New York

Joan Miró

THIS EXHILARATING EXHIBITION forced anew the question of Joan Miró’s position in the early-twentieth-century canon—his shifting third or fourth place after Picasso and Matisse owing to the sabot tossed into that spinning jenny by Marcel Duchamp. Despite Miró’s inspired Catalan Pantagruelism, the formalist predispositions of this show’s curator, Anne Umland, reveal that the seemingly capricious artistic strategies that Miró adopted (and equally suddenly departed from) between 1927 and 1937 were as dispassionately Cartesian as any of Duchamp’s arcane gestures. Miró’s rationalist, virtually annual substitutions of one mode for another led to a genial reductio ad absurdum that makes for one of modernism’s most consequential bodies of work. This goes far beyond his infamous, perhaps apocryphal assertion (first reported by Maurice Raynal in 1927): “Je veux assassiner la peinture!”—a rather Futurist-Dadaist sally, when you think about it, of a type that came easily to the lips of any number of young Turks of the day, justifiably horrorstruck by middle-class virtues bankrupted first in the trenches of World War I and later in civil strife if not outright war in the new USSR and the lost monarchies of Austria and Germany. Murdering painting would be the least of it.

Miró’s rejectionist critique swings from base materialism—the celebration of sandpaper, tar paper, Masonite—to some fabulously self-aware “stupid” paintings and “dumb” collages, works utterly anti-aesthetic in their ambitions, especially when compared, say, to those of Picasso or Juan Gris. Unlike these other two grandees of collage, Miró eschews “beauty”; his attitude toward the genre is virtually unique, although there is a nod to the steel-plate engravings Max Ernst used for his collage-novels in the clippings of industrial machinery, scientific apparatuses, garden tools, and other objects pasted onto sheets of paper on which Miró based his greatest group of works, the baldly titled “Paintings” of 1933.

Among the most engrossing experiences of this exhibition were in the comparisons drawn between these masterworks and their correlative sets of clipped images. Six such pairings were on view, allowing one to see the collages as a kind of reference manual for the paintings. Here, specific industrial machines become generalized, amoeba-like, morphing in abstract shapes far from the printers’ presses or upended gardeners’ barrows of their initial incarnations. Yet even at their most abstract, Miró’s shapes are gender-coded and operate within cryptic narrative relationships. This suggestion of story, along with the artist’s feeling for scrubbed, earth-colored grounds, makes these paintings feel a bit like Arshile Gorky’s work avant la lettre. (These same washed grounds so inspired Mark Rothko and the larger school of American post-painterly abstractionists that it is no wonder that Clement Greenberg’s first monographic sortie, in 1948, was a study of Miró.)

Part of Miró’s genial “dumbness” is his love of poissons d’Avril—sentimental postcards recalling our secret Valentines rather more than the April Fools’ Day they celebrate in France. Like Francis Picabia in his “Transparencies” of proximate date, Miró used these romantic cards—the French snobbishly see them as revealing a concierge taste—as a way of stripping painting of its then-perceived pretension, not least that of the Cubists, who had by the 1920s become the new academy (at least for contemporary artists in France). Miró often bluntly mounted these poissons d’Avril onto large sheets of paper, at times playing them against his phalanx of “dopey” person- ages. One suspects that their candy-box sentiment is as much a reflection of Miró’s erotic life as the reduction of gender to burlesque ideograms is essential to his iconography. For vivid example of the latter, take the sculpture Object (Object of Sunset), 1936, with its old gas-burner jet turned into a little fellow shackled to a tree crotch painted red and transformed into a Fellini-like harpy through the addition of a hairy vagina. Ideogram here turns into id.

Yet Miró’s tastes did not always run to flea-market charm—all intellectuals secretly delight in the solecisms of popular culture and the exquisite embarrassments occasioned by kitsch—let alone prehistoric cave markings; he also explored collage’s potential for ferocious materiality. Take, for example, those tough-love works in which twisted hanks of rope play garroting roles in the “Rope and People” collages of 1935. Certainly the meaning of Miró’s art is neither sand nor tar nor the featheriness of the feather nor the ropiness of rope—though there is a significance in the sheer quiddity of brute matériel that, while eluding verbal transcription, contributes to the abstract strength of his work.

The notorious politburo-like power plays within the Surrealist circle and the world stock market crash of 1931 add broader meanings to Miró’s work of the time. His personages and paintings, along with those of Picasso, were seen as emblems of the Left’s response to Franco’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, especially when Guernica was installed in the pavilion of the Loyalist Spanish government in exile at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937—an event memorialized by Miró with a famous poster appeal, Aidez l’Espagne.

Political critique is also intrinsic to that year’s Still Life with Old Shoe, which concluded this exhibition. Always seen as a single work occupying an entire style, the painting is a high point of Miró’s career, arguably never again approached despite all the achievements yet to come. With its foggish black moiré and Krazy Kat fork stabbed into the apple of original sin, the body of Christ as the heel of a loaf of bread, and the gin bottle and old shoe of the Spanish dirt-poor, Still Life with Old Shoe represents Spain itself, speaking at the same time to the privations of the Loyalist struggle at home (as well as in France, where refugees, Miró among them, were received with grim hostility) and the depredations of those living under the victorious regime of “El Caudillo.”

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.