At an age when surrealist painter Joan Miró might have considered retirement, or at least allowing age to excise the demands on his speed and productivity it seems to necessitate for most of us, he didn’t back off or slow down.
“He could have rested on his laurels, he was already in the history books,” says Gwen Chanzit, curator of modern art and Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive for the Denver Art Museum. The museum is hosting Joan Miró: Instinct and Imagination, an exhibition focused on the work done by the Catalan artist in his 70s and 80s.
“He’s not slowing down, he’s gearing up. He pushed creativity, he pushed boundaries well into old age,” Chanzit says.
In a quote from the artist at age 85 that’s emblazoned on one of the museum walls, Miró declared, “I painted in a frenzy so that people will know that I am alive, that I’m breathing, that I still have a few more places to go. I’m heading in new directions.”
The exhibition, organized by the Seattle Art Museum and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, pulls together more than 50 paintings, sculptures and drawings from 1963 to 1981 to illuminate those last decades before Miró’s death in 1983.
One of the artist’s largest shifts in that era was to embrace bronzecasting assemblage — taking objects he found, instead of making replicas, and assembling a sculpture from them that was then cast in bronze. He was among the first to incorporate socalled found objects, alongside Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp (of the urinal displayed with the title “Fountain” and signed “R. Mutt”). Fondue forks, stirring spoons, a shovel and baby doll arms protrude from sculptures now oxidized to ancient shades of green. These works entice a viewer to walk full circle around them to examine every side.
“For me, form is never something absolute,” Miró said. “It’s always a sign of something else.”
The resulting sculptures’ sense of happy accidents is carried over into inventive, airy paintings and drawings rife with shapes that recall the silhouettes of women, birds and stars, a trio Miró calls together time and again. He saw the three, respectively, as symbols of fertility or earthly existence, imagination and poetry, and unlimited possibilities.
The exhibition opens with a painting on those themes — “Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Pablo Picasso),” that Miró finished the day Picasso died. Amid the interlocking geometry, there are only hints of the curves of a female form, the arc of a crescent moon and an asterisk-like star — just enough to evoke empathy for the puzzlework of a human.
In contrast to that elaborate and meticulously interwoven composition are a series of predominantly white paintings hung adjacent to one another. An ascending trail of tiny black dots is threaded together with a tenuous line of black paint and given the company of two dots, one in red and the other in blue, all of them floating on a vast white canvas for “Bird in Space.” Two black lines sketch out an organic V-shape headed across the canvas, floating above three red blotches for an ethereal, meditative effect in “The Dance of the Poppies.” Where “Woman, Bird and Star” works like a sonnet in layering its self-referential forms, these largely blank canvases are haiku. In them, Miró stretches toward his goals of achieving maximum intensity with minimal means and conveying a sense of motion in immobile paint — something Miró described as like soundless music. At the least, it’s an economy of ink in the way of good writers, and an acknowledgement that some times, we are most effected not by the grand chords, but a single voice carrying a lonely melody.
The minimalist approach puts the focus on the human action and gesture in the blank field, says Juao Fernandes, deputy director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. We see those hands at work in a film of the artist included in the exhibition that shows him in a studio. Paintings are propped against the furniture and cover the floor in a carpet of abstract forms. The artist, white haired and fingers bent by the decades, begins with line drawings, then a brush dipped in black paint hovers over the canvas, then fingers apply green paint.
He sets the latest work among the others, then drops himself into the rocking chair facing it and gives it a hard look. The work, he said, didn’t always come in the act of applying the line to canvas, but in conceiving of where the line needed to go. He scrutinizes it then as if to ask: Have we arrived? Whatever respite he takes while contemplating will likely be brief.
ON THE BILL: Joan Miró: Instinct and Imagination. Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver, 720-865-5000. Through June 28. Special events include “Artful Aging: Through the Lens of Miró,” a one-day symposium on creativity and aging on May 7.