Robert Murray was born in Vancouver on March 2, 1936 and grew up in Saskatoon, though he has resided in the United States since 1960. Although he is best known for his monumental metal sculptures painted in bright blues, yellows or maroons, he began his artistic career as a painter and print-maker. In 1956-58, he attended the Regina College School of Art (now the Department of Visual Arts of the University of Regina), where he studied with painters Ken Lochhead, Arthur McKay and Roy Kiyooka. During that time Murray also participated in the Emma Lake Artists' Workshops, where he became acquainted with Jack Shadbolt, Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg.
Murray's first three-dimensional work, Rainmaker (1959-60, steel painted black-green, 244 centimetres high), was commissioned for the fountain situated in front of Saskatoon's new City Hall. It signifies a break with the representational and cubist traditions in sculpture and is an effort to explore, through simple forms, the effect of colour on perception and the relationship between work and environment. The monumental sculpture consists of two steel plates shaped into arcs and placed on top of two vertical plates perforated with cut-out patterns, forming the base of the installation. With this work, Murray discovered the means to explore concerns similar to those of Modernist painting, but freed from the limitations of the canvas or the gallery. The commission of Rainmaker prompted public outcry in Saskatoon. It raised questions and awareness about the role and nature of public art, and about the relationship between sculpture, architecture and audience. Initially, much of the criticism directed at the work suggested that a sheaf of wheat or a historical figure would have better represented the city than the abstract forms deployed in Rainmaker. Opponents also accused Murray of unethical behaviour for not “making” the work himself. Indeed, Rainmaker, one of the first Canadian attempts to explore the possibilities inherent in making large-scale abstract sculptural work from malleable metal, was executed at John East Iron Works, a local firm specializing in the manufacture of agricultural equipment. Although it is now common practice for artists to work with metal fabricating plants, this was a rare event in 1959.
Murray's contribution to the field of monumental sculpture marked a turning point in the tradition of public art in Saskatchewan, and played an important role in the development and popular acceptance of formalist trends in public sculpture. His large-scale works are now displayed in prestigious public and private collections across North America.