With the passing last month of Joan Miro at the age of 90, 20th-century modernism lost the last of its great pioneers and its second most-influential innovator.
Only Picasso has had a greater impact on the art of this century, thanks jointly to his extraordinary, somewhat idiosyncratic genius and to his invention - together with Braque - of Cubism. His influence began to wane during the 1930s , however, and by the end of the decade it was to Miro and not to Picasso that younger artists turned for inspiration.
Chief among those who responded to Miro's more open, fluid, and improvisational approach were several American painters who would shortly make Abstract Expressionism the most dynamic and far-reaching art movement of the immediate postwar period. Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Motherwell were profoundly influenced by Miro's vision and style. And many painters of the succeeding generations acknowledged that Miro exercised a significant influence upon their art.
But Miro was more than a great innovator and a powerful influence upon younger artists. He was also a superb painter, a delightful and highly original printmaker, a fascinating sculptor and ceramist, and one of the truly free creative spirits of our age.
It is difficult to imagine the art of our century without Miro. Only Alexander Calder shared his wondrously open and childlike sense of fun and playfulness, his extraordinary feeling for movement, color, and space, and his deliciously naughty kind of wit. No one else, not even Paul Klee, could sing and bubble with joy as did Miro and Calder. And only Klee could touch their profound levels of feeling and emotion with nothing but a few squiggles, forms, colors, textures, and lines.
Without this delightful trio, our century's art would have been immeasurably duller and much more somber, self-conscious, and theoretical. It would have lost none of its monumentality and seriousness, but it would have lost a considerable portion of its soul and a very large part of its life and magic.
Of the three, however, only Miro had a significant stylistic influence upon other major artists. Calder and Klee may have altered the face of art and spawned a host of imitators, but they caused no significant changes in any other major artist's style or direction.
Miro's effect on several soon-to-be-major painters, on the other hand, was direct and profound. His open and fluid handling of pictorial space and his insistence that intuition and the unconscious were at least as valuable as rational intelligence and sensibility in the creation of art struck a responsive chord. The younger generation, by and large, was weary of the formal perfection demanded by Cubism and Constructivism, and suspicious of Surrealism's excesses. They wanted something that both respected the flat picture plane derived from Cezanne and the Cubists, and permitted greater improvisational freedom. In Miro's free-form compositions which implied infinite space without ever defining it, and which allowed maximum expressivenss of line, form, color, and movement without significant conscious control, they found just what they had been looking for.
The fascinating thing, however, is that the artists who were influenced by his handling of space, and by the manner in which his forms both floated freely and interlocked tightly within that space, seemed totally disinterested in his wit and humor. Their interest lay not in what he was communicating, but in how he did it. As a result, they missed much of the point of his art and produced works that, remarkable as they were, remained tensely interior. It wasn't until they could either assimilate or transcend Miro's influence entirely that such artists as Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, and Motherwell were able to establish their own powerful and distinctive creative identities.
Throughout all this, Miro remained Miro. His paintings became increasingly colorful, open, and light-spirited. During the 1940s and 1950s, when painting was often violent, angry, or extremely self-serious, Miro's canvases became more bubbling, vital, and gaily abandoned than ever. He rose above the formal theories and technical restraints of his craft in order to communicate what he wanted to communicate and in precisely the vibrant and colorful manner in which he wanted to do so. He was in complete control, and yet he never dictated what his art was or where it was going.
Miro didn't so much create or fashion his art as transmit its substance through a formal code of his own devising which rapidly communicated his art's substance and quality throughout the world. His paintings, sculptures, and prints struck a responsive chord almost everywhere, and their colorful good humor and extraordinary vitality made him successful internationally. Best of all, he never took his success for granted, never permitted his art to become slack or mannered. All during his 70s and 80s his work grew in simplicity and impact. The large colored prints he made in the late 1970s were as powerful and dramatically effective as any he had done earlier. And his work as a whole never fell apart as has happened to so many artists toward the end of their lives.
Miro, without doubt, was one of the half-dozen or so best and most important painters of the 20th century, and one of its most beloved. My own personal ''discovery'' of his work remains one of the most dramatic and illuminating events of my life. It was a moment so charged with significance that I can remember precisely where I was and what I was doing when it occurred. What I perceived then in his work was so simple and yet so crucial and clear that it served as the final clue I needed back in the mid-1940s to understand Abstract Expressionism and much of what came after in art. And what I've received from his art over the succeeding years has been so rich, delightful, moving, and exhilarating that I've been grateful to him ever since.