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How simple can a figure be, and still be read as a figure?

“Miró: The Experience of Seeing,” focusing on the last 20 years of the Spanish-Catalan artist’s career, repeatedly raises that question in works that fuse spontaneity with finely honed aesthetic instincts. It’s an exuberant splash of a show, especially in its colorful paintings. But it also has a blunt, shadowy side, evident in sculptures that delve into “a phantasmagoric world of living monsters” (as the artist put it).

The strange thing is that the paintings and sculpture were created in close tandem — by radically different means, granted, yet often sharing titles and symbolic language.

Joan Miró (pronounced “Jwan Mi-RO” in Catalan) lived from 1893 to 1983, and was a colleague and friend of Picasso and an on-again-off-again affiliate of the Surrealist movement. The Seattle Art Museum believes this is the first major Miró retrospective on the West Coast. It’s also the first exhibit instigated by SAM director Kimerly Rorschach since she took the helm at the museum.

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Rorschach worked closely with Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Spain’s leading modern-art museum, in bringing these pieces here. The 61 works are spaciously arrayed around SAM’s special exhibition galleries and have plenty of room to breathe.

The paintings are what jump out at you first, starting with “Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso),” an oil on canvas created between 1966-1973. Its towering stack of intersecting colors and shapes has a precarious circus merriment to it. It’s the perfect illustration of something Miró said in 1974: “A form gives me an idea, this idea evokes another form, and everything culminates in figures, animals and things I had no way of foreseeing in advance.”

The artist simplifies matters considerably in a 1973 acrylic on canvas, “The Dance of the Poppies,” which, with two black lines and three red blobs on a field of white, evokes flowers in bloom on a rugged hillside. “Bird in Space,” a 1976 acrylic on primed canvas, is similarly minimalist, tracking a bird’s diving flight across a white void.

“Spanish Woman” and “Figure, Birds,” both oils on canvas from 1974, are richer affairs, exploring a more intricate patterning of lines in stained-glass hues, enhanced by Jackson Pollock-like drips and splatters. Paul Klee is a key influence, too, on these quirky, animated, semi-abstract figures.

“Klee was the best thing I ever found,” Miró said in 1955. “It was under his influence that my painting freed itself from all terrestrial ties. Klee has made me understand that a stain, an exhalation, or even a point can be a pictorial theme, just the same as a face, a landscape, or a monument.”

The whimsy in his sculptures takes a different path. Their starting points are found objects: wood scraps, household items, garden tools, engine parts. As Miró biographer Jacques Dupin wrote, the artist would come back from walks “laden down like a pack-horse. Laden with all sorts of things — valueless, obsolete, but capable in his eyes of unexpected associations and metamorphoses.”

Using a lost-wax casting process (you can find a lucid explanation of it on YouTube), Miró created patinated-bronze sculptures that look like found-art assemblages.

The sense of freedom in these is invigorating. “Figure and Bird” (1968) transforms a folded straw basket into a head with some kind of spigot as its nose. “Figure” (1968) takes a muddy footprint as the starting point for a torso. A more sinister aura emerges from “Bull’s Head” (1970), with its uneven horns and protruding grille of teeth. Quite a few pieces resemble prehistoric female fertility figures.

Not every work in the show hits its mark or yields its secret. The link between title and content can be cryptic at times. (“Young Woman? Really? Where?”) But there’s plenty here to tease the eye and mind in a playfully rewarding manner.

Michael Upchurch:

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