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Late works by Joan Miro show famed creator practicing art of metamorphosis

March 19, 2014 at 6:49 PM EST
Sixty works produced during the last two decades of Joan Miro's long life, never before exhibited in the United States, are currently on show. The famous abstract artist's late works feature the mixture of painting and sculpture and assemblages that conjure playful monsters. Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown visits the Seattle Art Museum.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: The Spanish artist Joan Miro was one of the most renowned painters of the 20th century.

Jeffrey Brown takes us to an exhibition that offers the chance to see the artist in a new light.

JEFFREY BROWN: A recent evening at the Seattle Art Museum, and visitors are puzzling over an assortment of cast-off items, a bent garden rake, a headless doll, a flattened straw basket, all assembled into sculptural creatures by the Spanish artist Joan Miro, who once said he wanted to create a phantasmagoric world of living monsters.

Curator Catharina Manchanda says, if they are monsters, they are at least playful ones.

CATHARINA MANCHANDA, Seattle Art Museum: This sculpture really resonates with me. I don’t know what it is, but it kind of captures both something so light-hearted, but also it has a certain gravitas, which is, of course, reflected in the title. It’s called “The Warrior King.”

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Warrior King,” yes, but with a spoon in his hand. Right?

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: Yes, he is brandishing a cooking spoon, instead of a sword here.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is that? Do you know?

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: It might be an embroidery hoop, so an object that comes from the home, and perhaps more feminine and domestic. There is something both very strong, but also fragile there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 60 works here, from the last two decades of Miro’s long life, after he was already famous, are from the collection of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and none have ever been shown in the U.S.

Paintings feature symbols and figures, as in the large-scale “Women and Bird in the Night.”

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: This may look completely abstract to you when you first look at it, all these primary colors on this white background. But what we actually have is a bird perched in some kind of landscape and a crescent moon, that blue shape right above it. They all stand for an imaginary universe.

JEFFREY BROWN: A new element of late Miro is the interplay between painting and sculpture. In “Woman, Bird and Star,” Manchanda says, you can see Miro’s use of shapes and collage, and then compare how similar techniques show up in the nearby sculpture titled “Figure.”

So walk me through this, fondue forks, some kind of gourd-like vegetable. What else?

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: Well, I have a whole tree trunk here. Also, you can see over here these little arms here. You can really see each and every object in its various colors and materials.

And then — and this is really the important second step — he casts them in bronze. And what you get as a result is that all these disparate elements become unified. It’s almost like the memory of these objects.

JEFFREY BROWN: The memory of the objects, you think that is the way he thought about it?

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: That’s how I think about it, yes. Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

Miro collected the objects from a variety of sources, often finding things washed up on the beaches near his home in Mallorca.

Biographer Jacques Dupin wrote that Miro would come back from walks — quote — “laden down like a packhorse with all sorts of things, valueless, obsolete, but capable, in his eyes, of metamorphoses.”

All the works in this exhibition, in fact, were created when Miro was in his 70s and 80s. This is a portrait of the artist as an older man.

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: He was internationally celebrated. He had retrospectives, awards, every recognition. He could have just been content with what he had accomplished up to that point. But he kept saying: I have to keep moving forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did he slow down? Were there any signs of diminishing?

CATHARINA MANCHANDA: Well, you would think that work like this would have been physically quite demanding. I mean, here you are at age 88 and he is still building all these different objects, some of them larger in scale.

But I don’t see any indication that he was slowing down. And what’s even more amazing is, it’s not like he was going back and repeating things. He really keeps pushing the boundaries all the way to the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: Miro died in 1983 at the age of 90. This exhibition of his final works will remain in Seattle through May, and then travel to the Nasher Art Museum in North Carolina.