Walter Murch Sought to “Paint the Air” Between His Eye and His Subject

Murch’s painted dust can be so tangible you feel compelled to wipe off the picture.

by Carl Little
Walter Tandy Murch: Paintings and Drawings, 1925–1967, Rizzoli 2021, text by Walter Scott Murch, Robert Storr, and Winslow Myers’ and Judy Collischan, foreword by George Lucas (image courtesy of Rizzoli)

On December 11, 1967, after giving a talk at a Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture fundraiser at the River Club in New York City, the 60-year-old Walter Tandy Murch suffered a heart attack and died. At the time, Murch stood at the height of his art fame: He had recently been awarded a Guggenheim and a major traveling show of his work was making its final stop at the Brooklyn Museum.

For the next 50-plus years, Murch’s family and friends sought to produce a monograph on his artwork. With the support of filmmaker George Lucas, who owns an ample collection of Murch’s work, Walter Tandy Murch: Paintings and Drawings, 1925-1967 has finally been realized as a large, handsome coffee-table book featuring generous essays on the enigmatic art by Lucas, the artist’s son Walter Scott Murch, and art historians Robert Storr, Winslow Myers, and Judy Collischan.

Murch’s particular genius lies in the ways in which he could paint something that appeared at once solid and dissolving. As he claimed, “I paint the air between my eye and the object.” In his detailed remembrance, Murch fils proposes that this metaphysical perspective may have been because his father had only one fully working eye after a football accident at age 12 left him partially blind.

Judy Collischan notes in her essay that Murch’s still lifes can be divided into three main groups, “machines, geometric volumes, and organic materials,” with all sometimes represented in the same canvas. In “Car Heater” (1967), for example, Murch sets the titular mechanism atop a rectangular block alongside a lemon, the whole set-up bathed in that luminous air he rendered so skillfully.

Walter Murch, “Car Heater,” (1957), oil on canvas 21 ½ by 16 ½ inches, (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh)

Even when the focus is sharpened, Murch’s still lifes maintain a sense of mystery. Take “Metronome” (1946): the triangular device for keeping tempo hovers an inch or so above a table like a prop in a de Chirico painting. The precise representation of texture and shadows is stunning and reflects the commissioned images of machines and scientific tools Murch made for such magazines as Fortune and Scientific American.

At times Murch’s still lifes bring to mind that famous line from the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1868-1869) that served as a foundational image for the Surrealists: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” The painting “Eggs with Objects” (c. 1960) assembles on a narrow shelf a round red tin can, a drinking glass filled with three eggs, a piano key, and a bottle partly filled with what might be turpentine. The seemingly random four-object line-up is both surreal and lovingly eclectic. As Robert Storr observes in his essay, “Murch’s trouvailles have some of that [Surrealist] quality of wonderment to them though not the imperious subtext.”

Murch liked stacking objects. Some of them, like the three bricks in “SSBC” (1961; the initials stand for Sutton and Sudderly Brick Company), conveyed stability. Others, like the gorgeous head of cabbage surmounted by a whiffle ball in “Red Cabbage” (1956), conjure balancing acts.

At times Murch suggested a kind of legerdemain. In “Spray Can” (c. 1955), a humble aerosol can with a lipstick-red button at top emits a line of mist without a finger to trigger it. Less than 10 years later, Roy Lichtenstein would take up this subject in his “Spray Can” paintings, which featured a woman’s manicured hand and brand markings in his trademark comic-strip style. If Lichtenstein’s image is a riff on consumerism, Murch’s is a magical realist tribute to form and function.

As noted in the book, some past commentators have related Murch’s work to American trompe-l’oeil artists like John Peto and William Harnett, but he wasn’t out to trick the eye except perhaps in those cases where the painted dust is so tangible you feel compelled to wipe off the picture. He liked to distress his surfaces, stepping on the canvases, putting out cigarettes in the paint, even letting pigeons do their business on pictures he set on the landing outside his window.

Murch’s aesthetic kinship to Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978), another master of atmospheric diffusion, is made in passing. Dickinson’s “Cliff X” series, 1926, shows a similar loving attention to the texture of stone while his passion for glacial erratics, painted in the early ‘40s, matches Murch’s attraction to various chunks of rock, including a meteor and a moon rock.

Murch also did his share of dead creatures, a time-honored nature morte subject. “Dog’s Head,” 1947, “The Smoked Whitefish,” 1948, “Cooked Eel,” 1953, and “Cylinder and Pigeon,” 1961-62, are stunning in their verisimilitude. His studies anticipate those of Bruce Kurland (1938-2013), that master of macabre still lifes.   

The texts accompanying the artwork include the aforementioned Walter Scott Murch’s intimate biographical sketch of his Canadian-born father. He recounts how he and his father while on vacation in New Hampshire would “gently” break into abandoned farmhouses to peel off old wallpaper, which Murch would use as “fragile canvases” for his drawings.

We also learn from the younger Murch that early on, when his father asked his friend Joseph Cornell what he should paint, the collagist replied, “For God’s sake, Walter, paint anything,” and handed him an antique bilboquet, a children’s “cup-and-ball” toy. Murch heeded the call and soon after painted “Still Life with Bilboquet” (1938), a stunning study of the curio lying on its side amid a tangle of strings and black beads.

Winslow Myers, a student of Murch’s at Boston University in the mid-1960s, highlights various influences on his teacher, including his mentor, Arshile Gorky, and writers Aldous Huxley and Albert Camus. He shares a quote from Murch’s dealer Betty Parsons that underscores the artist’s self-confidence: “[Murch] wasn’t in pursuit of anything. He thought he had it inside himself.”

In his enthusiastic foreword, George Lucas claims, “I’m not an art critic, and I sure don’t want to sound like one.” Still, the Star Wars creator makes some worthy observations. “In an age where people are obsessed with sleek products,“ he writes, “it’s important to point out that Murch was not trying to capture the design of the object. He wanted to capture the character of the object.” In Walter Tandy Murch: Paintings and Drawings, 1925-1967, character is king.

Walter Tandy Murch: Paintings and Drawings, 1925-1967 is published by Rizzoli and is available on Bookshop and at independent bookstores.

Carl Little

Carl Little’s most recent book is Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Closer to Nature (Pomegranate). He helped produce the film Jon Imber’s Left Hand, which premieres at the Maine Jewish Film… More by Carl Little

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