Stan Murphy was renowned as a premiere and well-respected Island artist. The current exhibition at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is an overview of his life and art, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
He was an enigma to me when I first saw his work and met him after I moved to West Tisbury in the early 1980s. His gallery was in a field in Chilmark, open every other year, run by his wife, Polly, and other family members. It was a spartan place filled with the most unexpected paintings in a style and palette more reminiscent of the Renaissance or the Dutch and Spanish Golden Age painters he admired than of anything else being shown on the Island — or in most contemporary galleries anywhere.
Murphy painted the Island as he lived it. He moved here in 1948, and painted until his death in 2003. His Island was the home of working men and women, of farm animals, of rock walls and open fields, of working harbors and the sea beyond. The portraits exhibited here are of his wife and children, of dear friends, of men he worked alongside, or at least within some proximity, their faces and gestures familiar through long observation. His landscapes, too, reflect careful study over time.
From the beginning of his life on the Island, Murphy involved himself in its community and governance. He was a longtime member of the West Tisbury fire department, and served on several committees in town. The Dukes County Historical Society, the entity that became the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, was of particular interest. During the 1970s and ’80s, he was a member of the governing council, as well as a regular volunteer, performing many of the more mundane, but still necessary, clerical jobs in those pre-computer days. “More than any other artist, he is a part of us, of this museum,” commented Anna Barber, curator of exhibitions.
His four children — Chris, Laura, Kitty, and David — have all been deeply involved with the museum and with this show. They loaned many of the paintings, preliminary drawings, and studio ephemera from their own homes, as well as adding their stories to the history of the work. The Murphy family had already donated a sizable trove of material to the museum’s permanent archives. Friends and collectors loaned paintings. There was the work of a long career to choose from.
I had the good fortune to run into Anna Barber and her assistant Kate Logue on one of my visits. It was quiet at the museum, giving us time to reminisce about Stan, and for them to answer some of my questions about how they organized the diverse material of many years and in different media into a cohesive presentation. Barber considered the paintings she chose to hang in the hallway “a mini-journey through his decades as a self-taught artist.” That’s where we begin.
The first painting you will see is a large landscape, “Winter Field, West Tisbury, 1967,” hanging above the stairwell. It depicts a familiar scene of a field bounded by a stone wall, empty except for dead and faded grasses, a smattering of dark cedar trees, a cold winter sky overhead. Much of up-Island is still like that on a January day. Looking at Stan’s paintings allows us the illusion that the Island has remained timeless, and in some ways it has.
Turning into the hall, there is a full portrait of Murphy’s eldest son, Chris, proudly holding a black duck in one arm, his shotgun resting in the other. It was painted around 1960. To its right is a preliminary drawing showing the grid he laid down first, a device for figuring things out. If you look closely, the grid often disappears beneath layers of drawing, then is redrawn in places where it had been obscured.
Similarly, the study beside the next painting, a portrait of Claire Duys, sketches the artist’s intended composition laid out on a tight grid. Mrs. Duys, seated on a chair that almost disappears into the dark background, looks straight out at the viewer. The painting is a composition of analogous rich darks broken only by a bit of light catching her white hair and the collar of her shirt.
At the end of the hallway is a large, rather allegorical painting, “Biography of Ernest Mayhew,” painted in 1958. This is such an interesting painting, full of allusions to parts of the subject’s very rich life. It also contains many of the images that Murphy uses over and over in subsequent paintings: an owl, prominently overlooking the scene; a large fish, open-mouthed, swallowing a lobster trap; a school of fish swimming across the body of an indistinct female figure, an exuberant nude figure with her arms raised; a woman sitting in a field of flowers, holding a red heart. The gentleman himself, Ernest Mayhew, continues his work, unaffected by the maelstrom of activity surrounding him.
On the opposite wall is a small self-portrait painted in 1984. Murphy often painted himself; he was there, after all.
Two small galleries off the hallway display material to be savored. In one, you will find Murphy’s painting of Chip Chop and maquettes of his murals for the Tisbury Town Hall. In the other is a collection of drawings, most from his childhood or his war years. Note his fine draftsmanship, even at an early age, and remember that he was self-taught.
The large gallery holds mostly portraits. The first is of Pat Hough, father of Henry Beetle Hough. It is a small painting dated June 1948, soon after the Murphys moved to the Island, and clearly shows the artist’s interest in the character and demeanor of the sitter. Anna Barber referred to “the landscape of a person’s face and hands” in his portraits. Murphy gave much attention to those most expressive parts of the body. You can see the care he takes, the thin layers of paint, one over another, describing planes and shadows.
My favorite painting is “The Murphy Family, 1958.” It is the oddest painting, more modern-looking than most, loosely painted. Polly, looking very bohemian, reclines with her four children arranged around her on a swooping orange wedge that cuts across the surface and looks ready to fall off the bottom until Laura, braced by the edge of the painting, stops its trajectory. Only Chris leaning across the back, and the dog and cat, look safe on solid ground. Then you realize the orange shape is an undefined sofa. All the figures are drawn in black and white. It’s weird and wonderful all together.
I won’t describe every piece in the show. You will see for yourself. I’m afraid I am writing for someone who is familiar with Murphy’s work, who will recognize many of the people and places, who will revel in the pleasure of revisiting old friends.
Make sure you look through the two sketchbooks set out for our perusal. Turn the pages carefully. They are, to me, the treasures of this exhibition. Murphy is a gifted draftsman and writer, and how often is anyone privy to an artist’s process and thoughts? “grass slightly darker than sound,” he writes on a sketch of Little Sandy. On the evening of Jan. 3, 1980, the ”sand is soft, dk. lavender” at the Chilmark Pond opening, the sky “soft pink grading up to yel. green + gray.” He drew Murphy’s Pond, his view from his home and studio on Middle Road, looking west on the evening of Jan. 6, 1980, noting “grass through snow” and reminding himself to paint “soft edges.”
Kudos to chief curator Bonnie Stacy for the exhibition, and for the excellent catalogue that accompanies it.
After seeing this show, you will understand why I found Stan Murphy to be an enigma. He could do anything. He could paint himself as a medieval monk poring over his illuminations, or as the contemporary painter he was, paint-splattered trousers and all. His exhibitions at his Chilmark gallery were always a surprise that took us along whatever path struck his fancy that past year or so. Crashing waves or Donald Poole in May, the latter inscribed across the top as though it was a formal Renaissance portrait. Blue hands in the corner of a painting, raised in the ASL sign for “work.”
I remember conversations about museum shows he had seen, or books he was reading about modern abstract painters. He was knowledgeable and appreciative of what they did, all the while pursuing his own vision in carefully rendered and polished surfaces. “I can’t imagine a better life,” he said of his life on the Vineyard. And so it was.
“Stan Murphy at 100,” M.V. Museum, through August 21. Visit mvmuseum.org.