Tuesday, 4 March 2008



A retrospective of the sculptures of Juan Muñoz (1953-2001) at the Tate Modern, London, traces a surprising return to the figure from what were initially site specific or architectural concerns, and with the figure to old issues of materials and stylisation. London held a special place for Muñoz as a student and site for later work. The survey capitalises on both and illuminates a brief career in the closing decades of the 20th century.

As a student in the 70s, Muñoz absorbed developments in sculpture on both sides of the Atlantic. As Minimalism dissipated, construction relaxed, (see also Post 36) attention to location and site specific work gradually turned to use of architectural features. In the US, Conceptual Art’s foray into Land Art as either real estate or landscape gardening (see also Post 48) gives way to sculpture of architectural structures, in the work of Dan Graham or Alice Aycock, for example. Industrial architecture is the initial inspiration and related elements arise in the work of artists such as Dennis Oppenheim, Siah Armajani and Vito Acconci. For Muñoz, his initial tower structures reflect this interest, but do not share the emphasis upon pre-fabricated components or industrial standards, actually are at pains to avoid them. Instead his work concentrates on the status of models, scale and context of their use.

Location has a way of redefining use and even extent in such work, of making adjacent materials models as well. This happens in early work like Minaret for Otto Kurz (1985) where a small frail tower is placed upon a Persian carpet, the carpet then suggesting a scale map and setting for the tower. Scale models can also suggest distance in some settings, or confirm attendant visual cues, as in the patterned floor to The Wasteland (1987). The figure, as in some works by Giacometti, seems to exude distance as much as diminution, even when we approach.

From the start, Muñoz includes token figures to his architectural structures and registers more vernacular (and Spanish) features with his famous balconies and remote railings. Again, the scale and placement of these fixtures promptly orientates gallery walls and spectators to respective distance, to the way these participate in the work to some extent, while uses are made remote or decorative. Railing or balcony is recognised, despite their impracticality, the location by implication is all the more unwelcoming for this attenuation of fixtures, the sacrifice to display. The work places the spectator on a delicate footing, the feeling often of caution.

The artist is soon drawn to issues of proportion as well as scale for the figure, and in the late 80s favours the male dwarf. Scale of figure to additional fixtures then takes on further complexity, again spreads the extent of the work to furniture and qualities of furnishing. In later work, mirrors are sometimes used as ways of highlighting this interaction. The measure of the dwarf, like railings or balconies re-orientates the gallery. Bodily proportions in turn invite the artist to considerations of dress or costume for figures, and these to levels of stylisation or abstraction. Muñoz’s series of ballerinas reduce the figure to a schematic head and torso, rotating on a rounded base. Their seeming flexibility of movement and balance nevertheless reinforces their fixity of situation, similar dependence on supporting furniture.

Muñoz’s installations are distinct from the elaborate settings and props provided to figures in the installations of Edward and Nancy Kienholz, or George Segal, the intricate detail and methods of commercial model making (see also Post 20). His approach is remarkable for the redirection of traditional materials like bronze and wood and issues of abstraction, to later concerns with installation and heightened context.

Inevitably Muñoz progresses to multiple figures, their interaction and the drama this gives to settings. Yet while groups (now mostly life-size and of normal proportions) often call attention to aspects of surrounding architecture, their silence and stillness tend to be accentuated. The spectator moves amongst them as if in a freeze frame. A work such as Two Seated on a Wall (2000) adopts the metaphor of a string of tiny figures between the mouth of the speaker and ear of the listener to represent speech and reinforce its exclusion, the strictly visual engagement available. In other ways, gesture and poses call for or exploit theatrical lighting and ominous mood to institutional architecture. Double Bind (2001) in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern was particularly melodramatic (for a detailed review, see James Hall).

While the artist elsewhere demonstrates a talent for drama, his contribution is not so much in the lively gestures of his Conversation Pieces, but sensitivity to how and where to stage them.

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