Sunday, December 7, 2008

Seeing is Believing

When I saw the notice for the Joan Miró show at the MoMA, Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937, I didn't bother to read very carefully, because there was no question that I'd be going to see it. I sort of figured it might be a few pieces from their permanent collection not normally on view that had been rotated out into the galleries. I was wrong. This is a seriously comprehensive show of the man's work during this decade, with a ton of amazing pieces on display.

The first year of 1927 opens the show with his very sparse works on bare, glue-sized canvas.

--48, 1927 (oil and aqueous medium on canvas)
--All images courtesy of the MoMA's online exhibition, except where otherwise noted.  That they've done this is impressive in its own right; there are a good number of works included in the online catalogue that didn't appear at the show and help to flesh out more of what the artist was doing.
I think what I love most about these first works was how extremely basic the statements were that he was making:
The surface is canvas.
Some canvas is gessoed.
Paint is applied with a brush.
Some paint has color.
Composition involves lines and points in space.
Something from the real world is being represented pictorially.

Miró lived at number 45, so 48 was right across the street, and he would see it every day. Certainly there's a precursor to Jasper Johns here in the symbolic quality of its representativeness, but again I go back to the progressive subtraction from the nature of painting that would lead to the end of it all. Because these paintings are so very simple, one gets the most crystal clear impression of what Miró believed to be the fundamental starting points for his explorations.

But he's also paring down the nature of representation itself to its barest minimum:

--Painting (Cloud and Birds), 1927 (oil and aqueous medium on canvas)
What is it really? A blotch of white paint, scribbly black lines, and sharp triangular licks accented by primary colors. But look at the title, and it is immediately obvious what's cloud and what's bird. Why? What is it about these primitive, even childlike forms that suggests anything from reality to the viewer at all? Is it that the white field is round? Clouds aren't always necessarily round. Is it that the scribbled black strokes are contained inside the white field, rather than straying outside it or being adjacent to it? Would that make a difference? Is it that the curving triangular shapes are where the colors are to be found and not in the white field? Is it the combined sum of all of these elements, where if one were missing, it would all fail to achieve what it has? All of these carefully controlled decisions bring into serious question the viewer's ability to assign representational meaning to the very basic elements of composition and how that process operates.

Speaking of titles, I believe the title of this next piece can be read in two quite significant ways:

--Painting, 1927 (oil and aqueous medium on canvas)
On the one hand, the title is a noun, describing what this object is. On the other, it's a verb, describing what the piece is about. To some degree, any artist's self-portrait essentially does something very similar to this. In other words, a self-portrait is a portrait of an artist in the act of painting a portrait of the artist. And unlike the furthest reaches of Minimalism, which just simply were Paintings, Miró's piece represents, depicts what painting is. According to him, it's paint applied to a canvas, line, field, and color, and the illusion of a three-dimensional universe in perspective. The question of the relationship between the means by which painting signifies, and what outside itself it is able to signify and how, is one he will return to time and again.

When he enters into collage, the whole question becomes transcendental. Here, though, he's talking not about what a painting is, but about the actions of representing:

--Spanish Dancer I, 1928 (sandpaper, printed paper, nails, conté crayon, and graphite on flocked paper mounted on paperboard)
First of all, the only thing representational about this piece is the tiny little shoe, likely cut out of a newspaper advertisement or similar, and glued on. Since it's collage, the very two-dimensional nature of the work's ability to be representational is strongly amplified by the shoe. The sandpaper, however, draws the sharpest contrast. It isn't just a two-dimensional surface anymore. In fact, the only reason sandpaper has any utilitarian function at all is because it has a three-dimensional, scratchy texture. By drawing on both the sandpaper and the flocked paper, he's made an analogy between the two materials. It's the three-dimensionality of both--however fine--that allows them to accept the wax and graphite from the crayon. The sandpaper fully scrapes the wax off the end of it, absorbing it in chunks into its sandy cavities. At a much smaller scale, all paper must do this to be drawn upon.

The sandpaper isn't just glued on, either; that would be a relatively two-dimensional object stuck to another by the means of a third, that is, a more or less two-dimensional layer of glue. Rather, it's nailed to the paperboard. Nailing is violent, piercing, destructive, it amplifies the physicality of the materials. The nails go in, through, behind the surface in three-dimensions and draw attention to the movements of hammering in addition to that of laying one paper onto another. The lines drawn onto the sandpaper converge at an angle, pointing upwards like an arrow, but in any case alluding to a direction in space, a movement. The texture of the paper calls vivid attention to the movement of the crayon across its surface. All this in a close relationship with the shoe, or foot, as if the dance that is the act of painting might be felt like the movements of a Spanish dancer.

I need to skip ahead briefly to discuss one last step in this vein:
--Collage, 1929 (conté crayon, tar paper, paper, and flocked paper on paper)
After a few painterly experiments, he switched back to collage for a short time. These collages mostly deal more with how the three-dimensional nature of the background surface affects and alters the lines and fields applied to them. But this one is particularly interesting because here the sandpaper becomes tarpaper. Its grain is so very coarse, and the tar so completely black. Quite contrary to the sandpaper--the texture of which exaggerates the ability of crayon to leave marks on a surface--here the analogous qualities of the paper confounds the possibility of leaving marks on it. In other words, the grain would likely take off chunks of wax too large to read as a continuous line, and on top of that, it's too dark to provide a suitable ground for a line drawing. Certainly he could have used white chalk easily enough. But I think the point here is that the wax crayon is very much constrained by a narrow range in the three-dimensionality of the surface: too smooth and it can't leave a mark (e.g. trying to use crayons on a coloring book with glossy laminated pages), too coarse (and dark) and it can't leave a visible line, either.

Going back, possibly the furthest he ever went into exploring the nature of pictorial representation by itself is this next one:

--Dutch Interior (I), 1928 (oil on canvas)
Dutch Interior is based on this painting:

--Hendrick Martensz Sorgh, De Luitspeler, 1661
--Image courtesy Lute of the Month.
But Miró was working from a postcard of Sorgh's painting. So Miró's work, hanging in the MoMA, is essentially six steps removed from the original subject:
The original three-dimensional room and subject.
Sorgh's two-dimensional representation of the subject.
Sorgh's 3D art object.
The 2D photographic reproduction of the painting.
The 3D postcard.
Miró's 2D reinterpretation of the postcard.
Miró's 3D art object.
The work swings back and forth between object and representation, signified and signifier. It's as if Alice is standing astraddle the looking glass and playing peek-a-boo with the Mad Hatter. It may be precisely because it precariously rides this line that Miró's resulting work raises these questions in its convoluted appearance. The real world of the original subject obeys the laws of physics, physiology, light, shadow, color, and the consistency of change. But the forms and shapes in Miró's representation exist in their own unique universe, with its own set of laws and prohibitions guided by the nature of the medium. He'll explore this much more acutely later on, but this one was for sure worth mentioning.

A similar thing happens with this portrait:

--Portrait of La Fornarina, 1929 (oil on canvas)
It's rather large, and the dark, muted, somber colors, somewhat unusual for Miró, make this an extraordinarily moody and beautiful piece. Fornarina is a reinterpretation of this painting:

--Raphael, La Fornarina, 1520
--Image courtesy Art Catablogue.
No one knows exactly who she is, but she's alleged to have been Raphael's lover. That her true identity is mysterious I feel is important for Miró, but that will go further later on. The maybe sole exception is the yellow eye--and I think worth noting that it is the eye, and not some other part of her, look at how intense her eyes are in Raphael's. Otherwise, take any of the three main fields of color out of Miró's work individually, and there would be absolutely no indication that they were extracted from the portrait of a person. The darkest field at the bottom would be nothing more than a quick impression of a mountain peak. So again, why is it so clear, in their combination, that it is a portrait? What is the fundamental nature of representing the human body, however abstractly, that we can still recognize it as such?

They do have quite a few of Miró's sculptures on display, many of which are quite interesting, but I'm just going to show this one:

--Object, 1932 (oil, sequins, and sand on pebble, shell, mirror, wood, paint, and nails (original mirror and shell have been replaced))
I like this one because it seems to very specifically deal with a lot of the same issues as the works I've been discussing. First of all, the painting is flat, but it's executed on a rounded three-dimensional object, the stone. More interesting though is the mirror and the shell. It's a sculpture, so you can experience the bottom of it as well as the top.  It's a construction that includes a mirror, so you can experience more than one vantage at the same time.  The mirror allows you to see up inside of the shell, where a sea creature once lived. The shell has been replaced, so who knows what it was originally, although I'd be extremely surprised if it weren't as identical to the artist's choice as could be found. So it's interesting that it's a clam shell and not an oyster shell. There's no possibility that by viewing this work from the correct angle, one might find a pearl. It's therefore not the value of what one might find as a result of its construction, like a buried treasure, but the process of discovery per se, made possible by it being three-dimensional.

But what happens next is kind of exciting.  He has a sort of breakthrough where the two separate lines of thought in his work suddenly come together.  He starts making paintings of his own collages:
--Collage (Study for Painting), 1933 (printed paper and graphite on paper) and Painting, 1933 (oil on canvas)
Now, granted, these collages are clearly just studies.  They don't particularly stand alone as collages, at least not in any way like his other collage work does.  We have this same question of distance here between the original real-life subject of the work and the pictorial universe of Miró's landscape.  And he's pushed it one step further, as well.  The objects in his universe start to become something else entirely from where they began.  What starts as a soda siphon now has a face, it's become a figure.  In the other direction, the figures in his work have been distorted by the objects from which they derive.  What I find most interesting here, though, is this source object:
It comes from a political cartoon drawn by Feliu Elias.  But the figure/object is already surreal. With Dutch Interior one can trace the imagery back to a real physical environment, and it's the distance, the layers one goes through to get there that causes the distortion.  Here, the original source object is instead something conceptual, an idea.  There's something similarly ambiguous in his use of industrial machinery in the collages:

--Collage (Study for Painting) [detail], 1933
He's turned it on its side, so from the beginning he's clearly concerned with the formal personality of the object, rather than whatever symbolism it might offer.  But on top of that, while it's still a piece of industrial machinery, most normal viewers at first glance would have not the slightest idea what this machine's function is.  It therefore becomes vaguely symbolic of "machinery" in general, rather than of some specific product or activity that might be performed on it or by it.  With something like plumbing or a propeller, the function of the object and all it connotes is available to most viewers.  Here, the original source is not just simply conceptual, it's for the most part inaccessible.  It means that Miró's pictorial universe must stand alone.  It has a sort of orientation toward something being represented but has been cut loose from it, left to float adrift.

The following year, this direction leads him head-on into his own unique brand of Surrealism, and there's no longer any doubt about it.

--Figure, 1934 (pastel and pencil on flocked paper) and Woman, 1934 (pastel on flocked paper)
On the one hand, the pictorial objects in the painted universe now fully follow their own internal logic.  In practically no way are they guided by the forms, weights, colors, or laws of the real world.  On the other hand, the enormous, grotesque genitalia makes an extremely directed reference to the gendered identity of the figure being represented.  It's almost as if the gender of the subject is one of very few remaining elements Miró considers crucial to the piece even being a portrait at all, but that he's reluctant to have to concede it.

I'm including this one for no other reason but that I think it's hilarious:
--The Farmers' Meal, 1935 (oil on cardboard)
I don't know.  Cows and chickens are just inherently goofy, aren't they?

--Personages Attracted by the Forms of a Mountain, 1936 (tempera on Masonite)
Miró's use of color had always sort of obeyed its own internal logic, even when he was being most representational.  This painting is really interesting, though, because the way color is being used has completely shifted.  That is to say, how figures and ground are delineated in the pictorial space isn't by dividing them up into distinct color combinations as with Farmers.  Instead, the entire work is stark primaries, with only a few exceptions.  His color choices here don't separate objects in space, but instead are used to reference the way that forms in space are modeled.  He's not dealing as much with the way the work represents something outside the painting, but rather the very act of representing it, in and of itself.  It is, in fact, one further marked step toward abstract expressionism.

--Painting, 1936 (oil, casein, tar and sand on Masonite)
Suddenly he switches again, into this last group of quite abstract works in mixed-media.  The subject is quite different, as well.  The forms and symbolism are extremely primitive, in terrific contrast to the complex works immediately prior.  Instead of color, now he's begun exploring the very internal relationships between line and field, line and texture, texture and field, how each is constrained or affected by the others, and the very materiality of the work.  There's practically no exploration of representation here at all, relatively speaking.  The questions of three-dimensionality are completely internal to the artwork itself, in the interrelationships of texture.  The catalogue notes that he actually gouged out part of the Masonite board, so there's something else here about the duality of construction and destruction in the creation of a work of art.

In the last piece in the show, he again turns around practically 180° and head-on into a still-life:

--Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937 (oil on canvas)
It really is a wonderful way to end the show.  While there's no full circle to speak of, particularly, this work seems to sum up everything that the artist had explored over the previous decade into a single piece.  It's at once a pure painting, fully representational and yet striving at every moment to sabotage its ability to represent what it in fact does.  It creates the illusion of a three-dimensional universe that obeys its own rules and regulations, completely in conflict with those in the world of the objects it represents.  This is a new way of seeing the world, a new way of conceiving the relationship between painting and painted.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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