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JaApril 2003

The Semiotics of Desire


Joan Miró Personnage 1967
painted bronze, 85 3/8 x 18 ½ x 15 3/8 inches
Collection of the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona


Joan Miró Femme assise et enfant 1967
painted bronze, 48 3/8 x 15 3/8 x 15¾ inches
Collection of the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona


Joan Miró Projet pour un monument 1972
plaster, 20 1/8 x 15 1/8 x 9 7/8 inches
Aquavella Modern Art, New York


Joan Miró Jeune fille s'évadent 1968
painted bronze, 85 x 19 5/8 x 22 inches
Collection of the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

Joan Miró Untitled Drawing February 1, 1965
ballpoint pen on paper, 7 7/8 x 5 7/8 inches
Collection of the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, Mallorca


According to André Breton, Miró loved painting too much. What the Pope of Surrealism meant by this anathema is that Miró was an aesthete, and therefore not, by nature, a true revolutionary. There may have been something in this indictment. On one occasion, the Surrealists were ordered to shout incendiary statements during a political demonstration. Gathering after the event to compare notes, Miró was asked what he had shouted. "Down with the Mediterranean!", he replied.

But Miró was capable of quiet acts of subversion: his art, gentle and joyous by definition, is equally marked by an earthy, Rabelasian wit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his sculptures, currently on view at the Salvador Dali Museum, St Petersburg, Florida.

And however meticulous and stylized his aesthetic, Miró disavowed any notion of art for art's sake. His art could veer towards abstraction, but he refused membership of the avantgarde grouping, Abstraction-Creation, to which such friends as Calder and Arp belonged, because of an insistence that art needed to be engaged with life to have meaning. Sculpture literally grounded Miró. In his appropriation and transformation of found objects he insisted on art's connection with reality, even if the level of reality he explored was metaphysical rather than empirical.

Miró's sculptural output is concentrated in the later part of his career, when he was an international star, an institution. Sculptures, murals, ceramics, and reliefs were synonymous with public commissions rather than private expression. In Miró's case, the three-dimensional implies a desire to go beyond the easel in search of new audiences. Sculpture also recalls an uncharacteristic moment of iconoclasm from his days as a signed-up Surrealist, when he declared it his aim "to assassinate painting". The form this assassination took in 1928-9, when he briefly abandoned oil paint or tempera, was collage. Effectively, the sculptures from later in his career were a resumption of the collage impulse, albeit that he chose to realise that impulse through tradition sculptural means (bronze casting for instance) rather than unmediated assemblage.

But even as a sculptor, in transpires, Miró loved painting too much. In a small sub-oeuvre he took color and the brush to his plasters and bronzes. The Shape of Color: Joan Miró's Painted Sculpture gathers a dozen examples with many related drawings, while the accompanying book, published by Scala, documents 27 painted sculptures. William Jeffett, co-curator of the exhibition and a leading expert on Miró sculpture, estimates that the painted sculptures constitute around ten per cent of his sculptural output (not counting ceramics) of around 300 pieces. Color has the effect of enforcing a connection between the Miró as sculptor and painter; it also, ironically, subverts the otherness of sculpture, rendering volumes as surfaces and neutralizing the particular materials out of which the objects are crafted, be that bronze, concrete or plaster. Ever the assassin, Miró stabs sculpture in the back with his paintbrush!

Miró's sculptural output was a redux of an earlier surrealist strategy, the discovery of the marvelous through incongruous juxtaposition of commonplace objects. Typically, a Miró bronze brought together things that had been lying around his studios, in Majorca or Barcelona, maybe for many years. (The works in concrete and synthetic materials, by contrast, are "original", freely modeled forms.) Personnage, 1967, as an example of a painted bronze cast from found objects, assembles a rake, the lid of a wheat cannister, and a chopping block. The rusticity of these objects also puts us back into the depictive world of early paintings like The Farm, 1921-22, or The Ploughed Field, 1923-24. But Mirós's paintings of his late period, unlike their contemporaneous sculptures, had moved beyond "chance encounters" to a more poetic symbolism whose lexicon comprised stars, birds, flowers, clouds, faces, words, et cetera. There is a substantial distinction, therefore, between Miró's sculptural and painterly languages in this period; or rather, better to say, the mediums drew on different dialects.

On the subject of language, a key aspect of color in Miró's sculpture is the clarification of syntax. In semiotic terms, color serves to isolate the predicates. One might have expected an opposite use of color, to meld the disperate objects into a new totality; or to offer an alternative image running in counterpoint to the volumetric support. After all, the assemblages are clearly enough made up of separate objects. Femme assise et enfant, 1967, for instance, has a common chair with a red pebble, to denote the child, sitting on its green seat/lap, while the mother's head is a "Miróesque" abstract wobbly disk in blue with a clump to denote the what is perhaps the nose, in red. Where deviant colors are allowed within a single object, such as the three yellow slats in the back of the chair or the green seat, the sub-objects are, so to speak, objects within objects anyway. Depictively, the green and the yellow challenge the assumption that the chair itself is part of mother, and that rather, mother (in a green skirt and a yellow blouse) is sitting on the black chair.

A photograph of Miró holding together the raw components of Personnage, 1967, already discussed, demonstrates the losses and gains involved in the transformation of source materials first into bronze and then into strident, primary, full-gloss color. The colors of Miró's painted bronzes are very striking, especially when viewed as they so often are out of doors under the Spanish sun. He left instructions for his sculptures to be repainted and favored brilliant factory colors, so there is not even the possibility of the works taming with the passage of time. The sense of authenticity, the rust, so to speak, in rusticity, is discarded. In its place comes a bright, child-like quality (Miró was an avid collector of siurells, the Majorcan painted figurine whistles, a suggestive source of color in sculpture) and a genuine abstractness. There is added ambiguity in a painted Miró, as we are in the presence of something at once earthy and other worldly, primitive and sophisticated, raw and cooked.

Several works in this show are maquettes for larger prospective "monuments", as he called his public commissions. These are made in plaster, with concrete in mind as the eventual medium, and are keenly informed by his work in ceramic. Here the relationship of color to form is entirely different from that in the bronzes. The rough texture is a support for painted shapes and patterns, although, as Projet pour un monument, 1972-79 demonstrates, there is still the desire to accent distinct body parts, in this case ears and horn-like arms. The colored or painted resin pieces are, semiotically-speaking, somewhere between the painted bronzes and the monuments; like the bronzes, color relates to isolated objects and part-objects, but like the monuments, volumes are more organic, and created ex nihilo.

The clue to Miró's need to transform certain sculptures through color may have to do with the lapse of time between finding the component objects and the act of bringing them together. Color, in other words, marks a new round of creativity in a protracted process. As mentioned, The Shape of Color brings together fourteen sculptures with an abundance of supporting drawings and documentary materials. The drawings, from the two Miró foundations in Barcelona and Majorca respectively, have not been seen before in the United States. They are, for the most part, working sketches, not presentation pieces, and many appear on crude materials like old calendars and backs of envelopes. Often they are accompanied by handwritten notes, whether to himself, the foundrymen, or his assistants. Initially, there is an exciting sense of being let in on the creative process, but the drawings are rarely very satisying in themselves, and are ultimately of marginal consequence. Often they are more diagrammatic than expressive. It is also questionable as to what stage they occupy in the evolution of works. In the suite of sketches that complement Jeune fille s'évadant, for instance, the legs of the gormless woman on the page are crude and spindly, a far cry from the voluptuous legs of the sculpture; little in the drawing suggests that the act of drawing itself generated such an erotic impulse or prompted him to look for a mannequin. What seems more likely is that he had found the mannequin already and was doodling to find workable combinations. Within the drawing, which is purely functional, there was no need to make the legs sexy.

Another surprise in the drawings is that there is remarkably little color, and where there is its correspondence with the intensities and hues chosen is tangential. There is no instance where color seems to generate form, making of color something of an afterthought. Rather than find this disappointing, however, one could find it encouraging because it shows how Miró's color was spontaneous and responsive to the sculptural forms, rather than to preconceived ideas. By not being integral, color is the more luxurious.

The Shape of Color: Joan Miró Painted Sculpture
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 21, 2002-January 6, 2003; Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, February 1-May 4, 2003. Catalogue by Laura Coyle, William Jeffett, Joan Punyet Miró, published by Scala and Corcoran

This article appears by kind permission of Sculpture Magazine where a different version is due for publication