Robert Murray, Chilkat

Robert Murray, Chilkat, 1977. Painted aluminum, 51 × 61 × 81 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Anonymous Gifts, 1978 (1978.83). Photo by Dror Balinger.

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Valerie Fletcher: Robert Murray was born in British Columbia, Canada and came to New York in 1960. The timing of his arrival coincided with the emergence of constructed steel sculptures being done by a number of young sculptors. One of the most notable was the British sculptor, Anthony Caro. This generation of younger artists was building on the innovations of David Smith and other sculptors who had constructed abstract works using sheet metal. David Smith for example had gone to a factory and he was famous in one instance for making 27 or 28 sculptures in less than 30 days working with spontaneity and speed with assistants cutting and welding pieces as he indicated. Murray was in that mode and he liked the industrial aspect of it. He liked to work with heavy sheet steel.

He started out making very simple geometric compositions but by the 1970s, he was recognizing that such austere geometry really was not of the kind of visual appeal that many viewers responded to. And so he made more complex spatial compositions and in this one entitled Chilkat from 1977, he made a form that started out as a flat piece of aluminum, curved it around an industrial roller. And working with technical assistance at the Lippincott Factory, he added vitality to the forms by crunching and folding the edges. In this regard, he recognized that the aluminum itself, though heavy, acquired a sense of vitality by being crumpled and variegated in its forms and its rhythms.

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Robert Murray, Chilkat, 1977.

Canadian, born 1936

During the summers in the 1950s and ‘60s Robert Murray studied at the Artists’ Workshop in Emma Lake, a magnet for abstract artists. 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, arriving at the height of formalism, where he made his first large, painted steel sculpture. Driven by critic Clement Greenberg (1909–1994) and ascending to dominance in the art world, formalism argued that the value of art lies in form rather than content. In this environment, Murray found a ready audience for his new works.

Murray initiates his creative process by making a small model from cardboard or thin aluminum sheets, which he bends, folds, and cuts, without preliminary drawings. According to the artist, “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 Lippincott foundry in North Haven, Connecticut, to produce the full-size work. The sculpture is not merely an enlargement of the maquette; the artist makes adjustments as needed during fabrication.

Murray’s earliest sheet-metal sculptures were upright columnar configurations that were 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; he even starts with a flat sheet of metal and uses an industrial roller to create a curve. In 1974 Murray’s sculptures became more freely formed than before, with “crunches” and folded edges, almost like paper. This seemingly casual method of working with the material may owe a debt to the aesthetics and practice of Anthony Caro (1924–2013), whose sculptures had opened up a new spontaneity in metal sculpture in the 1960s.

The term “Chilkat” refers to the northwestern region of the aritsts’ native 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.

Robert Murray, Chilkat, 1977. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Robert Murray, Chilkat, 1977. Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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