Late Miró Sculpture Bursts With Comedy, Lively Genitalia

Joan Miró (1893-1983) enjoyed one of the longest, most productive and provocative careers in the history of 20th-century art, and even now-nearly two decades after his death-he hasn’t lost the power to surprise his many admirers with something new. The exhibition called The Shape of Color: Joan Miró’s Painted Sculpture , which is currently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the first to be devoted to its subject: the brilliantly colored figure sculptures the artist produced in the last 20 years of his life.

Miró will always be remembered, first of all, as a painter-indeed, as one of the painters who changed the course of modernist painting. He was certainly a major influence on the Abstract Expressionist painting of the New York School; he worked in New York in 1947 to 1948, a crucial period in the flowering of the New York School. Yet he often made a point of denying that he was himself an abstractionist. “For me a form is never something abstract,” he said in an interview in 1948. “It is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake.”

Whether this is strictly true of Miró’s painting, there’s ample reason to doubt. In The Birth of the World (1925), to cite but one illustrious example, he produced what may be the single greatest abstract painting in the modernist canon, and in some of his late work he produced a number of overscale, imageless Abstract Expressionist paintings that were clearly influenced by the New York School that he had so emphatically influenced earlier on.

Turn to sculpture-as Miró increasingly did in his later years-it’s always true that “a form is never something abstract.” In the current show, the work is all about men, women, birds and sex-Miró’s favorite repertory of pictorial and sculptural motifs. What’s surprising, at times almost shocking, in this late sculptural oeuvre isn’t the sexual imagery, which is cheerfully slapstick, but the high-voltage color that’s deployed with a brilliance and audacity seldom before seen in the artist’s sculpture.

Moreover, color at this level of intensity has scarcely ever been so flagrantly combined with highly comical subjects, especially the kind of sexual comedy that doesn’t hesitate to dwell on hilarious transformations of human genitalia. As the critic Jason Edward Kaufman writes in the current issue of Corcoran Views , the Corcoran Gallery’s quarterly journal, “Miró was not squeamish when it came to representing people’s privates. His women always display their sex, either as mandala-shaped recesses, triangular openings, or some variation thereof. Some sculptures’ buttocks appear as two balls affixed to the rear, often flanking a demure circle. He was our foremost artificer of orifices, and a formidable fashioner of phalluses as well.”

What results from this highly chromatic sexual slapstick looks as if the coloristic intensities of late Matisse cut-outs and Ellsworth Kelly color-chart paintings had been appropriated by a talent well-schooled in the remorseless naughtiness of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi . It’s hardly a surprise, then, to find that one of the painted sculptures in the exhibition- Le Père Ubu (1974)-is actually based on Jarry’s scandalous masterwork, and virtually all the sculptures and the many drawings for the sculptures reflect a similar spirit.

There’s this difference, however, between Miró and Jarry: The distinctly malevolent current of squalor and mayhem in Jarry is entirely absent from Miró’s life-affirming comic sensibility, and Miró’s recourse to the lyricism of high-intensity color places his erotic imagery beyond the reach of Jarry’s sexual nihilism.

As we’re reminded by Laura Coyle, one of the curators of The Shape of Color exhibition, Miró’s work has long enjoyed a special status on the American art scene. She writes in the catalog, “From the moment his work reached American shores until the day he died nearly six decades later, Miró consistently enjoyed more success-sales, exhibitions, favorable reviews, admiration, and emulation-in the United States, and especially in New York City, than anywhere else in the world.”

But as Ms. Coyle also reminds us, it hasn’t always been possible for American critics to acknowledge the sexual content of Miró’s art. The problem wasn’t Puritanism; it was the aesthetics of formalist criticism. The key text was Clement Greenberg’s 1948 monograph on Miró, in which the critic categorically declared: “It is settled now that the main substance of [Miró's] painting is to be the silhouette; that shape, line and flat color will take precedence over texture, plane and mass.” As readers of this column have reason to know, I greatly admired Greenberg as a critic, and still do, but this is not to say that he was always right about everything. About Miró, Greenberg’s own aesthetic biases led him astray. In dismissing the poetic iconography in Miró as irrelevant to the artist’s quality, he got Miró quite wrong, and he influenced other critics to do likewise. It was no doubt in response to this misperception that Miró declared in the pages of Partisan Review in 1948, the year of Greenberg’s monograph, that “For me a form is never something abstract.”

Ms. Coyle’s lengthy account of Miró’s critical reception in America-in which, incidentally, some of my own earlier writings are cited-is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the artist’s work. Meanwhile, The Shape of Color: Miró’s Painted Sculpture , which Ms. Coyle organized in collaboration with William Jeffett, curator of exhibitions at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., remains on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through Jan. 6, 2003. It will then move to the Salvador Dalí Museum (from Jan. 25 to April of 2003).