Aggressive Perfector

miro-dutchMiro: The Dutch Interiors
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Through January 17, 2011

Two years ago the Museum of Modern Art presented Joan Miro: Painting and Anti-Painting, a retrospective of the Catalan artist's work from 1927 to 1937. This small slice of the painter's oeuvre proved to be one of the best and most intelligent shows of that year, parsing Miro's long and often repetitive years of work to get to the period that not only made him an important figure for his time, but made him an important painter for ours. Now, the Metropolitan Museum follows up this event by winnowing further the scope of works of that period and gives us just three works, called The Dutch Interiors, magnificent proto-surrealist pieces from his most fertile research into image deconstructing, along with preparatory studies, sketches, and most importantly two of the original Dutch masterpieces upon which they were based.

The paintings were begun after a trip to Amsterdam, where he acquired the postcard reproductions that he worked from. His rhetoric at the time reflected that of the Dadaists militaristic attacks on High Art. "I imagine to attack every day more and more thoroughly, making my victims die cleanly, without agonizing nerve spasms," he wrote of this project. "A dry blow like lightning." One pictures Miro as the character of Dexter, from the television show, whose nocturnal dissections on his living victims he describes as "exploring" them, and yet who recoils at all the messy blood-splatter. What drove Miro in these works, and is brilliantly documented in large museum wall texts and diagrams, was something akin to an autopsy of the works, whose smooth, flawless surfaces hid intricate details and nuances that he wanted to exhume for his own. About "Dutch Interior I" (1928) we learn, "[He] was seduced by the ability of the Dutch painters to make dots as tiny as grains of dust visible, and to concentrate attention on a tiny spark in the middle of obscurity." Here in one sentence we find the territory Miro will continue to mine with such success in his later Constellations series. His version of Marenz Sorgh's "The Lute Player" debones the musician and stretches the figure diagonally across the canvas, flaying him a la Hannibal Lector. The effect, however, conveys not horror but a sensuous abandonment to the music. Sogh's lute player has a doe-eyed listener at a table laden with plump fruits, her attention rapt. Miro has turned the pleasure of playing for her into the pleasure of just playing, making this a personal recital, or if we might go further, a private performance for us.

In "Dutch Interior III" (1928), Miro cuts away the necrotic trappings of art history like a good surgeon. With his precise brushwork and hard-edged forms he eliminates atmospheric shading, flattens the planes to eliminate depth of field, and pins together the figure as if reconstructed by an interior logic. We see elements of a woman -- breasts, arms, hands -- but we feel the sinuous reach of her arms, the arch of her body. The splayed limbs and disjunctive anatomy suggest a reconstruction of the form, not as "idealized" but as "ideal." Harmony of (human) form trumps harmony of composition, and reminds us why the Surrealists took so quickly to Miro, adopting him as one of their own. This little painting leads the way to Picasso's deconstructed women as well as to Surrealist parlor games such as "The Exquisite Corpse." Little touches like the small white dog and arrow give an absurdity to the work, and point to future artists including George Condo and Peter Saul. Indeed, for an artist so driven to destroy painting, it turns out that Miro did quite a lot to resuscitate it.

The abundance of studies and sketches in the show, as well as a few ancillary paintings, adds greatly to the laboratory feel that Miro was trying to conjure. It also belies the simplicity of the final works. His fetishistic focus on "every little dot" or "reflection" is made manifest; lines, arrows, and points draw the eye through the carefully modeled yellow field. In the end, though, all of this background material, while useful for interpreting the symbols and signs of the Dutch Interiors, merely reinforces what the paintings already tell us: Miro was a consummate painter's painter, driven by inner need to reinvent an art for himself. If the result looks so clear and simple, it is because he did it so well. - Bradley Rubenstein

dom

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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