I first fell for Miró in Barcelona—not for the man but for the artist. On top of Montjuïc—overlooking the city that produced Gaudí and Picasso—the Miró Foundation stands like a modern acropolis keeping watch over the city. The buildings are light and airy—the perfect container for his work which is full of dramatic geometric shapes, vivid colors—abstractions of light and dark. It is the largest collection of Miró’s work anywhere in the world. One sunny June day almost twenty years ago I went there and saw Miró’s work for the first time in person. It was passionate yet playful. Like the gleam of a child’s eye the art beckoned me to come and play. In it I saw life, I saw tragedy, and I saw Spain.
This winter the Seattle Art Museum showed exhibit of Miró’s work from the last three decades of his career—“Miro: The Experience of Seeing.” It contained paintings and sculpture from the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. Much of the work looked familiar—Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso) for example, with its geometric shapes and crazy bright colors—was similar to the work I had seen in Barcelona. But much of it was quite different. There was a collection of ceramics with a heavy patina. They were darker, moodier, more mature than other work of his that I knew. But it was a series of minimalist paintings that knocked the wind right out of me—Landscape (1976), Dance of the Poppies (1973) and Bird in Space (1976). These paintings were unlike anything other work of Miró’s that I had seen. Gone were the shapes, the wild colors, the bold expressions. The Dance of the Poppies consisted of a vast white canvas with two lines, one resembling a horizon and the other perhaps a mountain, and three red dots—the poppies. That’s it—it was a residue, an intimation of what wasn’t there. It was refinement based on simplicity. And it shocked me. How could a man who reigned over the canvas with such a powerful brush now give us minimalism the equivalent of a Haiku? How could he forsake his colors and shapes for whitespace? Miró was once quoted to say that he wanted to “assassinate painting,” meaning, I think, that he wanted to kill what we thought a painting should be so that we could see it in our own way. His entire career was spent doing this, but in these pieces he did it by defying everything that he himself had done before. He broke his own rules. In the last 30 years of Miró’s career he saw the death of Franco and the end of the 40 year dictatorship which he had spent much of his lifetime rebelling against. It was as if the colorful canvasses were Miró’s weapon against Franco, against a Spain turned inside out, and with the Franco gone he could finally relax. The Dance of the Poppies was no less powerful for me than any of his work I had seen before, but it was power based on the mellowing of age and the passage of time.
I returned to Barcelona, and to the Miró Foundation, several years ago. It was still there keeping vigil over the city, and Miró´s work was as fresh to me as the first day I saw it. He would have liked that. He wanted his art to be new and fresh each time you looked at it. After I left the Foundation I went to a tapas bar in the gritty Poble Sec neighborhood under Montjuïc called Quimet y Quimet. It was a stand up joint with no seats and no menus. I pulled up to the bar with a salty-dog local who mumbled things I couldn’t understand. The bartender was friendly but rough, every third word out of his mouth was a Spanish cussword—and Spaniards know how to cuss. When I saw him making a tapa that looked interesting I asked him for it. It was all delicious, but there was one tapa that was so simple yet unexpected that it shocked me—a piece of bread with cream cheese and a slice of sashimi-like albacore drizzled with truffle honey. It was a surprise to the palate—sweet, fishy and earthy. Who said you could put sweet together with fish? Who said you could sweet with earthy truffle? It was a rule-breaking tapa, a tapa that Miró the artist would have appreciated and that Miró the man would have been proud to eat.