PRINT February 1973


IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT TO ARGUE that Joan Miró’s paintings, whether recent or distant in vintage, constitute much of an unknown to the art public of any cosmopolitan city in Western Europe or in the United States. Of Miró’s peers in this century probably only Matisse and Picasso have been exhibited as routinely in so many places for so many years, but the historical rhythm of Miró exhibitions in New York (culminating in two organized recently by the Guggenheim Museum and the Acquavella Gallery) has been particularly regular in its frequency and generous in its character. New York has honored Miró more than any city besides Paris, the place where Miró’s art was born and where its inevitable cessation will be felt to represent not only the death of a great painter but also the passing of an era of national artistic eminence.

Miró’s first one-man show in New York came in 1930, about ten years after his first show in Paris; but New York through the agent of The Museum of Modern Art and the person of James Johnson Sweeney mounted the first major retrospective of Miró’s work in 1941. The same city and the same institution repeated the gesture in 1959. The highest honor which New York has paid to Mire) has not, however, consisted so much in exhibitions as in tributes of an even more unique and artistically important sort. These are contained in the successive works of several generations of American artists whose efforts centered in New York beginning with Gorky and Calder in the 1930s, continuing in the ’40s and ’50s with Hofmann, Motherwell, Pollock, and concluding over the last decade with Kelly and Olitski.

Resting first on his numerous exhibitions and second on the depth and variety of his influence on other painters, Miró’s reputation in New York is secure, to say the least. But more than that, his reputation is based upon the quality of his work rather than upon the tastes which it so readily, and at times so deceptively, generates for itself. New York artists, taken as a group, have always seemed remarkably able to isolate those aspects of Miró’s highly variable production that suggested (either latently or directly) viable ways of attacking the rather “closed in” quality of mature Cubism. At various stages of his career Miró made a variety of pictorial moves intended to make his images seem both more discretely and personally inflected internally than those of Cubism, while at the same time more reliant for their expression upon the close bonding via color or drawing, or both, of widely scattered image parts and what seem often to be random fluctuations of the surface setting within and against which the parts are displayed. Some New York artists recognized, tested, and extended such moves of Miró’s toward a quality of expressiveness that could not be achieved by relatively minor adjustments within Cubism.

More than Miró himself the Americans have seemed able to ferret out the most advanced aspects of his art at nearly every point. His personal dialogue with Picasso, Matisse, Surrealism, and “Spanishness” until recently left little time for him to sort through his immense oeuvre in a truly critical fashion. Yet the sorting has been done and its result, a carefully distilled essence evident in so much recent American work, has gradually filtered back to its source over the past two decades. Miró has refocused his work on the basis of those aspects of recent American painting which relate to his own germinal achievements. The more he has done so, the less frequently he has indulged his artistic weaknesses. In retrospective exhibitions and in public and private collections, one sees the “pleasant” Miró of the ’30s and ’40s, which whether large or small are so decorative as to render their potentially expressive components inexpressive. But thanks to the overall support which the Americans have given to the definite, if erratic, strengths of his work, the recent production of such Miró has been severely limited. Instead, a spareness of image, a decisiveness about and a belief in broad formal contrasts (as opposed to decorative elaboration), and a largeness of scale have become the new rules in Miró’s work. These new rules may have perplexed many long-standing “Miró lovers,” but the artist has benefited from them. Rarely, if ever, in his long and distinguished career has the achievement of consistently high quality seemed so much a matter of routine.

The “rebirth” of Miró in the late ’50s, like that of Matisse following World War II, represents a consolidation of preexistent strengths but, further, it involves some essential alterations of creative perspective. For Matisse, of course, ill health made scissors and colored paper, at least temporarily, a physically more tractable medium than brushes, pigment, and canvas. In the process of rethinking color relationships in his altered picture-making process, Matisse increasingly dispensed with secondary color intervals (those diluting or modifying large-scale color contrasts); he concentrated on organizing the unpredictable relationships between variously shaped and scaled areas of flat color and between those areas and an untinted ground which maintained its optical force through negative shapes. The result was a breadth of accent and an openness of surface which had with few exceptions vanished from Matisse’s painting after 1912.

For Miró the successive achievements of postwar American painting had a stimulating effect on his art, an effect as radical in its ultimate character as that which illness had had on Matisse’s. Beginning in 1944 Miró spent nearly as much effort working in ceramics as he did in painting. Ceramics provided a positive outlet for the decorative elaborations of surface that had for so long threatened the quality of his paintings. Having found in ceramic work a release for many impulses which he had previously mistaken as pictorial, Miró was ready to redefine the pictorial. In the large, open, broadly or repetitively accented surfaces of American painting he found a redefinition he could truly comprehend—one which, as noted above, already included the critical emulation of his own achievements in the process of clarifying its essential properties.

The more Miró followed American developments, particularly in the ’50s, the more he was inclined to revise his views on a particular aspect of his work from the ’20s. His paintings from 1925 through 1927 are more “featureless” and abstract than any he produced until about 1959. Although these paintings abandon easel scale only in rare instances, they quite clearly provide the only direct internal support for the artist’s most recent work.

The paintings of 1925–1927 have been known for a long time, but they have been among the least appreciated and publicized of Miró’s works for a variety of rather obvious reasons. Thanks to the enthusiasm and scholarship of Dr. Rosalind Krauss, the willing cooperation of the Guggenheim Museum, and the complementary efforts of Dr. Margit Rowell (a Miró scholar in her own right and the Museum’s Associate Curator), many of the paintings of 1925–1927 are being shown in New York alongside a roughly equal number of works done after 1959. The result is a unique opportunity first, to see the earlier works and second, to sort out the degree of internal guidance they provided to Miró 30 years or so after they were first conceived. In order to provide successfully for the second opportunity, the Guggenheim exhibition necessarily takes for granted its visitors’ comprehension of the undisplayed external catalyst of recent American painting.

At the risk of understatement, the Guggenheim exhibition, entitled rather unconvincingly “Magnetic Fields,” is epochal—certainly the most informative Miró presentation in several decades. The initial decision not to mount a Miró retrospective and, instead, to focus on a narrowly defined region of comparison and contrast within a vast oeuvre will strike many as pedantic and biased, but Miró gains from the results. One need only refer to the nearly simultaneous exhibition mounted by the Acquavella Gallery and organized by Douglas Cooper—a sort of mini-retrospective—to see how much more Miró stands to gain from being approached selectively by truly sensitive and sympathetic critics rather than randomly by people who remain blinded by a limited and indiscriminate ’30s taste for Miró and who, further, seem impelled to elevate that taste to a point of such importance that the critical judgment of anything departing from it literally cannot be made, or even conceived of. Recent Miró work was statutorily excluded from the Acquavella show and indirectly condemned in the catalogue which accompanied it. Had an alternative area of strength in Miró been successfully proposed, such exclusion and condemnation might have been acceptable, but this was not the case. With the exception of a marginally difficult and challenging picture from the ’40s, The Red Sun of 1948, and several Guggenheim leftovers from 1925–27, the Acquavella exhibition generally displayed a level of mediocre decorative accomplishment that was quite simply a misrepresentation of Miró’s true stature.

By choosing, and generally choosing well, within a limited area with a defined purpose the organizers of the Guggenheim show willingly gave up the privilege of presenting once again the extent of Miró`’s qualitative range. Instead they opted to probe for depth and resonance. Another exhibition could and should be mounted which would sort out the truly strong, if formally congested and frequently dead-end (for Miró) masterpieces of the ’30s and ’40s, but this seeming mandate is itself an index to how well the Guggenheim show has pressed Miró’s case rather than a criticism of what has, in fact, been done.

In a way unusual rather than characteristic in large-scale exhibitions of twentieth-century masters, the catalogue for “Magnetic Fields” is something more than a guide to biography and to periodic changes of style or imagery. Inevitably one thinks of Douglas Cooper’s recurrent, almost perennial, Braque, Picasso, and Cubism exhibition catalogues in order to indicate the insignificant norm for such things. So selective and tightly structured an exhibition as the Guggenheim’s benefits enormously from the kind of compelling analysis of purpose and direction which both Krauss and Rowell have provided in separate, if not totally unrelated, ways in their catalogue essays and in their discussions of the individual paintings chosen for display. The two writers differ, and they agree to do so, on the relative importance which each places on the formal or the poetic constitution of individual images. Without actually denying each other’s premises, the two obviously understand the succession of paintings, particularly those of the ’20s, somewhat differently. To say that Krauss’ emphasis on form yields the more compelling suggestions, first, regarding the sources and the character of Miró’s pictorial quality and second, regarding the interrelationships between paintings from the ’20s and the ’60s, is not to deny the importance of Rowell’s extended discussion of parallels between the syntax of Miró’s image deployment and that devised for literary exploration by many of the artist’s writer friends in the Surrealist movement. However, as one studies the exhibition and confronts its many masterpieces, the drive to come to grips with its odd, at times almost vacant, pictorial propositions becomes increasingly strong. For this reason the real burden of criticism necessarily rests on Krauss. Whether or not one agrees with her discussion, the propriety of its focus cannot be questioned.

Krauss’ discussion consists chiefly in isolating the essential characteristics (or better, component parts) of the Mirós of the ’20s which she calls “Magnetic Fields.” She sees in their open, unimpeded look a parallel (implied, yet definite) to the expansive color fields of recent American painting. She relates their inflective rather than properly descriptive (or formative) drawing to the French notion of écriture, “a descriptive line pushed toward the abstract disembodiment of the written sign.” And, finally she discusses the seemingly random line, word, shape, and field interplay of Miró’s images with reference to the calligram, a twentieth-century poetic form used most effectively by Apollinaire, wherein the printed page is given a pictorial inflection by the shaping or spreading of lines and words—an inflection intended to provide an expressive parallel to the written text. Fortunately Krauss is not content simply to isolate and to define specific component properties, and her discussions proceed to the difficult task of demonstrating, at least in principle, the expressive qualities Miró first recognizes and then develops in the process of running these properties together, shifting his emphasis constantly. Krauss carefully evaluates the pictorial attributes of each property and describes their apparent expressive potential, or at least that part of their potential Miró seems to have recognized in his works of 1925–1927. Having done this, she is then able to view the paintings of the ’60s as the affirmative recognition of a kind of abstract pictorial essence suggested in the earlier works but becoming finally apparent to Miró only in retrospect. Her summary statement describing Miró’s large three-part and three-color mural of 1962, Mural Painting For a Temple (I, II, and III) suggests rightly, if only schematically, the ultimate character of Miró’s recent achievements, “The act of line triumphing over surface, without interrupting the effulgence of the color is carried out with strict economy. . . .”

It would be largely pointless to labor minor differences of critical interpretation which one may feel as a result of studying the Guggenheim catalogue in detail. In general, the whole enterprise—the exhibition and the catalogue—is so convincing and coherent as a unit that, for the moment at least, all effort should be spent to praise the organizers. The kind of opportunity here provided to confront such a coherent and magnificent body of work comes all too rarely.

For the first time, at least for this writer, Miró’s work can be seen to be capable of probing for unique pictorial substance over an extended period rather than to be, as it often appears, so highly idiosyncratic and abrupt in its successive maneuvers as to feel more self-indulgent than serious. The surprise induced by this recognition of unique substance is brought about most forcefully by the works from the ’20s. Those from the ’60s present themselves in generally familiar American terms of scale and incident, so their qualities are somewhat less unexpected in type, if not in character.

The strong personality of Miró’s surfaces in the 1925–27 period seems most to convey the seriousness of his efforts and to form the basis for the quality he achieves. Opposed both to the surfaces of Cubism and of late Monet (the most distinct alternatives in mid-’20s painting) those of Miró stake out a pictorial latitude that is absolutely their own. They are more factual and self-contained, if less coherently accented, than the surfaces of flat-pattern Cubism. At the same time, they are less the result of an achieved fabric of repeated, small, and variegated incidents of color and texture than Monet’s, being instead of a single piece of color and texture modified either slightly by value changes or markedly by contrasts of hue. The primary effect of Miró’s surfaces is to introduce a definite, if uncircumscribed, cross-reference to magnified pages or randomly scaled sections of relatively featureless wall. The Cubist picture plane or the taut, yet liquid, expanse of late Impressionism seem to contribute almost nothing to Miró either in terms of freedom or of stricture.

With a few exceptions—The Museum of Modern Art’s recently acquired Birth of the World of 1925 (unfortunately not lent to the Guggenheim exhibition), to name the most important—Mirós works from 1925–1927 are moderate in scale, medium to large easel size. The fact of their moderate scale, equidistant between normal page and normal wall size, is an important factor in determining the characteristic presence which Miró’s paintings, and their surfaces in particular, create. The initial featurelessness of the surface becomes a slightly arbitrary element which can be made to contract or expand, to become a shape or to flow, by means of whatever figuration Miró builds into it. How much figuration and of what type, this becomes the critical perimeter in determining whether and to what degree the surface is transformed from something vacantly physical into something optical and, finally, pictorial.

Throughout his work from 1925 to 1927 Miró alternates between black line drawing (and its extension, lettering) and color, which may extend from the drawing into figurative shapes or simply carry out the drawing in consistent or sequentially interrupted tints, as the central element for specifying the individual character of the pictorial surface in one or another painting. He seems comfortable (and more important, successful) in working his inclination either toward drawing or color, or toward both simultaneously. Invariably he devises a figurative unit which is bonded to its ground with a definiteness that repeats and confirms the initial wall-page surface but which, at the same time, transforms the relative arbitrariness and immobility of that surface into an unequivocally resolved pictorial structure of a highly specific and original sort. The surface is never utterly predictable in its relative density (its potential spatiality) or its utter flatness. Both options are maintained, since neither actively contradicts possibilities latent in the unformed proto-surface of the paintings. A move toward internal geometry, true to the frame, could potentially immobilize the surface as could an inadvertent slip into a pocket of illusionistically handled space, but for as long as overt elements related to surfaces other than his own are excluded, Miró finds that an enormous amount and variety of pictorial information can both be included and made to bend to his expressive will.

For as long as Miró first forms and then elaborates his surface by impacting relatively cursive yet sequentially coherent complexes of figuration, and bland, almost featureless, backgrounds—usually consisting of deep browns or blues, which constitute the preliminary covering of the wall-page surface—he seems able to develop almost any type of illustrative or psychological association in the image as a whole. Whether landscape, literary, erotic, or impenetrably gestural, these associations first generate and then define what degree of stasis or fluidity a particular surface will have. Backgrounds and figuration are formed into what is finally perceived as a unit by a series of simultaneous, formal, and thematic associations. Nothing is irrevocably subordinant visually or thematically to anything else; everything is of a visible piece, and that piece is, above all, surface—surface which is constantly identified for what it is, yet just as constantly characterized as pictorial form.

The quality of presence in Miró’s surface as it appears in the paintings of 1925–1927 is unique. Definiteness and a revolutionary degree of formal permissiveness seem to exist side by side in a situation of mutual support. The cave paintings of Altamira and the greatest of the frescos from the Romanesque period in northern Spain—monuments Miró loved as a young artist more than he loved Cubism—must have inspired him, if only indirectly, to seek freedom in the apparent bondage of resistant and self-evident surface. The freedom once found would ultimately provide both for expression and for decoration. In most of the “Magnetic Fields” expression is achieved with remarkable consistency and in terms sufficiently rich to support the artist more than 30 years later as he moved to emulate yet other freedoms—those demonstrated so positively by the scale and spareness of recent American painting, the love of his old age.

––Kermit Champa