PRINT January 1994

A Personal Chronology

1941 As a precocious kid in New York, I was always prowling around the museums, whose then enlightened policy of free admission was a boon to democratic principles of education. One day I stumbled across a double feature on West 53rd Street that, for complete, mind-boggling transport, turned out to rival Dracula and Frankenstein, a more familiar double bill of the period. The sign on the facade advertised MIRO/DALI, an exotic duo of four-letter names ending in vowels; and if I remember correctly, the latter name was in Victorian lettering, to indicate, I guess, a kind of old-fashioned spookiness in contrast to the modern lettering for Miró.

I entered, and was swept away by the two bizarre Wonderlands inside. Dalí, of course, was a snap; what kid or grown-up wouldn’t gasp before his demonic wizardry? But Miró was something else, and even then I recognized that those wiggling blobs, with their flat kindergarten colors and goony faces, represented something closer to Modern art than Dalí’s illusionistic horror films. I instantly fell in love with Miró’s tropical-bird palette, creepy humanoids, and hard-edged but pulsating shapes, which suggested the sexy throb of biology. I bought a color reproduction of MoMA’s Composition, 1933, tacked it on my bedroom wall, and remained riveted by the upright red form—could it possibly be a penis?—startlingly silhouetted against the green-brown murk of a dream. Miró, made such a dent on this teenager that decades later, leafing through my high school notebooks, I discovered that during classes I had been making weird marginal doodles of Miró-spawned creatures; like an amoeba run amok, my own meandering line was sprouting strange heads, limbs, and sex organs.

1950 As an art-history student on a Fulbright to Paris, I decided to spend the Christmas holidays in Barcelona. I was agape at Antoni Gaudí’s troglodytic architecture, which in my mind began to form a strange regional cluster with the phantasmagoric Spanish pair who had traumatized me at MoMA in 1941; and I was excited to acquire, as an academically useful souvenir, a book on Miró, by A. Cirici-Pellicer, published the year before. Miró’s ancestral ghost, I began to realize, could be found up in the Park Güell; and Dalí, for sure, would have been happy to live among the malleable stone waves of the Casa Milá. (Later, I learned that Dalí had written an article in Minotaure on the terror and edibility of Gaudí’s architecture.) Suspecting that nobody at home had ever heard of Gaudí, I wrote an uninformed and gushy essay about him (eventually submitted to, but rejected by, The Magazine of Art), my first effort to touch what proved to be Catalan soil.

1959–60 Preparing for the publication of my first book, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art, I learned to put Miró, into sharper focus, especially in nationalist terms. Writing about The Tilled Field, 1923–24, I was drawn to the painting’s three flags, and wondered about the one that wasn’t French or Spanish, the one with four red and five yellow alternating stripes. Could it be Catalan? I naively called the Spanish embassy and asked if my guess was right, upon which I was brusquely told that Catalonia was part of Spain and had no flag of its own. Soon after, though, a South American I met told me that yes, it was the Catalan flag, a legendary emblem created by four fingers dipped in the blood of a medieval Catalan hero and then smeared on a golden shield. This may have been what alerted me to the frequent red-yellow chord in Miró’s art (as in Picasso’s), a symbol of Spain and/or Catalonia which even turns up in the sperm cell that, in Maternity, 1924, wriggles across the stick-figure mother toward an egglike breast, or in the lone, ballooning sperm that, in The Birth of the World, 1925, fertilizes the cosmic chaos. The universe Miró created, I began to recognize, would often bear the colors of Iberia—as does the airline of the same name (which now sports a Miró logo). And I noticed, too, how ignorant about things Spanish and Catalan even MoMA had been back in 1941, when for its catalogues the final accent was insistently omitted from both Miró’s and Dalí’s names, leaving them sagging as Miro and Dali.

1967 Invited to the Kinsey Institute for a symposium on erotic art, I prepared a paper on Picasso’s work of the Surrealist years, and soon discovered that Miró played an essential role in the story. Miró’s ubiquitous genitalia, desperate copulations, and burgeoning, metamorphic maternities all had to be seen as part of an ongoing dialogue with his more famous compatriot. The sexual charge I had intuited as a teenager in 1941 unexpectedly resurfaced, this time in analytic, professorial discourse.

1972 Rosalind Krauss and Margit Rowell’s “Magnetic Fields” show at the Guggenheim proved once more how new art changes old art, or how, in this case, the Color Field painting of the late ’50s and ’60s could give birth to an unfamiliar Miró. Restricted to the ’20s and ’60s, the selection of Mirós made me see the early decade as producing many small-size Robert Motherwells, Helen Frankenthalers, and Jules Olitskis avant la lettre and the later decade as a time when the artist, in part prompted by his visit to New York for his 1959 retrospective at MoMA, expanded his intensely Mediterranean skies and seas of color to dimensions that could rival those of his juniors’ work in America.

1980 Asked to give a lecture to accompany Sidra Stich’s innovative exhibition “Miró: The Development of a Sign Language,” at Washington University, I pulled together, in a broad sweep, “Miró, Picasso, and the Spanish Grotesque.” This freewheeling theme gave me a chance to wallow in a vast sea of Iberian ancestors, from paleolithic paintings at La Pileta and Altamira to Catalan Romanesque frescoes, from Philip II’s passion for Bosch to the subhuman inventions of Goya, and then, inevitably, on to the Spanish Civil War. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain seemed reborn, and Miró looked more Spanish or, rather, more Catalan than ever.

1988 Miró’s Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926, was, of course, essential for my little book on the dog in Modern art. On investigating the preparatory drawings I realized that Miró had in mind not only folkloric proverbs and the nightmare world of Goya, but comic strips à la Krazy Kat. A precocious Pop artist?

1990 On arriving in Barcelona from New York one morning, I stepped sleepily into the Hotel Majestic, on what used to be called the Paseo de Gracia but is now Catalanized as the Passeig de Gràcia, and was jolted awake by a landscape painting in the lobby by Modesto (now Catalanized as Modest) Urgell, Miró’s first teacher. I remembered seeing one of Urgell’s tonalist paintings, with its long, low horizon and eerie emptiness, reproduced in James Thrall Soby’s catalogue for the 1959 MoMA exhibition, as well as reading there about Urgell’s effect on Miró’s own haunted landscapes. My curiosity about how much of Miró’s work was steeped not only in Gaudí but in other turn-of-the-century Barcelona art was further whetted by the big show of Catalan Modernism then being held at the Museu d’Art Modern, as it is now called. Yet more vistas on the master.

1993 I see the giant retrospectives in Barcelona, at the Fundació Joan Miró, and in New York, at MoMA, the fourth Miró show I have seen within its walls; and Artforum asks me to write this piece. Now almost any glance at Miró, produces, in response, a flood of art history—the Beatus manuscripts that inspired him, as they did Picasso; Josep Maria Jujol’s Pere Manyach showroom of 1911 in Barcelona, which John Richardson has astutely pinpointed as a local preview of the master’s mature style; the nocturnal monsters of Goya’s “Caprichos” and “Disparates,” whose grotesque hybrids of human anatomy with that of birds, beasts, and chairs must have sparked Miró’s imagination; the handprints from prehistoric caves that would be resurrected, millennia later, by Miró, as by Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, to invent a new kind of artist’s signature; the constellation of recent Miró scholars—Carolyn Lanchner, Robert Lubar, David Lomas, Anne Umland—who have added a bounty of essential data and ideas I am breathlessly trying to catch up with. The associations go on and on. And I feel nostalgic for 1941, when I first looked at this genius and could see nothing but the total enchantment of painted fairy tales that cut deep into the eye, the flesh, and the bone.