MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | NOVEMBER 2, 2008 – JANUARY 12, 2009
What is anti-painting? Generally it connotes a way of creating art without using conventional techniques and materials, though many avant-garde artists have defined it differently. Some of the more outrageous among them have been determined to kick it up a notch and bring about their own revolutionary changes, and in this regard Dali and Picasso are usually cited as prime practitioners. But the other Catalonian surrealist, Joan Miró, makes a strong case for inclusion in the club—and the evidence is on display at MoMA.
Miró is best known for his colorful oval shapes and amoeba-like forms with their shocks of blues, greens and reds overlaid with stark black lines outlining creatures with enlarged heads and pinched, often angry faces. His canvases are often busy, full of all types of creatures, or else beautifully spare, perhaps just a bright circle and a few lines. He also painted traditional portraits, works that by the mid-1920s led him to search for something completely different.
At this time, Miró was absorbing all the changes swirling around the art worlds of Barcelona and Paris. His compatriots were also searching for new forms of expression—and competing with each other to push the envelope further. Picasso had been vying with Matisse and experimenting with collage since 1912; Juan Gris, another Spanish genius, was in a mad race with Braque, and Dali was challenging de Chirico and Magritte. By the end of 1927, most of the cubists and futurists had been experimenting with such forms for almost 15 years.
But Miró decided to shock everyone in his circle by declaring, “I want to assassinate painting! I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have utter contempt for painting… I will break their [cubist] guitar.” With cultivated “automatist” spontaneity, he worked on raw canvas, copper and the recently invented Masonite. He pioneered nontraditional materials, including sand and tar, making thoroughly abstract pictures and producing stunningly original collages and assemblages, initiating a ripple of influence that would extend all the way to Rauschenberg.
He used “tactics of aggression,” pricked raw canvases, squeezed paint directly from tubes on unprimed surfaces, added feathers, corks, strings, tacks, enamel or sheets of newspaper. His new studio-laboratory in Paris, in the rue Tourlaque on the right bank of the Seine, was in the same avant-garde neighborhood as Hans Arp and Max Ernst, two fellow surrealists who had a strong influence on Miró’s collage production.
In the current show at the Museum of Modern Art, the first room displays raw canvases, sparely painted and applied with collage elements, that lead to the familiar oil painting of a red oval guarded by two white circular shapes—”Le signe de la mort” (1927). Miró then entered a second stage of more sophisticated collages, collectively known as “the Spanish dancers,” some of which were painted in Spain in 1928 and inspired by flamenco dancers. He used nails, sandpaper, a draftsman’s triangle, rope, cork, linoleum, a clump of hair and wrapping paper, fitting Kurt Schwitters’ description of “a picture nailed together.”
Back in his Paris studio in February 1928, Miró continued to depict dancers. To one work he added fetishistic elements such as a cork, a feather and a hatpin to the middle of a big white canvas, which poet Éluard described as “the barest picture imaginable.” In another collage, a doll’s shoe hangs from a string on a nail, with a cork on one end glued to flocked paper. Sandpaper and pencil lines complete a different “Spanish Dancer (with a Doll’s Shoe),” also from 1928.
The next stage in Miró’s evolution, labeled by the curators as “Dutch Interiors and Imaginary Portraits,” was mounted in 1929 at his family’s farm in Montroig. The artist had visited Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which led to what he called “the beginning of a new modality” in his work. For the next five months he labored over five paintings influenced by the Dutch Masters—though they might have professed horror had they known it. He picked the bones of 17th-century artists like H.M. Sorgh, whom he reproduced in his own way, from postcards. ”Dutch Interior (I)” (1928), oil on canvas, is taken from Sorgh’s “Lute Player” (1661), but here becomes a radical disfigurement of the lute player and his listener—flat with unmodulated colors, the only recognizable figures are the dog, the cat and the lute. As Dali said about him at the time, “proof of the delicate and constant osmosis… between surreality and reality” (from “La Veu de Catalunya,” 1929).
Next, Miró created twenty-two large-scale collages, using wire to give them a palpable three-dimensional structure and flocked paper in shades of gray, tan and rust-brown, as well as jet-black pebbled tarpaper ordinarily used for roofing. In a way, he “attacked” some of his collages of this period; at least fifteen of these works have jagged holes cut into their surfaces, and many elements are not thoroughly glued, with deliberate curls at the edges.
In 1930 in his Paris studio, Miró painted large works on white backgrounds, each measuring approximately seven by five feet. MoMA curator Anne Umland describes them in the exhibit’s catalogue as “willfully ugly and obstinately illegible…which in one instance congeals into a fecal-like smear.”
Still later, Miró moved on to “Constructions and Objects,” rudimentary sculptural assemblages whose forms alluded to Arp’s sculptures and are among the best works in this exhibit, combining painting with found objects and elevating them to readymade status. Here bones, a vintage lock, an antique house bell, broken clockworks, white insulators, machine parts, pebbles, wire mesh and a mirror create an absurd, abstract though palpable world, from which Joseph Cornell’s assemblages would descend decades later.
Miró diplomatically and artistically navigated between two branches of surrealism—Breton and Bataille—while venturing into commercial galleries and creating theatrical scenery for Nijinsky’s Ballet Russe. His “automatic” creations here are called “Paintings Based on Collages,” comprising eighteen pairings of the two media. The latter, on oversized canvases (by grid transfer, as shown in the x-ray of one of the works) were completed in his mother’s apartment in Barcelona in 1933. Miró would make preparatory collages at the feverish pace of one a day, yet the corresponding paintings did not exactly resemble the sources. One such work depicts a cluster of “umbrellas meeting the sewing machine on an operating table”—floating, disjointed, black and white elements with occasional circles of yellow, red or blue.
Other highlights: Miró’s hilarious postcard-collages, full of lowbrow humor and Picasso-esque drawings. Although there is a romantic narrative to them, he decided to give them all factory-like names such as “Drawing-Collage” (1933). Also on display is a series of rich pastels intended for New York dealer Pierre Matisse.
After 1934, Miró worked on brilliantly psychedelic images: pastels on flocked paper and oils mixed with sand, as in “Head of a Man” (1935), painted in acid colors. He created smaller works on cardboard using bundles of glued ropes, as in “Rope and People” (1935), that conveyed an illusion of three dimensions. Yet another stage began with “The Two Philosophers” (1936), two figures resembling giant insects dancing on long, Dali-esque legs in shallow blue waters.
The show ends with a leap forward in Miró’s unique visual language. “Still Life with an Old Shoe” (1937) is a masterpiece, a bridge from old art to the new, slightly figurative, deconstructed, surrealistic, less anecdotal, with a multidimensional reality devoid of sentimentality.
As this show makes clear, from 1927 to 1937, Joan Miró pit past against future, testing his talent again and again as he approached a new formal pictorial language. The aftermath of this self-contained cultural war continue to challenge public perceptions today.