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ART REVIEW : MOMA's Miro Showcase Takes Its Place in History : Despite the importance of the Catalan painter's work, the exhibition feels remote and unable to make its claims on the present day.

November 18, 1993|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

NEW YORK — This is not Joan Miro's moment, despite the best efforts of the Museum of Modern Art to make it so. In an extravagant centennial exhibition of both the scale and ambition of its 1980 survey of Picasso and 1992 survey of Matisse, the museum's current Miro extravaganza feels strangely remote.

Make no mistake: The great Catalan painter is an artist of immense importance, and MOMA's show is rich with beautiful and moving pictures. (It also includes drawings, sculptures and ceramics.) Yet, unlike the sweeping presentations of Picasso and Matisse, which left you feeling the pressure of their artistic claims on the present day, you find yourself exiting the current exhibition firm in the conviction that, however great, Miro is a historical figure. Time and again, his art waves "Hello!" from a rather remote and hazy distance.

This remoteness is disconcerting because Miro is unarguably the first European artist to have barreled into the foreground after the devastating trauma of World War I. (He was born in Barcelona in 1893 and died on Christmas Day, 1983, in Palma Majorca.) Picasso and Matisse made their first revolutionary explorations of form and color in the heady and combustible decade before the war. Miro's mature Surrealist work, beginning around 1923, is closer to our own time.

A dozen years Picasso's junior and more than 20 years younger than Matisse, Miro benefited from the example of both. His interest in a modern artistic vocabulary is obvious as early as 1916, in still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Four years later he began shuttling back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, the city whose cultural ferment shook him to his artistic roots.

"I agree with you," he wrote excitedly to Picasso, following his return to the family farm in Montroig after his first, eye-popping visit to the French capital, "that to be a painter you must remain in Paris . . ."

Of course, Miro did not remain in Paris, although he lived and worked there often. Always he returned to Spain. His painting was to become a remarkable fusion of French Modernism and Catalan sensibility.

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The pivot in the show is Miro's first widely acknowledged masterpiece, "The Farm" (1921-22). Densely packed, sharply observed and dreamily evocative, this view of a barn yard, farmhouse and cultivated fields seems mundane yet magical. The charmed logic of nature and the dazzling irrationality of culture are wedded at the ancient site where nature and culture purposefully intertwine: a farm.

Within a year, Miro was inventing the forms that would make him the most important artist of his generation. Pictures such as "The Tilled Field," "Pastorale" and "The Hunter (Catalan Landscape)"--all from 1923-24 and all, as their titles suggest, expanding on the rural themes of "The Farm"--begin to develop a hitherto unseen spatial field: The surface of the canvas becomes a rich, floating pool of aqueous color.

Sometimes this chromatic pool spreads out over the entire canvas. Occasionally it's divided into regions that suggest earth and sky, with a horizon line between them. Elsewhere the modulation of color across the surface seems wholly arbitrary, passing through a spectrum itself transformed through underpainting.

The canvas becomes an equivalent for the "tilled field" of Miro's title. Like the medium in a petri dish, this field is a site for all manner of inventive creatures to cavort. Some are schematically suggestive of known things, such as animals, plants, buildings or tools. Others seem purely fanciful, as if a new and unexpected species had been born from the stew. Still others are pungently allusive, like the recurrent, disembodied eyeball, whose godlike omnipotence suggests the artist's all-pervasive vision.

This fecund, imaginative space for painting can legitimately be thought of as "Miro space." Nowhere is his invention more powerfully displayed than in the series of 23 small gouaches on paper collectively known as "The Constellations" (1940-41), now brought together in its entirety for the first time in 50 years.

With the fascist government of Franco in Spain and the Nazi terror invading France, imagine the boxed-in horror of Miro's situation. Then, look at these emancipatory gouaches. "The Constellations" suggest fantastic pictograms emerging from a night sky. Filled with a sense of expansive possibility, they comprise an astonishing assertion of imaginative faith in the face of pervasive darkness.

With time, "Miro space" became functionally synonymous with "Modern space," the ground zero from which so much other art flowed. Not the least of it was American Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and '50s, which would have been unthinkable without Miro's precedent.

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