Essay by Valerie Fletcher

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Robert Murray studied during the summers at the Artists’ Workshop in Emma Lake, which was a magnet for abstract artists in the 1950s and 1960s. There he had a remarkable series of instructors, including sculptor Will Barnet, painter Barnett Newman, painter-sculptor John Ferren, and the powerful formalist critic Clement Greenberg.

Although he started as a painter and printmaker, Murray made his first sculptures during his stay at the innovative Instituto Allende in San Miguel, Mexico, in 1958–59. In 1960 he moved to New York, where he made his first large, painted steel sculpture. Arriving as he did when the era of Greenbergian formalism was ascending to dominance in the art world, Murray found a ready audience for his new works. In 1967, before he turned thirty, Murray had a solo show at the Jewish Museum in New York. Two years later he was one of the artists chosen for the São Paolo Biennial X in Brazil, where he won second prize. His successes continued through the 1970s, and he was honored in a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1999.

Murray’s earliest sheet-metal sculptures were upright columnar configurations, made by cutting and bending steel plate, usually in strict verticals, horizontals, and right angles or half-right angles and corners. He does not use prefabricated shapes. Even when he later incorporated rounded forms into his compositions, he started with a flat sheet of metal and used an industrial roller to create the curve.

From the outset, Murray had an industrial approach, preferring to work more in factory settings like steel- and ironworks; since 1966 he has worked almost exclusively at the Lippincott Company in North Haven, Connecticut.

Chilkat, 1977

Murray starts by making a small model from cardboard or thin aluminum sheets, which he bends, folds, and cuts with scissors, without preliminary drawings. “I can do a great many of them almost as easily as a drawing. In fact, they are really three-dimensional drawings.” Murray then works with the professional fabricators at Lippincott to produce the full-size work. The sculpture is not merely an enlargement of the maquette; the artist makes changes as needed during fabrication.

In 1974 Murray’s sculptures became more freely formed than before, with “crunches” and folded edges, almost like paper. This seeming ease of working with the material may owe a debt to the aesthetics and practice of Anthony Caro, whose sculptures had opened up a new spontaneity in metal sculpture in the 1960s.

Like many other sculptors who favored industrial methods (notably Mark di Suvero), Murray has his works spray-painted at the factory using commercial-grade paint. The result is a pristine impersonal uniformity of color, in this case a brilliant red.

The term “Chilkat” refers to a region in northwestern British Columbia, Canada. The Chilkat River flows fifty-three miles from the Chilkat Glacier to the Chilkat Inlet. The area was named for the indigenous inhabitants, a subgroup of the Tlingit people, who are renowned for their carvings and weavings.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.