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by Charlie Finch
In the Paris of the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway often donned boxing gloves and duked it out with random opponents in a makeshift ring. After a time, a small man volunteered to be Hemingway’s corner man. After a few more bouts, Scott Fitzgerald pointed to the corner man, washing Ernest down with a sponge, and asked Hemingway, "Do you know who that is?"

"No," Hemingway replied.

"It’s Joan Miró."

In 1927 Miró was so destitute that he invited the surrealist Andre Masson over for lunch and fed him radishes and bread. Miró was an unlikely champion of surrealism, but he soon vowed to "take an axe to Picasso’s guitar" and was dubbed "the sardine tree" by Andre Breton. The short period of phrase-based art which Miró embarked upon forms the beginning of "Joan Miró 1927-1937: Painting and Anti-Painting," opening this weekend at the Museum of Modern Art.

The show is a fitting return to New York for Miró who, in spite of his ardor for the bucolic life, regarded Manhattan as "a pep pill." His visits here stretched from his 1932 surrealist show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in the Fuller Building to his watching an early video of Nam June Paik mooning the audience at Filmmakers Cinemathique on Lafayette Street in 1965.

From 1927 onwards, after his brief flirtation with Cubism, Miró manifested many of the qualities later associated with Robert Rauschenberg: working on many canvases simultaneously, employing a variety of unstable materials, using collage and absorbing multiple artistic influences. At the MoMA show, fey "messages in a bottle" give way to a feather tickler called Portrait of a Dancer, then to full blown paintings such as Portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia, with its large orange breasts disguised in silhouette.

MoMA’s galleries divide the work into bunches of like materials, such as a roomful of pastel homunculi which, at Tuesday’s opening, inspired the artist Kiki Seror to ask, "What’s that word that means ejaculate inside the foreskin?" Wispy dark figures on brown, faded canvas are marred by glued-on postcards of actresses and children (very Joseph Cornell). Once in awhile a three-dimensional object such as a burned and blackened rope-phallus is tossed into the mix.

Such pieces were merely bits of studio play for Miró, thrown into this show anyway with familiar paintings long claimed to be redolent of the artist’s "mysticism." As Surrealism faded into the Depression and the Spanish Civil War, Miró retreated into the Catalan farmland of his youth, painting black forms of distinctly scatological bent. One can imagine Miró lifting up cow chips for study and even mixing his own excrement into the materials lovingly listed on MoMA’s wall cards: sand, hair, tar, resin.

Anachronistic references filter through the mind as object after object thrusts itself forward in this exhaustive, comprehensive show: the morphs of Arp, the spare lines of Klee, Brancusi’s sleek bulbousness, bits of Gorky and Robert Motherwell, who often acknowledged stealing his whole program from Miró. Mediterranean Landscape, with its green and red nimbus stains, could have been painted by Helen Frankenthaler.

All this cross-referencing reminds us that Miró was always a painter’s painter and thus far more popular in the past than he is now. Whole bodies of work are surely passed by artistic progress to the point that even a Miró becomes relatively insignificant. Yet, there are pleasures on view at MoMA, however small and diffuse.

Clement Greenberg once wrote that "you can learn more about color from one Hans Hofmann than from all of Miró," and he was probably right.

"Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927–1937," Nov. 2, 2008-Jan. 12, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, N.Y. 10019

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).