Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Enough With Genius, Already

Above, Joan Miró, Toward the Rainbow, 1941, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.

"I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets of paper with no preconceived ideas," said Joan Miró of the playful, intimate works on paper, the Constellations, that established his reputation in America when they were shown in New York in 1945. He'd made these paintings, gouache with oil washes, in dark days in indeed, in 1940 and 1941, in occupied France and then in Franco's Spain.

In the amazing retrospective show of his whole career on display at the National Gallery until mid-August, there's a priceless wall of five or six of these pieces. They're the quintessential Miró that you can't help but recognize, if you've had any previous acquaintance with his work at all.

The didactic panels in the show do what they have to do in a major art museum: they tell you why these pieces are important; they nudge you toward reverence in the presence of genius. The Gallery website is quick to quote Miró saying that the Constellations were "one of the most important things that I have done," and to say that as a consequence of the 1945 exhibit Miró was subsequently welcomed in America "as one of the great figures of the modernist movement."

But what turned my crank as I stood in front of these paintings last week was anything but homage to Miró's genius. I love these paintings because I look at them and think, "I could do that. I can do that. I'm going to do that."

Not as brilliantly, not with his sophistication. But Miró is empowering rather than awe-inspiring as an artist. He leads with his playfulness, not with his technical mastery. "I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets," he says. It's Miró's "Beginner's Mind," in the Zen sense, that brings me joy and sends me home wanting to let go of preconceived notions as deeply as he did: to be guided by the same pleasure in line and simple shape for their own sake, to be just as seduced by the raw magic of color spreading across white paper, to let things build up associatively and experimentally until the eyes and nose of some loopy, surrealistic creature finally invite discovery amidst the crush of invention.

The cult of genius doesn't have much to do with the artistic impulse. That's what you have to discover in the shadow of everything museums--however necessary and however well intentioned they are--do to convince you otherwise. Behind their incessant talk of importance and lines of influence and recognition lies the prior moment when an artist couldn't stop himself from making marks on paper, when he lost himself, and found himself, in the process of creation--when he made art not because he was an artist, but because he needed to make art in order to be truly alive. When we glimpse it, it's that moment which encourages us to claim our own creativity as well, to go home saying, "I can do that."

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