A Large-Scale Homage

Robert Murray: Sculpture by Jonathan D. Lippincott (Design Books, $65.)

Robert Murray says that after he arrived in New York as a young man in 1960, “I forgot to go home.” It’s a good thing he didn’t return to his native Saskatoon, for he would likely not have begun to produce the sculptures for which he is now forever known. He and his then-wife had come to the city after he had secured a grant from the Canada Council, and the young couple was immediately swept up in the whirlwind of the New York art world. “I met so many well-known artists thanks to Barney [Newman] and John [Ferren] and Will [Barnett] that I finally said to my wife one day, I better roll up my sleeves and get to work, these people think I’m a real sculptor,” Murray recalls in this newly published monograph, Robert Murray: Sculpture, written by Jonathan Lippincott, the noted New York-based book designer and independent art curator.

These remarks are exactly the kind of detail that makes Lippincott’s book so engaging and entertaining—and distinct from so many other artists’ monographs. For the first time, we now have not only a visual and written record of Murray’s sculptures, many of which remain in place in public settings and museum collections, but also an introduction to him as a person outside of his art.

Lippincott spent some five years documenting all of the sculptures (and paintings) by Murray, still active in his 80s, though living now in rural Pennsylvania. Lippincott’s first book, Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s (Princeton Architectural Press), is a moving homage to the work of his father, Donald Lippincott, who founded Lippincott, Inc., the premier fabricator of monumental sculptures. Murray was one of the elder Lippincott’s first clients, fabricating some 60 works at the Connecticut operation. So, it made sense that Jonathan Lippincott would follow up with this thorough examination of the artist’s works.

Like the best biographers, Lippincott stays in the background as he engages with Murray in a lengthy Q&A in the book; he lets Murray talk about his life and, in so doing, reveal a sense of humor and joie de vivre that makes the resulting sculptures all the more appealing. While Murray cites the artistic friendships and collaborations and acquaintances that have characterized his career, noting some of the biggest names of the era, such as David Smith, Clement Greenberg, and Barnett Newman, he also references some unexpected names. While trying to unload one of his massive sculptures that gets stuck in an elevator cab, the young Murray would up offending Lena Horne, who had to wait a long time for the elevator to reach her on an upper floor. At Max’s Kansas City, the famous New York club, Murray is served by a young waitress named Deborah Harry and at another popular hangout of the era, he watches Janis Joplin “throw back a shot of whiskey with the best of them.” That Murray so readily relates these fun and seemingly innocuous but revealing details, indicates Lippincott’s ability to befriend his subject and make him feel at home in this book.

Apart from the Q&A, Lippincott has written a breezy, accessible text that serves as a kind of professional and philosophical biography of Murray. The reader learns, for instance, that Murray’s names for his large-scale steel and aluminum sculptures derive from Native American places (towns, cities, rivers, mountains), and that the artist’s fixation with color is due to his confession that “perhaps because I began as a painter rather than a sculptor, I still tend to think of my sculpture, not as three-dimensional paintings, but as three-dimensional color.”

Lippincott has kept his book as pure and free of art jargon as Murray’s sculptures are minimalist, powerful expressions of form and material. This book stands as firmly in place as one of Murray’s large-scale creations.