A World in a Grain of Sand: Walter Tandy Murch

Walter Tandy Murch (Canadian, 1907-1967) chose the still life as his central subject, his work an unusual combination of meticulous observation and ambiguity of meaning. Some of Murch's still lifes are carefully balanced and complex arrangements that likely took hours to set-up, but at times he would focus mainly on a single mechanical object, front and center.  

In each of these works, a scientific instrument is taken out of its normal context and studied for its visual appeal. Often Murch would take a half-finished painting and let it fall to the floor of his studio and get kicked about until it acquired an accidentally busy and dirty surface, at which point he would take it up again.

Lock 1948

Car Lock 1962

Carburetor  oil on canvas 32 1⁄2 x 27 1⁄2 1957

Murch isn't as widely known as he should be, but the essays that do exist about his work generally mention his strong sense of abstraction. Yes, his work has elements of Abstract Expressionism, but doesn't most great art work have strong abstract form? To me, what is especially unique about Murch is the particular way that machinery captured his fancy. True, he loved lock mechanisms and carburetors partially because of the little geometric shapes and the way the right lighting would create shimmering highlights and deeply shadowed areas. He would modestly claim that these subjects just provided "a good excuse to paint", but there is something else going on here. His paintings are obviously not merely beautiful - there is a deeply appealing poetic ambiguity. I believe Murch is saying something indefinable about balance, calculation and deliberation in human thought.

For their October/November 1965 issue, Art in America magazine asked twenty-two American painters to "contribute their visual interpretations of some of their favorite modern poems".  Walter Murch chose to illustrate Wallace Stevens' poem "The Glass of Water", and his mixed media painting was chosen for the cover.

Here is the Murch painting and the Stevens poem that inspired it:

The Glass of Water mixed media 1965


That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.

Here in the centre stands the glass. Light
Is the lion that comes down to drink. There
And in that state, the glass is a pool.
Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws
When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws

And in the water winding weeds move round.
And there and in another state–the refractions,
The metaphysica, the plastic parts of poems
Crash in the mind–But, fat Jocundus, worrying
About what stands here in the centre, not the glass,

But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,
It is a state, this spring among the politicians
Playing cards. In a village of the indigenes,
One would have still to discover. Among the dogs and dung,
One would continue to contend with one’s ideas.

- Wallace Stevens
I have always felt that certain things were paintable— wood, marble, cloth, jewels, metal, stone, alabaster, black marble,....I would imagine them within a rectangle, like an already formed painting, not a dream, but a painting based on the idea that it could be done.
 -Walter Tandy Murch
Walter Murch  

1 comment:

  1. I've received a lovely emailed thanks for this post from Walter Tandy Murch's son. Walter Scott Murch has won an Academy Award for his film editing and sound mixing. He was the sound mixer for "The Conversation", which is one of my top ten movies and has AMAZING audio.

    Anyhow, Walter Scott Murch told me a couple interesting things about his dad, which I don't believe are widely known. He says "Interesting facts: he only had one good eye (his left) and though he was born left-handed, his parents forced him to become a 'righty' at the age of two."


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