PRINT January 1994

Native Talent

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED JOAN MIRÓ in Paris in the early ’30s. He did not know me, as I was only a student at the École des Beaux Arts and he was already famous, a protégé of Picasso, exhibiting at the Galerie Pierre. This space was located at the corner of the rue des Beaux Arts and the rue de Seine, only a few steps away from the École. I was living at 31 rue de Seine, where André Breton held court at his Gradiva gallery, and where Isadora and Raymond Duncan lived and had a gallery also.

While attending the École, I walked by the Galerie Pierre every day on my way to lunch. I came to know Miró’s works quite well. They were a wonderful esthetic shock for me—a liberation, because they were so different from what was taught at the École. After going to the Beaux Arts in the mornings I was at the Grand Chaumière, in Montparnasse, in the afternoons, where I was in charge of hiring the models. Miró, would come there to sketch.

In the ’20s, Miró had been part of a Spanish enclave that gathered in a modern cast-cement building on the rue Blomet, behind the Gare Montparnasse. All the artists in the Spanish community followed Pablo Picasso wherever he went. Picasso helped Miró tremendously, but did not influence him. Later, when Miró was established, Picasso was no longer a god to him. Miró loved to be told that he was greater than his master.

I would come to know Miró personally in New York, years later, when we saw each other again at Hayter’s engraving workshop in 1947. Miró was in America to work on a commission. We would dine together at Pierre Matisse’s, on East 96th Street, along with Matta, Le Corbusier, the filmmaker Thomas Bouchard, Rufino Tamayo, the composer Edgard Varèse and his wife Louise (the translator), and José Luis Sert. Miró would hardly say a word, and when he spoke it was in broken French.

There is a type of artist who wants to appear naive—Alfonso Ossorio, for example, or Jean Dubuffet, or even Philip Guston. Whereas the genuine naive, though truly talented, is helpless, the faux naive is a crafty one. Anything will do to serve his ambition to seem naive. It is rare but not painful to have talent; you either have it or you don’t. It is, however, laborious and painful to want to seem to have talent. The risk is great: the faux naive may fail to convince, may be perceived as coy. Dubuffet is not Adolf Wölfli—one is a put-on and one is genuine.

Miró was a true naive, trusting, unable to take two steps without his supporting family. When I knew him he always replied to every question, “I’ll have to ask Pilar,” his wife. His large brown eyes were innocent and serene. He was a truly naive person in the best sense of the word: someone who could not grow up. He was what he was and did not pretend or want to be anybody else. He believed in himself, and that is a great compliment. He really accepted himself. In the true naive there is no discrepancy between the person and the work. Miró was his work.

In fact he was a prolific workaholic. However, he was also sensitive and vain. He was surrounded by people who praised him, and he liked that. When they told him what he was doing was marvelous, he went on doing it, like a good student. Miró wanted to be encouraged, and when he was encouraged he was like a child. His move to Paris was not altogether positive; in his early Catalan landscapes and portraits, and his very early abstract work, there was a deep emotion that seems to be lacking in his later years. We know that he was strong enough to shake off the hold of Breton—that he objected to anyone dictating his style. But he was susceptible to flattery, and may have been sensitive in this way to the influence of the critics, poets, and dealers.

The person who is eager to please becomes an overachiever. He is not an ambitious person, for he has no relationship to a larger context, to the world of ideas. He has nothing to do with the Olympus complex; he has no notion of “pie in the sky”; the people he wants to please are those he knows and loves. His intensity is ferocious but localized, and therefore safe. Miró was successful. He found a formula and went on doing it for fifty years. After all, he had to sell. It was the dealers who turned him into a sculptor, which he was not—Miró’s sculptures are not thought through. In going from two to three dimensions, a cutout taken from a painting is not enough. There is more to sculpture than a blob of clay with a fork in it. Miró was too successful for his own good. In making sculpture he went out of his league.

In her catalogue essay for the MoMA show, Carolyn Lanchner, the show’s curator, belabors the idea that Miró was cold-blooded and calculating, as his abstract pictures show. Nobody disagrees. But when Miró, was doing the portraits, landscapes, and still lifes in his early realistic manner, he was deeply involved and original. Only when he turned to abstraction did his paintings become predictable and repetitive. His later use of French vocabulary was acquired; it’s touching but not convincing. I like the work before it becomes abstract and French-speaking. It’s like Robert Motherwell using “Je t’aime” when he barely spoke French.

The taste for the naive, art brut, and the art of the insane was in part created by the interest of certain writers of the ’20s and ’30s in primitive art and aboriginal art. The hard-up literary intelligentsia are intrigued by success, and have a fascination with the market; but then and now, they respond condescendingly to art. Obviously, the literary endorse only what they can perceive. They want to be part of the art scene and influence the market by becoming arbiters of taste; the trouble is they have no eyes. They like illustrative art and faux naive art.

Instead of counting on the literary world, the art community today should join hands with the scientific community. In viewing the Miró, show at the Museum of Modern Art, for example, one should not lose sight of two earlier exhibitions, the Picasso and Henri Matisse retrospectives. The three shows complete one another; they are perfectly good historical shows. But they are stuck in the past, and are limited in appeal to us today. The museums should see that the field they have not explored is the inward vista, by which I mean an interest in and a contribution to the behavioral sciences. Their ambition should be to equip us better to understand why we do what we do.