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Huge, colorful canvases that resist decorative interpretation. Elizabeth Murray's 10-year exhibition establishes her as impressive painter

THERE'S no getting around it: Elizabeth Murray is an impressive painter, and a good one. Her current 10-year exhibition at the Whitney Museum here is convincing proof of that. Its 28 large-scale, colorful paintings and 20 drawings, all executed since 1976, substantiate her reputation as one of America's more interesting artists at mid-career. And, just as important, her range of interests and rate of growth indicate that she will undoubtedly provide the viewing public with many more excellent exhibitions in the years to come. She is not, however, a particularly ``easy'' or accommodating painter. Her huge, generally irregularly shaped canvases at first glance appear abstract, but they actually represent such things as tables, cups, biomorphic shapes, chairs, palettes, and punctuation marks. They dominate their spaces in a manner that both brooks no interference and denies them any purely decorative interpretations.

For all their brilliantly hued, attractively designed fa,cades, these are tough and aggressive works meant to be taken seriously - and indeed they are, as anyone who has followed her career is well aware.

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Above all, she is a consummate professional, an artist who knows, from preliminary study to finished composition, how best to utilize her most effective balance of logic, sensibility, and intuition. What she produces, as a result, consistently reflects her open-ended, probing approach to creating art. As Roberta Smith writes in her essay in the exhibition catalog, ``Elizabeth Murray's art has always been in motion and about motion. This sums up both the restless nature of her developments and the belief at the center of her work: that a painting is essentially an event, an animation of form that sets the viewer's thoughts and feelings in motion.''

Not surprisingly then, one often gets the impression that her most successful paintings have only just discovered their best and most ``inevitable'' set of formal and thematic relationships, and that they are, at the moment of viewing, finally ``falling into place.''

This is especially true of her many multi-sectioned canvases that consist of from two to nine separate units combined into one sprawling or interlocking, irregularly shaped form. In these, the sense of spatial and compositional tension, of dynamic creative process, is particularly strong, leaving the viewer with the distinct feeling that he or she can somehow actually help ``finalize'' the work.

Her large pastel drawings, on the other hand, while no less complex, project an aura of greater informality and warmth. Here also, the majority are composites fashioned by joining together several separate pieces.

At the Whitney Museum through June 26. ``Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings'' was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the committee on the visual arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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