Joan Miro, "Mural Painting," 1951. Oil on canvas, 75" x 334."
A central issue in abstract painting is what to do about figure and ground. In the post-war years, the dominant strategies were to eliminate it altogether (as in color field), or to make the figure into a kind of overall swarm that transformed into ground (like Pollock and early Poons). If you wanted to keep the old-fashioned figure/ground relationship, you had approach it differently - you couldn't just make squares and squiggles that were stand-ins for the people, trees, and mountains of representational painting and then allow them to dangle there, unattached to the ground in a a meaningful way. Some individualized bargain with this problem had to be struck. Miro's method was to leave parts of the figures hollow. You can see through them to the ground, and they seem to pinch sections of the ground up through the open parts the figure, right up to the picture plane. It's brilliant in its simplicity and effectiveness.
Upstairs from this painting's home in the lobby of MoMA, there's an exhibition of Miro's work from 1927-1937. The title of the show is "Painting and Anti-Painting," and the rhetoric of the supporting material, much of which was generated by the artist himself, is all about the subversion, murder, and renunciation of painting. I didn't see a single thing in the show that was hostile to painting. Miro was restless to be sure; eager to expand the boundaries and resistant to the idea of a signature style. But put up against Duchamp's readymades which were produced in the decade prior to the works in the Miro show, these pictures actually seem like an embrace and reinvigoration of the medium.
I've always felt that almost any animating principle can be made to function if that's the thing that gets an artist to go to his studio every day, even if that thing does not, in the end, desribe his or her work adequately (or at all). I think this is the case with Miro's stated desire to assassinate painting. The works communicate the absolute opposite of his putative intention: that he loved, revered, and nurtured painting.
The show is great, and it stays up until January 12, 2009.