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 Juan Munoz  (1953 - 2001)

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Lived/Active: New York / Spain      Known for: anonymous figure, installation

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Spain, Juan Munoz had a Fulbright scholarship to study in Britain and the United States. In the early 1980s, he began exhibiting and in 1997, he earned international recognition following his exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and Dia Center for the Arts in New York.

His focus was on the difficulty of clear communication between human beings.
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By the time of his death in Ibiza, Spain on August 28, 2001, Juan Munoz, at age 48, had achieved a level of respect and recognition in the international art community that is afforded few contemporary artists. A fatal aneurism abruptly ended a nearly 20-year career, during which the Spanish artist was recognized for his ability to expand the possibilities of figurative sculpture and installation art. He had more than 50 solo shows, and his work has been included in numerous international exhibitions such as Documenta (1992) and the Venice Biennale (1993). He won Spain's prestigious art prize, the Premio Nacional de Artes Plasticas, in 2000.

In early June, less than three months before his death, he completed his most ambitious work, "Double Bind," a vast installation for London's Tate Modern. While on vacation in Ibiza, he was anticipating the fall opening of the first major museum survey devoted to his art, to debut at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden before embarking on a U.S. tour. What was intended as a mid-career retrospective opened in Washington as a memorial exhibition on October 18, 2001, before moving to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Born in Madrid in 1953, Munoz grew up in a middle-class family during the last decades of the repressive Franco regime. Studying privately with Santiago Amon, a leftist critic and editor for the newspaper, El Pais, Munoz was introduced to international vanguard works of literature and art. He briefly studied architecture at the University of Madrid before moving to London with his brother, Vicente, in 1970. After traveling extensively in Europe for some years, he returned to London in 1976 to enroll at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where he earned a degree in printmaking.

While attending New York's Pratt Graphic Center in 1981, he received a Fulbright Fellowship and subsequently served as an artist-in-residence at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City. In 1982, he returned to Spain, settling in Torrelodones, a Madrid suburb, with his wife, the Basque sculptor Cristina Iglesias, whom he had met several years earlier in London.

In the same year he conducted an interview with his favorite sculptor, Richard Serra, which he hoped to publish. While it never made its way into print, the interview nevertheless led to Munoz's brief career as a curator. Serra referred him to a friend, the Spanish curator Carmen Gimenez, who was working at the time for the Ministry of Culture in Madrid. Under Gimenez's guidance, Munoz organized two influential traveling museum exhibitions, introducing the work of a number of key contemporary artists and architects to post-Franco Spain.

The first show paired architects with artists, and the second compared contemporary art with prehistoric paintings and artifacts. Munoz contributed an essay for the catalogue of each show, establishing his reputation as an astute critic. Subsequently, he wrote numerous essays for various publications, exploring a broad range of topics from Borges and Borromini to Aztec art and British modernist sculpture.

While Munoz found his curatorial work rewarding in some ways, the small fees he earned left him constantly broke. He supplemented his income with odd jobs, including briefly working as an assistant to Mario Merz, who was in Madrid at the time. Eventually, Munoz abandoned curating and returned to making art. He produced a series of smallish welded-steel wall reliefs and freestanding sculpture depicting highly stylized balconies and staircases, some incorporating wooden doll-like figures.

Munoz's career as a sculptor was launched when these works were presented in 1984 in a well-received solo show at Galeria Fernando Vijande in Madrid. One example, "If Only She Knew," 1984, is an approximately 13-inch-square construction of sheet metal and wood that resembles a hut. The structure is raised above the floor by four 5-foot-high metal legs. Gathered beneath the structure's pointed roof is a cluster of small wooden dolls with crudely carved facial features.

The elemental properties of Munoz's worktheir muted colors and gritty texturesalso closely relate to characteristics of much modern Spanish art. Certain of his pieces seem to correspond to the experiments of the El Paso group, a collective of vanguard Spanish artists active in the 1950s, '60s and '70s that included Manuel Millares, Antonio Saura, Luis Fieto, Martin Chirino and Raphael Canogar. Several of these artists co-founded an art community and an important museum of abstract art in Cuenca, a Castillian town noted for its "casas colgados" or "hanging houses," which feature elaborate balconies overlooking a steep ravine. In his work, Munoz shares with these artists a sense of urgency and a kind of visceral approach that conveys a feeling of existential angst.

Although he was an avid reader of Beckett and Pirandello, and often referred to their works, particularly the Italian playwright's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," Munoz was not a devoted theater-goer. While he achieved theatrical effects and a sense of narrative, he avoided ideas of character or plot. Movement, sound and dialogue are integral to a number of his pieces, including a group of kinetic and audio works from the mid-'90s. Munoz achieved considerable success with radio programs broadcast in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, working in collaboration with writer John Berger and musicians Gavin Bryars and Alberto Iglesias.

In 1996, Munoz was invited by three museums to create separate, large-scale installations for Madrid, New York and Santa Fe. The success of these works, appearing over a two-year period, secured the artist's reputation. The first, "Square," in Madrid, 1996, installed in the Palacio de Velasquez near the Prado, consisted of a group of thirty-one near-life-size Chinese figures, made of khaki-painted resin. Arranged in a loose circle, wearing identical Mao-era uniforms, with shaved heads and sardonic smiles, the figures seemed to be part of either a benign congress or sinister conspiracy.

For New York's Dia Center for the Arts, Munoz produced "A Place Called Abroad," 1996, a vast environment in wood, with figures and architectural details in resin and metal. It was like a miniature town within the Museum, through which visitors could wander. Corridors, like darkened city streets, opened to reveal miniature plazas and maze-like alleys. Individuals or groups of waist-high figures occupied some of these dimly-lit spaces. The hushed and eerie atmosphere throughout the installation recalled that of Giorgio de Chirico's "Mystery and Melancholy of a Street," a pivotal Surrealist work painted in 1914 that Munoz greatly admired.
The artist reworked and elaborated upon the Dia Center installation for "Streetwise," a 1998 exhibition at SITE Santa Fe.

The Hirshhorn Museum memorial exhibition in Washington, D.C. featured sixty sculptures, installations and drawings created from the mid-1980s to early 2001. Two major works were displayed outdoors. One was an upside-down, nearly life-size human figure suspended by a cable fastened around one ankle. Dangling high above a fountain, the eerie, gray-patinaed bronze, "Figure Hanging from One Foot," (2001) Munoz's final sculpture, conveys a feeling of helplessness.

Situated on a lawn in front of the building, and part of the Museum's permanent collection, Munoz's figure grouping, "Last Conversation piece, 1994-95, displays five figures made of light gray bronze, with bald heads and slender arms and torsos. Instead of legs, the bodies end in bulbous, sack-like forms, like over-sized beanbags.

Not long before his death, Munoz produced a group of works that seem to hint at a new direction. Among them, "Crossroads Cabinet October," 1999, is a large glass cabinet whose dozen shelves are stocked with neat rows of figurines and miniature casts in translucent resin of mundane objects, such as handbags high-heeled shoes and hand-cream tubes. The work suggests a narrative, although the artist provided only the barest clues.


Source: David Ebony, Art in America, October 2002

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