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Vital signs

Mir— exhibit reveals a man reveling in his later years

While his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, raged impotently against fate in the last decade of his life, Joan Mir— found peace in whimsy.

Mir— combined everyday items he gathered in his studio or found on beach walks in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, to create ageless art in painted bronze or polyester resin.

'The Shape of Color: Joan Mir—'s Painted Sculpture' is an exhibition of work from the last phase of Mir—'s life, opening at the Portland Art Museum. The show celebrates the 110th anniversary of Mir—'s birth and coincidentally, the founding of the art museum.

In all, 14 pieces created by Mir— between the 1960s and his death in 1983 will be on display, as well as almost 100 of the artist's sketchbook drawings, which illustrate his thinking. Photographs of Mir— at work show a happy old man Ñ as his art suggests.

'These pieces have never been seen publicly in America,' says Bruce Guenther, the museum's chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art. 'This is a chance to see one of the geniuses of 20th century art inventing and reinventing the world in his vision.'

Guenther says Mir— was at the height of his powers during this period Ñ despite being acclaimed as a significant dadaist and cubist in the 1920s and as a surrealist in the '30s.

'Even as a senior citizen, Mir—'s vision broadened and deepened, and he never lost his sense of place,' says Guenther, explaining that Mir— returned time and again to his Catalonia birthplace to renew his ideas.

'He spent his formative years in an agrarian society. He went to Paris. He went to New York. But he always returned to Catalonia.'

One of Mir—'s larger and best-known pieces from this period is in the show and also on the cover of the excellent 176-page exhibition catalog. The items that make up 1967's 9-foot-tall 'Caress of a Bird' summarize Mir—'s environment and are cast in bronze through the lost wax process. On top is a croissant, then an interesting-shaped rock, a straw hat, such as might be worn by a plow mule on a hot day (complete with holes for ears), a wooden toilet seat, a turtle shell attached to one side of the support upright and two boccie balls.

The whole thing is painted in brilliant primary colors. The bread is blue, the straw hat yellow, the toilet seat red, the upright green and the tortoiseshell red. It clearly hints at both male and female genitalia.

Guenther says those sexual innuendoes are characteristic of Mir—'s work and exemplify the charming whimsy of a man who was happily married to his wife, Pilar, for more than 60 years. A more vivid example is 'Girl Escaping,' whose dominant element is a pair of bright red mannequin legs. A number of the works are called 'personnage' Ñ which means both person and character.

The 14 works on display are from limited editions (three to five pieces), but none comes from a major U.S. museum, Guenther says. This is a rare chance to see both the artwork and the sketches and photos that led up to it.

'Most of the material belongs in the Mir— Museum in Barcelona or on the island of Mallorca. When it leaves Portland, that's where it's headed,' he says.

Contact Paul Duchene at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..