“You have to come,” my brother, Nick, says on the phone from Mallorca. “Have to. This is Ronchamp. It’s Ad Parnassum. It’s everything.”
Nick is the cultural historian Nicholas Fox Weber, director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, definitive biographer of Balthus and Le Corbusier. Last spring the French knighted him—the French! never in a hurry to admire American intellect and vision; my little brother is a chevalier des arts et des lettres.
Now, at age 66, he has conceived and curated an exhibition juxtaposing the work of Josef Albers and Joan Miró at the Miró Foundation on the Catalan Spanish island Mallorca, where the painter lived from 1956 until his death in 1983. Nick is always passionate about his work, but there has been a special excitement in his calls and emails during the installation of The Thrill of Seeing.
And he’s inviting me to share the thrill; he’s insisting, invoking our code for life-changing visual experiences.
Installation view at the Fundació Pilar I Joan Miró, Mallorca. The exhibition The Thrill of Seeing runs through September 21.
In the fall of 1973 we went to France, Switzerland, and Italy together, to show each the art we revered. He gave me Corbusier’s hilltop chapel in Western France, Notre Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, where the urgent beveled white light almost brought me to my knees, never mind that I’m Jewish and a nonbeliever. I gave him Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene, whose grief has made her a thousand years old, with rags for flesh, yet incomparably beautiful.
We shared Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina in Rome, the Giotto frescoes in Assisi. We stared up, in awe, at a certain spectacular meshing of glinting, taut overhead electrical wires outside the Uffizi, in its own way as beautiful as anything inside.
I forget which one of us took the other to the Paul Klee museum in Bern, but I will never forget how the floor seemed to vibrate when we stood in front of Ad Parnassum, a towering mosaic, pure pulsing connectivity, in the shimmering sorbet colors of a Tunisian sunset. Nick went on to become a ranking expert on the Bauhaus, where Klee was a master.
I haven’t an iota of my brother’s mind-boggling, world-class erudition, but we share wiring. Visual passion. Our painter mother and printer father encouraged us endlessly to look, really look, at whatever was in front of us: the Picasso ceramics on our dining room walls, words on a page, shadows on a Connecticut trout stream, the lights of Times Square.
So when Nick invokes Ronchamp and Ad Parnassum, I’m galvanized. Nothing will requite me but seeing The Thrill of Seeing. Oh, lucky me to live with a guy who always gets it: I need all of 30 seconds to persuade my beloved traveling companion, Ricardo, that we must make the long trip to Mallorca (no nonstop flights from New York).
Friends are tickled for us, but I do get twitted about must-see shows not seen this year at the Frick, at MOMA. We’re going 3,909 miles to see this unlikely pairing of artists? “Albers and Miró? Really?”
The doubters invoke Miró’s exuberant curves, Albers’s methodical squares. Even people who like both painters think the connection is notional.
“Really,” I insist. “Nick says they’re more alike than anyone can imagine. It’s always form and color. It’s never about themselves.”
But knowing is one thing and seeing is another. So we are in the air, in Spain, on Mallorca, in a cab winding down from our mountaintop hotel to the coastal city of Palma, and up a small hill, through a gate, and at last inside a soaring, swooping freeform exhibition space: the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró. Asymmetrical walls, pale and thick, give the air a shimmer while keeping the outside world at bay.
Worth a detour on its own, this building (designed by Rafael Moneo adjacent to Miró’s last home and workshops), is cathedral and playground, without contradiction or explanation: sacred but not solemn, playful but not remotely trivial. (Later I will read that Miró wanted the Foundation to be a gift to the people of Mallorca, an antidote to the skyscrapers shooting up in Palma, an invitation to creativity.)
Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation, Mallorca.
Working closely with Foundation director Elvira Cámara López, Nick has filled this spectacular space without making it feel crowded: Albers and Miró, Miró and Albers, as far as the eye can see: paintings, sculptures, notes and sketches, showcases filled with squished paint tubes and oddities picked up on their travels (overlapping tastes for small, bright objects of dailiness).
Children are running up and down the curving ramps, and then joining their grown-ups to look at a painting or two before running off again. “No security guards to tell them they can’t,” Ricardo notes happily.
And no wordy wall-posters to stifle the grown-ups by over-explaining The Thrill of Seeing; no acoustaguides keeping viewers in lockstep; no plaques to clutter the mind with titles, dates, or even the names of the artists. Yes, of course, such information may enlighten. But its absence here catapults the viewer into pure experience.
What an homage to the artists: trusting the paintings to give you what you need! And amazing fun, in some groupings, especially of line drawings, to guess who did which work. This is Miró ? That’s Albers? Really?
No question about authorship in the glorious pairing below, reproduced on the exhibition catalogue cover: on the left, Albers’s circa-1940 Study for Airy Center; on the right, Miró’s Maqueta per a Gaudí X, circa 1975.
But look at the Miró-esque palette, the soft edges, in the Albers! Note the Albers-ish geometric riff on the right in the Miró! Can it be that these two beauties were created an ocean away from each other, three and a half decades apart? Zowie!
In Albers’s writing on color theory, he says over and over again that no color is absolute: red next to yellow is different from red next to blue. And Albers next to Miró is utterly different from Albers on a museum wall in a room full of minimalists: playful, sensual, willing to take a chance. Miró next to Albers looks far more deliberate and devoted to structure than I’d ever thought him; for the first time, I see the science behind the art.
Both artists were both invited to paint murals at Harvard in 1950, but apparently never met. They meet on the walls of the Miró Foundation; they laugh, they talk (how they talk!), and we at the exhibition are not just starry-eyed spectators but privileged eavesdroppers, hoping the conversation never ends.
Right after college, I landed the best first-job-after-college imaginable: editorial assistant on the amusement desk of The New York Post. The cultural critics were pretty mainstream, so the avid newbie got to interview Jean-Luc Godard, Norman Mailer . . . Joan Miró.
We met at the intermission of a Nam June Paik mixed media piece at the downtown alternative culture palace Film-makers Cinematheque. Miró stood courteously; we shook hands. In that bastion of bohemian denim, he alone was wearing a beautifully tailored dark suit and polished shoes.
I was 23 and foolish enough to think ennui was cool. “So were you bored with the performance?” I asked.
Miró smiled kindly. “Not at all,” he said. “I am never bored.”
Over the years I’ve come to realize that never being bored may be the ultimate hallmark of genius. And on Mallorca in July, I realized that my brother is never bored, cannot tolerate boredom, will not impose it on others. His scholarship is impeccable, but he knows how to dance. The curator as alchemist.
The Thrill of Seeing is the polar opposite of boredom. It’s the antidote to ennui. It’s an alternate universe in which Miró and Albers meet at the corner, on the curve, and so everything else is possible.
It’s Ronchamp. It’s Ad Parnassum. I do so hope the show travels the world. It’s everything, and everyone needs it.