Joan Miró was overwhelmed by "the spectacle of the sky."
One of the most enduring abstract artists of the 20th century, the Catalan Spanish painter and sculptor described the relationship between the heavens and his sparse pictorial diagrams in a well-known quote recorded in Twentieth-Century Artists on Art. "There, in my pictures, tiny forms in huge empty spaces."
The sky is a presence in his early works; in "The Farm" (1921–1922), an expanse of rich, creamy blue softly glows above a Spanish homestead where objects are rendered flat and almost pixilated, like premonitions of icons on a computer desktop. Miró had a more distinctive way with blue than anyone this side of Pablo Picasso and Yves Klein—his minimalist "Bleu" triptych is the visual equivalent of a warm mineral bath.
An impression of the sky persists in the "Head of a Catalan Peasant" series that followed, which traded late-Cubist vestiges for an even more abstract style honed among Parisian poets and Surrealists. Here, the firmament comes unstuck from land, now an oceanic dreamscape that thrusts up a portrait in childlike hieroglyphics.
The sky is especially prominent in Miró's middle period, when he produced his signature "Constellations" series (1939–1941). On flat planes, calligraphic black lines and primary-colored shapes—zooming arrows, totemic animals, lava-lamp globules and lumpy polygons—form something between a loony star map and jolly bacteria in a Petri dish.
And the sky remains, leached out toward total abstraction, in the late years represented in MIRÓ: THE EXPERIENCE OF SEEING, which can be viewed on the East Coast only at the Nasher. In a 1974 acrylic, oil and charcoal painting, an unaccountably human red-and-black triangle stands on a brown ledge, peering at a crude sickle moon like a suicidal romantic. And in a 1976 "Paysage," or "Landscape," a lone asterisk lends scale to one fine stroke of horizon where three daubs of color range out like lost figures.
Comprising funny anthropomorphic bronzes, mounted on pedestals or in vitrines, and large paintings in weathered gilt-chased frames, the exhibit surveys Miró's final 20 years, with works dating from 1963 to 1981, two years before his death at age 90. In a new studio on the island of Mallorca, he revisited his perennial visions with a freer, bolder, more ideogrammatic hand, seeking the minimum marks necessary to convey image, proportion and emotional perspective.
Many paintings here use flaws on the canvases as starting points, and the sculptures are largely built around found objects. A starkly limited number of familiar motifs—female figures, night skies, sprawling landscapes, birds—refract through the lens of a consistent style which nevertheless divulges endless variations.
Miró expressed contempt for bourgeois painting traditions, but he wasn't doctrinaire about it, as is apparent in his work's fearlessly decorative qualities. He was one of the first artists to experiment with automatic drawing, leading to a brief but influential dalliance with the Surrealists. He was a key inspiration for the Abstract Expressionists, not to mention Pop Art and modern graphic design. But his greatest legacy is in paintings and sculptures that are a joy to behold whether or not you know much about them. We now read about André Breton more than we read his actual works, but we still want to look at Miró.
This exhibit has its darker, more political shades, such as a grotesquely corroded bull's head sculpture made in the repressive Spain of Franco. But the overall impression is one of whimsical fantasy, symbolic depth, humor and charm. Miró called his sculptures "a phantasmagoric world of living monsters." The patinated bronze figures sometimes resemble fertility icons, echoing the voluptuous curves hidden in paintings such as "Bird Woman II" (1977). More often, they're like deformed yet adorable Pixar robots built around tools such as shovels and rakes.
These friendly creatures mingle well with paintings that sometimes evoke a primitive Richard Scarry. In a 1976 "Landscape," a smiling cartoon figure peers up at a Cy Twombly-like sprawl of rough celestial blotches. It looks like a child looking at a Miró. On the day I visited, a little boy kept running around and skidding to a stop in front of ones he liked.
Miró's links with Surrealism are significant—all those squirming lozenges and hairy paisleys are distinctly sexual—but there is something uniquely tonic about his work. Surrealists portrayed the subconscious as a dank, fetid stew of dark fixations, like the cloaca of the mind. Miró found instead a celestial multitude of downy landscapes, where systems of dreamlike rhizomes, instead of being hidden like roots, draw depths up to the surface of the plane.
Miró: The Experience of Seeing has some notable examples of masterful synthesis. Throughout the show, one finds the artist putting his trademark microbiology under a microscope. In "Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso)," it's as though a detail from the teeming "Constellations" has been blown up, revealing a sort of patchwork harlequin figure within.
In the central chamber of the gallery is a small group of ultra-minimal late paintings where fluid brushstrokes and touches of color drift in vast fields of near blankness. The scant marks have the expressive quality of Japanese ink wash painting. An arrow glides between two points of color like an unreadable graph. Confetti rains down on the noisy parade of two black scrawls. The evidence of the same hand in Miró's calligraphic line and his signature is clearer than ever, as though his love of poetry and his painting were finally unified.
In a video interview streaming outside the exhibit, Miró responds to the comment "Many people write about painting" by saying "Yes, maybe a little too much!" From first to last, his work was more about seeing than thinking, and he explicated a stark visual code that achieves a final gnomic clarity in these late works.
We look through the artist's eyes as the spectacle above him flares with intense vividness, then grows quieter, dimmer, more mysterious. But even when confronting his most severely abstract work, we instinctively feel that the act of seeing it contains everything we need to know.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Exalt in our stars."