expressionist whorl of abolitionist fervor. Murry’s piece, which shares a pallet of intense reds, yellows, and browns, exhibits a similar raw fury, but it’s a rage tempered by another work. The largest painting on view, the four-foot square Untitled (1991), awash with hues of blue and green against an umber background, feels like the antidote to Deluge, cool where the other is fiery, smooth where the other is choppy. Relentless, Deluge can move you to tears; Untitled, almost perfectly split between ground and sky, offers balanced contemplation.
The exhibition also includes two special projects related to Aphorisms (1993), a poem Murry penned on his deathbed after he lost the ability to speak. The first is a broadside of Aphorisms, letterpressed by Portland-based printmaker Rory Sparks. The second is a video piece, directed by co-curator and fellow painter Lisa Yuskavage, in which friends of Murry’s read the poem aloud in a eulogical chorus. For an artist who bestowed unwavering value on the relationship between words and art, the poem reads like a keynote for the exhibition.
In Aphorisms, Murry writes of the experience of “being in two places at once — the rupture of the body in the heart of hell” and “the rapture of the soul at the heights of heaven.” Death is not Murry’s driving creative force, but rather the dichotomy of life in the face of death through his brave embodiment of “being-toward-death.” His mastery is in his ability to convey that experience through his medium. If, as Yuskavage once said, “art is a bit of a séance,” then looking at the paintings in Rising is holy communion.