Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on August 2, 2010 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:
Bill Murphy: Greatness Assimilated
by Brett Busang
Printmakers deserve better. By and large, their work is no more or less valued than Star Wars memorabilia. (And it's just about as cheap, if somewhat harder to find.) Only the most fastidious collector will insist on an early edition or number. Being democratic above all else, printmakers don't really give a damn about whether a collector owns 6/150 or the last of the run. They are working artists for whom a check represents an opportunity to run out and make other images. Most have other jobs, work obsessively at their plates and drawing boards, and exhibit, mostly, with other printmakers.
I would like to take the opportunity to introduce you to one of them -- though I may underestimate Bill's local reputation, which needn't stand on such ceremony. Perhaps no introduction is needed. Bill Murphy is an artist whose steady, if fulsome, growth I have watched over the past fifteen years and I'm proud to have been able to look over his shoulder.
I met him at a gallery neither of us frequented: a co-op that was housed in the sort of roasting-in-the-summer loft people were so crazy to live in twenty years ago. It had a glut of forgettable artists -- a measure of honorable intentions. Yet neither of us wanted to leave the area without seeing something, however mediocre, so we went in together. The gallery was reached by a tortuous flight of stairs and had obviously been without visitors for a while. I don't remember the exhibit at all. (Some co-op artists, then as now, deserve better too. The innovative Stanley Lewis comes to mind.) It is a pity that the best of these are cut off from commercial galleries that often promote lesser, but more saleable, talents. I think that's another reason why both of us hung in there. We identified with the people who were exhibiting in this gallery and other places like it - even if we were working feverishly to avoid their fate.
After taking a respectfully solitary tour of the exhibit, we retired to a coffee-shop where we started to compare thoughts. I was delighted (and relieved) to find another artist who didn't necessarily swoon at the mention of the smallish talents who were enjoying largish reputations; intrigued by an independent-mindedness that only insisted on its right to "be"; cheerfully provoked by a resistance to some of my own half-baked notions about the world around whose peripheries both of us had little choice but to move. I learned that Bill was from Staten Island -- a place I identified with firemen and sanitation workers. He talked like a guy who might've strayed into business or real estate: a down-to-earth sort of guy whose more rarefied interests were tempered by a love of baseball that surpasses my own. To this day, he never fails to mention, in our emails, how the Mets are doing.
Staten Island is an irresistible place to walk. Bill's mentor, John Noble*, walked around the place like mad and knew it better than anybody. His lithographs of the old waterfront life, with its moody infrastructure and proudly decaying tankers are among the most underrated bodies of work in the twentieth century. I would urge anyone for whom the genuinely romantic is not a despicable notion to look for the work of John Noble. His elegies to the world of "steam and sail" are poetic documents of a time that has -even on the Island itself - vanished completely. Nor are they particularly expensive.
Like Noble, Bill has never seen any reason to leave Staten Island. He recently sold his citadel of a house in a marginal neighborhood and moved to another one - on the Island, of course! People know him and are glad he's around -- though he is not the art world celebrity it might be possible for him to be elsewhere. He teaches at Wagner College. He's done a slew of portraits of college presidents, and will, no doubt, have done a complete set before he stops squinting at sepia photographs and studio portraiture. Bill Murphy is as much part of his community as his Rutherford, NJ forebear, Dr. William Carlos Williams, who delivered babies, signed death certificates, and wrote poems on the weekend. I consider Bill's artwork less more subversive in form, but it has a "big picture" quality Williams' verse does not.
His best prints are almost strident essays on our common mortality: Bill makes a pile of old bricks in front of a big amusement park ride stand, in a symbolic sense, for all of us. He's accomplished, in a series of panoramic etchings and watercolors, the nearly impossible: a sort of Staten Island timeline stretching back before human occupation to our present era, in which man's imprint fully ranges -- and not necessarily to the place's advantage. Yet Bill records the notion of man as dangerous in an intuitive way. He does not evangelize; he gives you the outer shell of something and invites you to make up your mind. Over time, the inner life of the thing will creep up on you, as a patch of sunlight will. Or a smell that has been in the air for a long time, but hasn't been able to separate itself from all the others. His approach to a murky waterfront is marked not only by painstaking observation, but a lyrical steadfastness before which the less committed among us must pull away. His stunning waterfront series - which is an ongoing project - accomplishes the impossible: it illuminates the unseen while also -- as Hopper said -- sticking "to the fact."
This transmutation of matter into spirit is also present in the work of Charles Meryon, the great French printmaker whose untimely death made a legend of his legend first and his work second. Time has luckily proven that Meryon's small, but spectacular, body of work is far greater than a gossip's pastime. Most artists can only give you one aspect of reality, and a lot do that competently enough. The artist who can open up multiple dimensions rivets rather than entertains; he or she provides us with a breadth of understanding language cannot adequately express.
Rembrandt is one of these artists, even if his work has finally come to match his legend. We rarely know our great when they're among us. They seem too ordinary, too approachable -- 'just folk," as it were. Did anybody ever give a second thought to the balding, roundshouldered fellow who spent so much time looking after The Globe Theatre? William Shakespeare was a little guy who might've become an aldermen if he'd stayed in Stratford! Great-spirited, but unremarkable as so many men are in a field of others. Possessed with extraordinary capacities, yet quietly unassuming. One might even say inconspicuous. In Bill's case, such contradictions wholeheartedly apply. No matter what the temptation, I don't think he'd care to uproot himself -- and, at present, nobody's asking him to. He hasn't finished with his native island - though he's ventured into New Jersey lately, the scene of one of his best recent prints.
Also into Coney, which is as connected to Staten Island as it is to Brooklyn -- where he sets up his easel as well. Yet Staten Island is the staging-area for most everything Bill does and, like Constable's soggy Deptford, it's place enough for him.
* Bill remembers Noble differently. He said this of Noble's ambulatory enthusiasm: "Sorta doubtful. He knew the old industrial area (Richmond Terrace) and how to get from the Paramount Bar and Grill to Demyan's Hofbrau to Bayonne and his studio."
About the Author
Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited
at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson
Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC.
His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy
Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his
work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward
Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard"
with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing
has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American
Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday.
He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun
to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide
following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.
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