Periodically the Museum of Modern Art orchestrates what I call a Miró Immersion, one of those experiences that can make you an art lover for life or, if that’s already the case, prompt you to renew your vows. It’s an exhibition, of course, and it’s devoted to the Spanish modernist Joan Miró (1893-1983). But thanks to MoMA’s extraordinary holdings in Miró’s work and its curatorial familiarity with them, these shows sometimes achieve a pervasive, extra-visual intensity.
This happens in “Joan Miró: Birth of the World,” especially in an astounding first gallery which is alive with Miró’s inventiveness, natural talent and playful malice. The show brings together 60 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and illustrated books made mostly from 1920 to the early 1950s, all but a handful from the museum’s collection. The focus is “The Birth of the World,” a prescient painting that might even qualify as a “lost masterpiece.” Painted by Miró in 1925, it was largely unknown, except to a handful of artists and other art-world denizens until 1968, when it was included in “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” MoMA’s comprehensive survey of the two movements that introduced anti-materialism and Freudian explorations of the unconscious into 20th-century art.
The artist André Masson once likened this large (8-by-6½ feet) canvas in its radicalness to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907. It is still startling that the two are only 18 years apart. But while “Demoiselles” enabled Cubism, which spread through Europe and beyond in a matter of years, “The Birth of the World” went almost immediately underground; it was too far ahead of its time to have an immediate effect. Its thin veils, splatters and rivulets of gray, ocher and blue wash and horizon-free space would find little echo outside of Miró’s work until around 1950, with the pouring techniques of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler.
True to his sensibility, Miró skirted total abstraction, populating his radical use of paint with jaunty pictographs. These evoke a black kite, a red balloon and a cryptic figure with a white spherical head stomping on the balloon’s yellow string, to keep it from escaping with the kite.
For Miró’s Surrealist cohort, “The Birth of the World” took the revolutionary technique of automatic drawing, which tapped the subconscious, into the realm of painting. They also came up with its title. But generally the painting was unloved by Miró’s other friends and by those of René Gaffé, the astute Belgian collector who bought it from the artist in 1925-26. Stung by ridicule, Gaffé became protective of the painting, exhibiting it only once, in the 1930s, in Brussels. In 1972, MoMA acquired it from his widow, and has kept it almost on constant view.
Entering the show’s first euphoric gallery, you can spot “The Birth of the World” shining forth from the far corner, like a beacon. But first you must contend with seven bedazzling paintings and one drawing in which Miró discovers levitation, empty space and his pictographic universe, setting the stage for “The Birth of the World.”
The 1917 “Portrait of Enric Cristòfol Ricart” — painted three years before Miró set foot in Paris — acknowledges van Gogh and the Matisse of both Fauvism and the 1910s and pushes at Cubist collage. It shows Ricart, an artist with whom Miró shared his studio in Barcelona, in shimmering striped pajamas against a booming yellow wall to which he had glued an actual Japanese print. MoMA has not exhibited this firecracker since 2000, so don’t miss it.
In “The Table (Still Life With Rabbit),” 1920-21, on loan from a private collection, Miró breaks apart Cubism’s shadowy geometries, reordering the little shards into a stylized representation. He musters the glass-like surfaces of a Renaissance painter, while recasting the floating squares from Malevich’s severe abstractions as unanchored table tops. In “The Hunter (Catalan Landscape),” completed in 1924, we see the brushy paint surface, stripped down terrain (yellow sky over peach ground) activated by the black pictographs that would feed his art for the rest of his life.
And there’s still more in this first gallery. In “Dutch Interior (I)” and “Portrait of Mistress Mills in 1750,” (1928 and 1929, respectively), Miró slyly translates old master paintings into biomorphic language. And he also acts on his growing attraction to objects in rough-edged collages, a wood relief and wood sculpture. “I have to tell you,” Miró wrote to his dealer, Pierre Loeb, in 1927, “that I look at real things with increasing love.”
After absorbing the high-velocity growth in the first half of this show, it may take another visit to do justice to its quieter second gallery. The main action is watching Miró effortlessly shift his universe from macro to micro, depending on the size or medium of his working surface. There are also constant references to reality within seeming abstraction: Notice the silhouette of a cat, outlined in white, on the left side of “Painting” (1933). Its tail seems to twitch at the tumult of forms at the center of the canvas.
There are also two portraits that hark back to Miró’s great early efforts in the genre. One is the majestic “Self-Portrait I” of 1937-38, in which the artist’s visage emerges from a panoply of pale grays and pastel-tinted whites and a veritable universe of vegetal husks and spores. Finally there is his “Portrait of a Man in a Late Nineteenth-Century Frame.” This is a found portrait (and a nicely pretentious one) that Miró ingeniously altered, sanding it down here and there and adding the signs and symbols of his antic universe. This hilarious violation dates from 1950, a few years before the Danish artist Asger Jorn began reworking thrift-store paintings. (Coincidentally Jorn’s influence is traced in “Strategic Vandalism: The Legacy of Asger Jorn’s Modification Paintings” at the Petzel Gallery in Chelsea.)
This exhibition has been organized by Anne Umland, senior curator in the museum’s painting and sculpture department, who was also responsible for its 2008 show “Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937.” There’s a caveat: limiting this effort to MoMA’s admittedly glorious Mirós distorts the singularity of “The Birth of the World” and underserves Miró’s career as a whole.
From 1923 to 1927, Miró made scores of paintings with thin, brushed surfaces of one or two colors embellished with symbols, letters and words. Though not as extreme in their use of chance as “The Birth of the World,” at least one or two examples should have been borrowed. In addition, after visiting New York in 1947 and encountering the work of the Abstract Expressionists, Miró pursued the implications of his 1925 masterpiece into new areas. The exhibition might have included a glimpse of late Miró, which MoMA has collected very little and which is due a reconsideration. It’s great to see all the early gems, but the full story of “The Birth of the World” awaits a truer telling, perhaps at a different institution.
Joan Miró: Birth of the World
Through June 15 at the Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.
Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic, regularly reviews museum exhibitions, art fairs and gallery shows in New York, North America and abroad. Her special areas of interest include ceramics textiles, folk and outsider art, design and video art. @robertasmithnyt
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