Art Review

Women, Birds and Stars Shine in Joan Miró: Instinct & Imagination at the DAM

Joan Miró is without a doubt one of the key figures in the development of abstraction in the twentieth century. In fact, aside from Picasso, he is the most important source in developing non-pictorial images.

In the 1920s, Miró, a Spanish artist working in Paris, like Picasso, began to develop an abstract surrealist style and continued to work in that style through the 1930s. Though he never came to this country, his work was widely known in the United States. In the ’40s, Miró lighted the path to abstract expressionism in America through his advocacy of automatism. Using this approach, the artist was freed from the methods of traditional picture-making through the intercession of the subconscious, which guided the brush in seemingly random directions. Despite this, Miró held on to certain representational referents, notably women, birds and stars, whereas classic abstract expressionism is essentially non-objective.

During World War II, Miró fled Nazi-occupied France, and lived mostly in Spain for the rest of his life. In the 1950s, he settled on the island of Mallorca, where he built a home and a studio. Once there, he relentlessly created paintings and sculptures almost until his death in 1983. These pieces make up the last chapter in Miró’s career and are the subject of the beautiful exhibit Joan Miró: Instinct & Imagination, now on view at the Denver Art Museum.

These paintings, and especially the sculptures, aren’t as well known as his earlier work: Remember, Miró was ahead of the curve in terms of vanguard art before WWII, but by the ’60s, with the rise of pop art and minimalism, he was behind it. Nonetheless, his role as a certified artistic genius is reinforced by these later pieces, which, in retrospect, have held up very well.

A traveling exhibit, Joan Miró was organized by the Seattle Art Museum, where it debuted, and Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia, which owns all the Mirós included. It was put together by MRS curators Carmen Fernández Aparicio and Belén Galán Martin. For the Denver incarnation, which is on display in the Gallagher Family Gallery on the main level of the Hamilton Building, Gwen Chanzit, from the DAM’s Modern and Contemporary department, served as host curator.

Chanzit arranged the pieces so that the two-dimensional works relate in some way to the specific three-dimensional pieces that are displayed nearby. And she sensitively lined up, clustered or divided up works according to often subtle compositional affinities. In that way, she separated different kinds of compositions into discrete groups. This reveals Chanzit’s eye for detail, since everything in the show is interrelated — meaning that the works could have been installed in any number of ways.

The dramatic exhibition design, by Ben Griswold, is also notable. The walls in the cavern-like Gallagher have been painted in deep shades of red, yellow, blue and black, which happen to provide a pretty good survey of Miró’s signature palette. These strong background colors cause the paintings and sculptures to stand out like lighted signs.

The first passage in the show absolutely stopped me in my tracks. The large wall facing the entrance features a spectacular painting, “Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso),” from 1966, paired with a small bronze sculpture on a stand, “Figure,” from 1969. The pairing points up the drop-dead-gorgeous character of Miró’s classic aesthetic — which can be seen in the painting — and juxtaposes it with his continuing inventiveness in exploring new directions, which is revealed by the sculpture. In just two works, it’s clear what is coming. And the way they are presented highlights how fresh his stuff still looks half a century later.

In “Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso),” Miró shows off a number of his important contributions to abstraction — all in one piece. There’s the painterly ground, the fine lines that stand out from it, and the freely formed organic shapes. The lines and forms are done in deep shades of red, blue, black, green and yellow. They’ve been organized so that they look like the depiction of an imaginary figure, an effect that is reinforced by the fact that the abstract lines and forms occupy the same compositional space that a portrait would. The fact that Miró dedicated the piece to Picasso is indicative of the personal friendship between the two modernist pioneers.

The sculpture “Figure” is also meant to be an abstraction of a figure, but in this case, Miró cast a found-object assemblage in bronze and then had it finished in an all-over variegated patina. The artist would relentlessly scan the beaches near his home to gather junk washed up from the sea, and would then assemble the things he found into compositions. Finally, he had the results cast in bronze by a foundry he worked with. In the case of “Figure,” there are chunks of logs, a gourd and a rock that he stacked up to form a totemic spire. A whimsical element is the array of fondue forks that were used to make a headdress or crown. These sculptures, especially in Miró’s approach to casting found objects, are closely related to Picasso’s contemporaneous works.

As interesting as the sculptures are, though, the paintings are definitely the stars of this show. There are several that stand out, including “Woman VI,” from 1969. On a light-colored ground, Miró has laid down thick black bars that lyrically intersect one another to vaguely convey a face. Around the lines are smudges, smears and spatters of different colors. It really shouldn’t work, since it’s so out of balance and creates a somewhat clumsy composition, but Miró pulls it off.

The same is true of “Femme en transe…,” from 1969, in which Miró employs a big black blob against a white field to define the figure, which is then accented by just a little red, yellow and blue. Talk about a basic palette: he only uses the primaries plus black and white.

This kind of reductionism is embraced to an even greater extent in a couple of paintings that are barely there — stripped to a minimal expression, but without being technically minimalist. There’s 1973’s “Dance of the Poppies,” which is composed almost entirely of a white ground, on which Miró has struck only two lines, done in black, and three dashes of red paint. Closely related is the even more striking “Landscape,” from 1976, which is hung adjacent. In this case, the fairly similar light-colored ground has been more actively filled in with smears of paint in various shades of white. A star made of overlapping lines anchors the top; below is a short horizontal line. On either side of this line are two tiny spots of color in blue and black, with a third in red on the other side of the picture.

At the end of the show is a darkened gallery in which a film of Miró working is being screened. At the time the film was made, Miró was already an old man. It shows him at work on multiple pieces at the same time in his very organized studio. Periodically, he steps back and looks, or even sits and thinks, only to make additions and changes to the pieces.

Chanzit remarks that it was amazing that Miró continued to work at such a pace into his eighties. She points out that he was already famous, with his works in the most important museums in the world, so he had nothing to prove. But he was still driven to constantly create. I’d add that he was also extremely rich, with revenue generated not only by his paintings and sculptures, but by the thousands of prints that were created in France under his license. I guess it just goes to prove that an artist needs to make art no matter what. And in the case of Miró, we’re all the better for it.