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Figures of fun

Deft wit and physical humor clothe the intellectual heart of Joan Miro's sculpture. No wonder these wry characters in bronze often became his whimsical studio companions.

By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- What audacity and fun.

"The Shape of Color: Joan Miro's Painted Sculpture" is joyful, exuberant and an unexpected pleasure that bubbles like a champagne cocktail infused with vitamins, a jolt of effervescence that (oh, by the way) is good for you.

The exhibition at the Salvador Dali Museum contains a dozen painted sculptures, mostly bronze, a handful of maquettes (three-dimensional studies for finished pieces, some never completed) and loads of sketches, notes and photographs. Together, they provide a rich and -- dare we say it? -- scholarly look into the creative process of one of the most engaging minds of 20th century art.

It's the first serious survey of Miro's sculptures to come to the United States, a collaboration between the Dali Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it was on view through early this year.

Miro, born in 1893, had a long, successful career and was lauded and remunerated well before his death at age 90. He dabbled in cubism and became a leading artist in the surrealist movement. But, like Picasso, he lived long enough and was talented enough to evolve his own style, one that defies strict labels. Known for his painting, he experimented with sculpture in his early career and returned to it seriously during the last years of his life. The works at the Dali Museum are from that final flowering.

Miro created about 300 sculptures during a 10-year-plus period, and only some were painted. The painted sculptures especially are little known because so many are held by private collectors.

Painted sculpture is nothing new. The ancients routinely slathered garish colors over terra cotta and marble. Still, it takes guts -- and the self-assurance of a master -- to cover expensive bronze with the European equivalent of Rust-Oleum.

Unlike many grand old artists who dwelled on mortality and presentiments of death -- think of Picasso again -- Miro in his last years celebrated life in his art. He called these three-dimensional works his monsters, or personages, terms of endearment, and various ones would hold sway in his studio, keeping him company like surrogate children. The sculptures' carnival colors belie their intellectual underpinning, which is based on shrewdly balanced shapes and forms assembled with wit and double entendre. Miro's visual language creates a narrative thread connecting them all.

Start with the obvious. Sir and Madam, painted bronze, 1969, is two stools. One is red and square-shaped, with a block resting on top incised with a face, one of its eyes enlarged and looking toward the second stool, shorter, black and round, on which rests a yellow ovoid shape. Guess which represents the man and which the woman? A companion piece not in the show is composed of two similar stools, positioned with the "female" on its back, legs up, titled Man and Woman in the Night. You can't help but smile at such ingenuousness and ingenuity.

And that is Miro's gift, his ability to distill without reducing, an aesthetic equivalent of delivering the great punch line without having to tell the joke.

In most of his assemblages, Miro stacks forms, each painted a different color; they break the sculpture into discreet parts, daring you to see and understand the work as a whole. Caress of a Bird, painted bronze, 1967, uses found objects Miro loved to collect. He was especially fond of things reflecting the rural Catalonian countryside where he grew up.

It rises more than 10 feet, a woman whose body is created from an old ironing board, an outhouse seat and a straw hat used to protect donkeys from the sun, the holes cut for ears transformed into eyes, its tip painted a jaunty red to form a nose. A turtle shell the artist found on the beach is also painted red (passion! blood!), set against the green ironing board in a strategic location to represent a uterus. Two balls are affixed to the back to form her buttocks.

It's all very Catalonian, with the naughty references to bodily functions that Miro's countryman Salvador Dali also delighted in. But unlike some of Dali's work, it isn't prurient. Perched at the top is a "dove" made from a rock, a protest of the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who did his best to suppress the Catalan language and culture. (Miro used the Catalonian pronunciation of his first name, ghu-WAN, rather than the generic Spanish "Juan.") Behind the work are sketches that show its evolution in Miro's mind and photographs of the objects as Miro positioned them for the foundry to cast in bronze.

Girl Escaping, painted bronze, 1968, is dominated by a pair of shapely red legs from which ascend shapes for torso and face, then the topper, an (escape) valve with a handle that also suggests she can be turned on or off.

The sculptures are full of such wry combinations. Your Majesty, painted bronze, 1967-68, is cast from the trunk of a palm tree, painted black, a gourd, its stem rising phallically above the open maw of a face and crowned with a diadem cast from the traditional, ring-shaped bread of Catalonia. In Woman and Bird (1967), painted bronze, the female is fashioned from an old farm rake, its prongs her hair waving in the wind.

Miro lived to see the prices for his work rise well beyond the reach of most people and was eager to create large-scale public art that would be accessible to everyone. A number of them are in Europe, and at various times in his last years he tried to place monumental works in New York, Los Angeles and points between. Few came to fruition.

Small maquettes of some are in cases, as is the model for one that was built as a private commission for the plaza of Chase Tower in Houston, Texas, designed by I.M. Pei in 1982. Titled Figure and Birds, it is a triangular shape, which in other work represented the female figure, probably to counter the "maleness" of the soaring skyscraper behind it, with two bird forms (as only Miro would imagine them) projecting from its top.

Personage, 1974, was also a finished sculpture, almost 12 feet high but meant to be remodeled much larger, possibly for Central Park in New York City. It is the only one of the group not cast in bronze but molded from resin, and the least successful. The fiberglass finish is smooth, without the texture the bronze takes on in the casting process from objects' original surfaces. Miro fabricates the shapes rather than using found ones, here a giant clothespin topped by a "torso" that was described as a chestnut but looks like a stuffed black olive, and a smaller orb, shaped like a pistachio, for the head, with a little ball nose. It's in the same pop art family as Claes Oldenburg's work, but it's too suave, too coolly intellectual compared with the vibrant bronzes.

These sculptures offer a lesson in art created for the outdoors, as all these sculptures were. Miro could afford to use a princely metal because he knew he could sell the work or afford to give it away, a luxury few artists have. But because they were properly made, they have endured beautifully, needing only occasional repainting. Look around at much of the outdoor public art commissioned today and you will see that it's deteriorating because of inferior materials and inadequate maintenance.

"The Shape of Color" was put together by William Jeffett, curator of exhibitions at the Salvador Dali Museum and a Miro expert, and Laura Coyle, curator of European Art at the Corcoran Gallery. They spent three years cajoling these works from two Miro foundations and private collectors, along with the fragile collateral papers that rarely leave museum archives. A similar example of a show now on view locally is "Magna Graecia," a joint venture between the Tampa Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Art lovers should be impressed that Tampa Bay area museums are entering the national and international arenas more, not only as borrowers and lenders of art but as organizers of important exhibitions.

* * *

REVIEW: "The Shape of Color: Joan Miro's Painted Sculpture" is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through May 4. Also on view, the permanent collection, including "Dali and Miro," a group of six oil paintings Dali created between 1926 and 1928 that show Miro's influence. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12.50; discounts available. (727) 823-3767.

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