It seemed as the new dawn of democracy broke in Spain in the late 1970s that artists in their twenties had a great subject – the Civil War and the forty years of repression that followed it. What is strange and fascinating is that the best of them, figures like Pedro Alomodovar in film, Javier Marias in the novel and Juan Munoz in the visual arts mostly avoided the obvious dramas of the past; they viewed the nightmare of Spanish history as though it were a sort of plague. They made their own dreams, these artists, they created a world in their own image to compete with the one which had bored them so badly when they were small. Heroically, they had no interest in inflicting boredom on the rest of us.
The turning away from Spain, the shrugging off its history, its legacy and the dullness of the dictatorship, (except when it comes powerfully in the form of images of menace and absence) are central to the works of Juan Munoz (1953-2001). This includes the ignoring of Spain’s more obvious icons and the evading the influence of its great twentieth century painters, such as Picasso, Dali and Miro. Munoz invented himself, having closely examined his own well-stocked, glittering psyche, studied some central modernist texts and looked carefully at the contents of museums and galleries in London and New York.
Munoz was interested in space in the same way Picasso was interested in women. He wanted to make love to it, have his photograph taken with it, marry it, have babies with it, make it his mistress, make icons of it, cast it aside only to find a new, younger one. But he was also interested in space as Genghis Khan was in his enemy. He wanted to attack it, bring it to its knees, plunder it, imprison it, colonize it.
He understood space, he wrote, as ‘the multiplicity of up and down, inside and outside, full and empty, shadow and light, right and left, opacity and transparency, along with difficulty and surprise.’
He loved making life-size walls and streets, corners and squares and floors, lifts and balconies and staircases going nowhere. The fact that they served no function pleased him enormously; they served his imagination, and that of the viewer, and this was the context for his work, as the city might be for an architect, or plunder for a warlord. He was fascinated by the connection between sculpture and architecture as between the caverns of the mind and a suggestive streetscape. He was interested in emptiness, which he managed to fill with objects which only emphasized further the vast, grieving, useless spaces between them.
The central texts which fired Munoz’s imagination were by Borges, Eliot, Beckett and Pirandello; he loved mystery, absurdity, theatricality, a sense that the real world was elsewhere; the paintings which mattered were by masters such as Velasquez, Parmigianino and Seurat in which the figures, almost awkwardly but quite subtly, seemed not to be relating to each other and stood apart strangely.