Magazine article Artforum International

Art of the Fugue: Louise Neri on Juan Munoz. (Passages)

Magazine article Artforum International

Art of the Fugue: Louise Neri on Juan Munoz. (Passages)

Article excerpt

IN HIS PREFACE to Naked Masks: Five Plays by Luigi Pirandello, Eric Bentley wrote of the Sicilian playwright's belief that the essentially human thing was not merely to live but also to see oneself living, to think. For Pirandello, dramatic form was a challenge to show more of the inner life of humans, to show people seeing themselves, to let characters become roles and speak for themselves. Thus, maintained Bentley, Pirandello's people "think" a lot, but their thinking is part of their living, not their maker's speculations or preaching. Like Pirandello, the artist Juan Munoz believed in thinking. Through his tenacious investigations of art and life, which ranged from the classical to the eccentric, from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to the philosophical nonsense of Edward Lear, from the anatomies of grief to the strategies of games, this cosmopolitan Spaniard came to excel at the complex art of being human.

By willing previously discrete, even antagonistic, territories of aesthetic, cultural, and social reference into highly charged dialectical relations, Munoz evinced an artistic language that, to use the artist's own words, could "express without being expressionistic," actively engaging with the past in order to recollect traces of memorable things within the historical amnesia of modernity. Like its maker, this language, with its intricate webs of surprise, seduction, disorientation, deception, and doubt, endeared itself over time; once insinuated, its impression was indelible. Yet equally, it seems, it continues to elude those unequipped or unable to travel the pleasurable yet vertiginous contours of its tierra incognita.

Past and recent mappings of Munoz's dialectical relationship with the histories of modernity reveal a recurring critical blind spot. As in all good crime novels, this blind spot speaks volumes about the true nature of his work, beginning with the first sculpture he considered to be his own, a 1984 miniature staircase in welded metal affixed to a wall. To locate this piece in existing passages in modern sculpture is to miss its point, because its key-and this is true of the oeuvre in general-lies in its difference from, or supplement to, its precedents. Munoz's staircase is spiral. In one syntactical maneuver, he offered a passionate challenge to the available options of progress or aporia. Twisting the flat planes of modernism into the suggestive curves of a helix, he tapped the pulse of the Baroque dynamic that, as Henri Focillon describes in his liberating treatise The Life of Forms in Art, at once sums up, turns on, contorts, and narrates the formulas of all other dynamics.

I like to imagine that while making this poignant little sculpture, a scale model of sorts, the young artist in a suburb of Madrid in the early '80s may have been thinking not of modern masters but of another young artist, Robert Smithson, and his spiral, the ultimate spiral, the gigantic and mysterious gesture of Spiral Jetty, excavated in the landscape of the American heartland. Over the course of the next two decades, Munoz's challenge would evolve with increasing persuasion into myriad forms-which, as with Smithson, included writing of a most imaginative order, as well as sculpture, drawing, and sound- in a restless and compelling investigation of the possible relations among space, object, and viewer. …

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