JUAN MUÑOZ. IN THE VIOLET HOUR
Juan Muñoz, "Del Borrar", 1986.
This exhibition commemorates the 70th anniversary of the birth of Juan Muñoz (Madrid, 1952-Ibiza, 2001), perhaps the internationally best-known Spanish artist of recent decades, following his dazzling career from his first exhibition in 1984 to his untimely death at the age of 48. The exhibition - a continuation of the exhibition on display at the Sala Alcalá 31 until 9 July - covers the first decade of his career, ending in 1990. Its title, In the Violet Hour, comes from line 220 of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land , one of the artist's favourite poems: "the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea". Time for art and time to visit an exhibition always comes at that violet hour, an hour in which shadow creeps in to conquer the day. As the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wrote in Reality and its Shadow, another of the artist's favourite texts: "Art does not know a particular type of reality... It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow".
Juan Muñoz's career began with a series of novel curiosities: he was tutored by the sophisticated art critic Santiago Amón; he began studying architecture in Madrid and then considered switching to film-making; thanks to a grant from the British Council, he travelled to London to study lithography at what is now the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design; a second grant took him to Croydon College, where he did a postgraduate course with Bruce McLean and met the artist Cristina Iglesias, whom he would later marry; his training culminated in New York, with a Fullbright scholarship that took him to the Pratt Graphic Center and then to become an artist-in-residence at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. Although he himself claimed: "I spent one year in New York, and I made one drawing", he would actually do performance works, research at the city's museums and library collections and even interview the sculptor Richard Serra.
In 1982, he moved to Torrelodones to devote himself professionally to curation. The exhibition Correspondences: 5 architects, 5 sculptors, featured key names like Mario Merz and Peter Eisenmann together with the most internationally-active Spanish curator of the time, Carmen Giménez. A year later, with the help of Cristina Iglesias, he curated La imagen del animal, an exhibition in Santander that linked new artistic behaviour with prehistoric visual art. At the same time, he began to develop the interest in writing which would stay with him for the rest of his life. From essays on artists like Medardo Rosso, Jannis Kounellis and the architect Borromini to ethnographic fiction in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges, his writing must be considered an important part of his work.
In 1983, he decided to devote himself entirely to art. This exhibition brings together many of his early works. Though they show some of the tentative inclinations typical of an emerging artist, the conceptual reflection and technical skill on display in these early works were already very sophisticated. As he himself said: "A person would like to believe that he carries his sculptures inside himself, like Enrico Caruso did with his voice". His first solo exhibition, held at the Fernando Vijande gallery in Madrid in 1984, has here been partly reconstructed in the atrium of the CA2M Museum. These early pieces are strikingly congruent with those that would come later; architectures for surveillance, complex sets of relations between characters, the erosion of the frontier between representation and reality and the use of language as an illusionist trick foreshadow what would later become his central tools.
Although that first exhibition was not a commercial success, it was a critical one. In 1986, under the guidance of the curator María de Corral, he exhibited pieces in the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale, and in 1987, he held his first solo museum exhibition at the CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain in Bordeaux. There, his career - with the support of prestigious Northern European curators such as Rudy Fuchs, Jan Hoet and Chris Dercon - acquired powerful international weight. In Spain, his first institutional exhibition would not come until 1996.
His work in the 1980s was marked by three main themes: to recover the human figure for statuary from non-expressionist visual art, to experiment with the emotional repertoire of the exhibition framework and to reflect on installations’ theatrical possibilities. The complexity of Juan Muñoz's spatial narratives began with his interest in minarets, watchtowers, balconies and other architectural features designed not only to express the elevated gaze of power, but also to project the voice. His interest in narrative speculation unfolded in a series of works that focused on the sinister every day, from his menacingly decontextualised handrails - pieces of guiding architecture separated from their purpose - to his so-called Raincoat drawings: domestic spaces in white on a black background, views of icy Gothic interiors. The exhibition culminates with several of the masterpieces that cemented his fame: optical floor installations where theatricality serves to stress the physical and psychological reaction of visitors to an exhibition. These include The Waste Land , Souffleur and Arti et Amicitiae, brought back for the first time since 1988.
This exhibition has been designed to tell a circulatory story in a haunted museum, a house of art taken over by a rhythmic absence, by a recognition of an inevitable otherworldliness. The first and last pieces in this exhibition are portraits without a figure and conjuring tricks designed to make the magician, the artist, disappear. Juan Muñoz, like the sorcerer Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest , bids farewell to his audience each time, at each exhibition ceremony, after perhaps promising to cast his book of magic into the sea, to un-crack its code, to bury its tricks.
With thanks to Juan Muñoz Estate for his indispensable contribution to this project.