Juan Munoz

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

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.
In the early 1990s, when the figure was pure heresy in the trendy galleries, Munoz began to haunt his spaces with figures. These baggy figures soon became his signature creations. Sometimes they were strange and cuddly with no legs, other times they were Chinese; sometimes they bordered uncannily and eerily on the real, other times they were simply generic. They were always waiting for something to happen, and even if they were in crowds, huddled together, or laughing, or listening, they nonetheless seemed alone, as though they could be easily snatched away at any moment. They were like people who had missed the point.
Munoz’s drawings, made in white chalk on black material normally used to make raincoats, are exquisitely beautiful and mysterious. They are often of bourgeois interiors, but he manages to make sofas and chairs, a long hallway or a simple bedroom into a space afflicted by darkness, emptiness, sadness, dread.
Some of Munoz’s essays are very serious and brilliant. It is clear that he began as a curator and read a great deal and thought sharply before he began as an artist. It is easy to see the influence of John Berger, with whom he collaborated, on his ideas about the role of the spectator and Marc Auge on his concepts of dead, useless or non-dynamic spaces.
But he was careful to allow his imagination and his wit a free rein rather than his mind, to avoid easy surrealist tricks or empty theatricality or deadening jokes on art history. He believed in the image as something which would sparkle in the mind. His work thus remains haunting and fascinating and his early death is a great tragedy for contemporary art.