Juan Muñoz: Drawings Centro Botín, Santander – Nico Kos Earle

Juan Muñoz

Just as the places we inhabit influence the way we think, the structures we imagine can transform our relationship with the world. Arriving in darkness, my first glimpse of Santander was by morning light. Built on an incline, my walk through the city centre, from the Coliseum Hotel to the Cantabrian Sea, was defined by an irresistible feeling of movement towards an opening – a vista, a story, a mouth – like a river flowing out to sea. I only stopped briefly in front of an empty building, once EL Banco D’Espana, noticing the letters DI – NE – RO stacked on top of each other, unable to resist documenting the irony. Continuing onwards to the sea, I approached the Centro Botín for the Juan Muñoz exhibition from the right – its smooth, pixellating belly cantilevered over the silvery waves. 

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.” – Ezra Pound

Beneath it, an expansive pedestrian area merged into a cycle path that stretched luxuriously along the shoreline – uninterrupted by any barriers. Glassy pools of water on the grey asphalt cast mirages on the generous windows of the Café Centro Botín (run by Carlos Crespo and chef Álex Ortiz). The view was unlike any coastal urban environment I had ever seen. Drawn compulsively towards the building, I passed two figures huddled in conversation on the ellipse of a sunken outdoor amphitheatre. Their intimate gestures syncopated to the sound of trickling water, emanating from a raised triangle to my left in grey stone. Inside was an undulating seabed in molten steel, sculpted by seaweed and tides. One of four wells by the artist Cristina Iglesias, they lead me to a pond entitled Desde lo subterráneo (From the underground), which underscores the building’s unlikely entrance: a central staircase that leads visitors up into a network of balconies that extend out over the water. There are no safety nets.

Boundless freedom informs everything about this structure. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano with Luis Vidal + architects, Centro Botín is an arts centre that reflects the city’s ambitious urban renewal, integrating Santander’s historic centre and Pereda Gardens with the Bay of Santander through the lens of contemporary culture. “I like the idea of an unfinished building,” Renzo Piano told the WSJ after it was completed.

Juan Muñoz: The Nature of Visual Illusion
Juan Muñoz: The Nature of Visual Illusion Photo: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2022

A form created to inspire creativity – both in theory and practice – this structure propagates the mission of Foundation Botín to promote creative thinking through a footprint that is outward-looking and unrestricted. Celebrating its 5th anniversary, the building has become emblematic of this city’s regeneration (both Santander Foundation and Museo Reina Sofía have begun renovations on buildings for the future). Stepping into the lift, my ascent became an opportunity to experience a sound work by Martin Creed – which expresses the elation of elevation through a crescendo, “Si, si, si, si, si!” The whole structure seemed tethered to the magically real; the platform swayed, my stomach lurched and my mind retrieved an image of Anthony Gormley’s figure sited precariously on the edge of another building.

I had come to see the first retrospective of drawings by Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz (17 June 1953 – 28 August 2001) and meet the Director of Exhibitions and the collection, Barbara Rodriguez Muñoz. “Centro Botín’s Visual Arts Programme generates and produces conceptually rigorous and emotionally affective exhibitions and catalogues that inspire our audiences to engage in art and develop their creativity.” Inside, the space is divided according to the principles upon which the  Art Programme of the foundation was created, with a focus on fostering talent and showcasing artists invited here under the art workshops program for international artists, which includes Mona Hatoum, Gabriel Orozco, Tacita Dean, and next Damian Ortega. Inevitably, artists respond to the architecture with their shows; their success depends on a capacity to harness the tension between production and place. Imagination hovers, like a horizon line, between the two.

This show is different. Regarded as one of the most important sculptors of his generation, Juan Muñoz (17/6/1953-28/8/2001) was the prime mover in a new wave of artists who embraced the figurative in a moment defined by minimalism. Born in Madrid in 1953, Muñoz realised a critical, provocative body of work in under two decades across a wide range of media, including sculptures, ‘conversation pieces’, immersive installations and drawings. Until now, this last aspect of his practice was considered only in relation to his sculptures. However, Dibujos (Drawings), curated by Dieter Schwartz, explores how his drawing practice was parsing out core ideas, what he noticed and what remained present or absent in his mind.

“This exhibition enables us to comprehensively experience a fundamental, constant practice of one of the greatest exponents of contemporary art and serves as a declaration of our profound admiration for his work. Back in 1997, Fundación Botín invited Muñoz to lead a Visual Arts Workshop. Unfortunately, this never materialised due to his premature death… We are truly proud to open this ambitious show.” – Barbara Rodriguez Muñoz

Muñoz was interested in the idea of sculpture as realism, as a facsimile of the world we know, but also how it contradicted the way we inhabit the world, in that it stands outside of time. His works provoke a kind of “Borgesian slippage”, says Sheena Wagstaff, Tate curator of Juan Muñoz, A Retrospective (2008). They emphasise the impossibility of ever wholly occupying the present but also address the dilemma of the artist as an outsider, of seeing but not always being in the world. Works like The Drum (1992), The Waste Land (1992), and Many Times (2014) point to the problematic nature of communication which not only depends on a mutual capacity for understanding but often fails through the absurdity of attempting to reconstruct a visual experience without the use of images. When Muñoz was awarded Spain’s major Premio Nacional de Bellas Artes in 2000, he said, “I think I’ll buy a watch.” He died the following year.

Coming to prominence in the 1980s, in numerous institutional exhibitions around the world, from Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. to the Tate Modern in London, Muñoz repeatedly placed the viewer in a dramatic, spatially heightened relationship to his work, setting the scene for a narrative to unfold. Despite not being present to install this exhibition at CentroBotín, its curator was keenly aware of this dynamic. As a result, visitors are directed through twelve chronological sections following a carefully constructed crescendo that leads to a sudden, heart-stopping cliffhanger – an experience strangely mirrored in the building’s architecture.

The exhibition opens with Objetos con Dibujos (Objects with Drawings); a giant charcoal eyeball drawn onto a concrete orb fixed to a wooden plinth with iron bars (Late Portrait I, 1985). A second similar work is sited behind it, peeping out. This oculus stays in mind and retains its presence throughout the remaining sections, a reminder that you are being asked to look beyond the literal idea of drawing into the space it creates or the narrative it opens. Finally, a Room with a Door Open (1988) is to the right, like a freestanding balcony. The object speaks to the open-ended nature of many drawings in this show but also to the architecture of this building, which is so audaciously incomplete. Unable to walk to the edge of anything without becoming frozen by anxiety, these works – like Piano’s building – allowed me to move beyond a threshold and hover in the thrill.

Juan Muñoz Late Portrait 1985
Juan Muñoz Late Portrait 1985 Photo: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2022

“A balcony is not an essential part of any building; further, they enter the public sphere of shared space,” says Rodriguez Muñoz, “we thought about them a lot in lockdown.” Suggestive of freedom, encounters, and forlorn lovers looking up, this trope leads us to an essential aspect of his work: being open to something, even when it is uncomfortable. Muñoz was tenacious. When he found a trope or motif – eye, mouth, drum, sofa, bed – he drew it repeatedly. The next room shows his Balconies, a cycle of drawings drawn as observed from the street below, hovering in emptiness, disconnected from the building, unpopulated, and frequently missing bars – like toothless mouths.

“To draw is a pleasure; it is a very beautiful, solitary job. I always draw. I never wanted to draw the pieces I made because I thought they would be like illustrations. So, I always try to make drawings that are separate entities.” – Juan Muñoz.

I think of Philip Larkin’s “Building for some a legendary Quarter / Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles, / Everyone making love and going shares—” and that, like a poem, the essence of a good drawing is in noticing the often overlooked. We see this amplified in the next room, sensationally full of negative space. Interior scenes are outlined in white chalk or oil stick on velvety black raincoat fabric. Sucking the viewer in, like a black hole, one has the sense of plunging into quantum space. When you turn to look right or left, there is a jolt – a sense that you have slipped through a wall into another room, another dimension. This exhibition is full of such double takes. “The line of sight was key in the curation of this show, for both the subject of these drawings and the way Schwarz responded to the architecture,” Rodriguez Muñoz tells me.

Over and over again, there is a Borgesian slippage, but also a nod to Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and the idea of how a poetic image becomes part of one’s imaginative architecture. It is hard to visualise things in the total absence of structure, be it literal or symbolic; every poet knows this. “Muñoz’s manner of drawing… gives the impression that the intention is merely to evoke reality, not set a stage for reality… A few white chalk marks indicate a head; on another, they become a grimace, a whole figure or even a scene… The familiar positive picture with a stability that can be relied on turns out to be an apparition, transfixed on the ground of the paper, emerging from a continuum of shadows; being transparent, the figure can be consumed by darkness….”

After the Raincoat Drawings, we walk through Back Drawings, Conversation Pieces, Illustrations for Joseph Conrad, and then turn a corner into The Nature of Visual Illusion, a room lined with monochrome curtains (in acrylic on canvas) and a cluster of bald, footless men in loose work clothes, cast in polyester resin. The effect is profoundly theatrical and absurd and something Beckett would have liked. In the 1990s, Muñoz began to create his well-known “Conversation Pieces” clusters of freestanding figures in carefully arranged groups or ensembles. Made in resin or cast in bronze, his figures were frozen in mid-gesture: heads tilted, hands reaching, lips curled, or eyes squeezed shut in laughter. Highlighting the eerie stillness of these silent conversations, this room illustrates a key aspect of Muñoz’s sculptural tableaux in that they offer the viewer an experience of physical passage through interior spaces. His drawings amplify this idea and foreshadow what awaits us all in many ways.

Like a premonition, this exhibition section also balances the heft of its final room, A Brief Description of My Death, which describes the last cycle of drawings before his untimely death. Repeatedly drawing an image of the poet Ezra Pound, which disturbingly looks like a self-portrait of Muñoz as an older man, these works capture something essential about loss and death through the poetic motif, recalling In a Station of the Metro:

I don’t often cry in museums, but on this day, I did. I returned to the room that precedes it, Mujer y Hombre con Espejo (Woman and Man with Mirror), and thought of Muñoz’s wife, Cristina Iglesias left standing next to so much emptiness. I hear the buried trickle of sadness from the underground of this place. Unfinished endings are so powerfully emotive, but they also create an imperative for something new to happen, such as the stunning exhibition catalogue commissioned by Rodriguez Muñoz, edited by Dieter Schwarz, and co-published with La Fabrica. It is full of stunning insights from writers inspired by Muñoz, including John Berger, Branda McParland, Guy Tosato, James Cahill, Manuela B. Mena Marques, Declan McGonagle and James Lingwood, who, in In A Man in a Room, Drawing, sketches his memory of the artist:

Juan Muñoz Back Drawings
Juan Muñoz Back Drawings Photo: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2022

“I think of Juan in his studio in Torrelondones late at night. Pen in hand, a bottle of black ink and an album of white paper… This is the time of greatest freedom when an image in mind finds a form on a page through the contours of a few quickly drawn lines.”

Muñoz regarded himself as a storyteller, and the uncanny quality of his drawings – the enigmatic muteness of his subjects – invites the viewer to construct their narrative or reading of the work. As a consequence, they remain open to interpretation for generations to come. I will never look at a balcony the same way again or forget that actual stairway to heaven in the Centro Botin, in a building shaped like a heart cleaved in two. I want to go back.

Words/Photos: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2022

JUAN MUÑOZ:  DRAWINGS 1982 – 2000 JUNE 25, 2022 TO OCTOBER 16, 2022

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