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“Juan Munoz”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 13

“The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer,” wrote Ken Kesey, who died this month at 66. He would have had no complaints about the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s current retrospective of the Spanish artist Juan Muñoz. Though modest in scope—it contains just 59 pieces and leaves out some terrific work from the past couple of years—the show is up to its neck in intrigue, both aesthetic and biographical.

The 48-year-old Muñoz died suddenly over the summer while vacationing on Ibiza, the infamously hedonistic resort island off the eastern coast of Spain. The exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, to say the least. According to an obituary in the New York Times, the cause was a heart attack. The Guardian called it a stomach hemorrhage. The Hirshhorn’s own press release refers only to “an aneurysm.”

Perhaps the details will turn out to be perfectly mundane: Muñoz went out for dinner with his family at an overpriced seafood restaurant near the water, returned to his hotel, and died in his sleep. Yet there’s something more than just prurience in the desire to speculate about what happened, about whom Muñoz was with and where, and what killed him. The appeal is precisely that the picture of this relatively young and very talented artist’s death is only half sketched-in. And when you consider the nature of his work, which borrows freely from Borges, Pirandello, Beckett, and de Chirico—and all the great poets of modern alienation and slippery meaning, really—the story of his demise becomes even harder to set aside.

Indeed, it seems to match almost perfectly the uncertain and unsettling nature of his art, which is generally called, for ease of categorization, sculpture, though it also includes healthy doses of architecture, theatrical scenography, and installation. His best pieces are stage sets for brief dramas of dislocation; they feature figures trapped in vacant or sparsely furnished rooms and give us enough information about them to provoke wonder about what they’re up to—but not nearly enough to know for sure.

Muñoz spent his late teens and early 20s studying in London and New York and then working as a curator and a critic in Spain. He wrote a number of essays to accompany exhibitions he’d helped curate, pieces full of shadowy allusions and pretentious, unintentionally amusing language (“I have stopped writing. Today is today. I have looked out of the window. To the branches of the poplars…”). He didn’t start producing sculpture until the late ’70s; by the time he died, he’d established a place just below the first rank of European artists born after World War II. The Hirshhorn exhibition was planned as a celebratory midcareer survey, but our knowledge of Muñoz’s death has completely changed its tenor, leaving its brightest spots of potential in shadow.

Like many artists of his generation, particularly his fellow sculptors, Muñoz had been engaged since the early years of his career in an awkward dance with figuration. In his breakthrough pieces, which fill the first few rooms of the Hirshhorn show, Muñoz toyed with various ways of suggesting the human form without actually having to represent it. Mostly he did so with lonely little architectural details—lots of iron balconies and also minarets and handrails (which he called “banisters,” though they are attached to walls and not stairs)—that imply human scale and presence. The banisters get a little extra charge from the fact that they’re designed for a gallery—utilitarian objects, meant to steady you when you grab onto them, hanging beneath signs that say “Please Do Not Touch.” But they mostly seem flat and one-dimensional—and a little obvious, should-have-been-one-offs that don’t, in the end, justify so much attention. (There are five in the exhibition, each only slightly modified from the last. Muñoz’s most memorable such piece, 1987’s First Banister, which includes an open switchblade hidden near the wall, right where a hand might grip the rail, is unfortunately not included here.)

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When Muñoz alluded more directly to the figure in his earlier pieces, he did so with a concession to its troubled history in the Western art of the 20th century. Used Balcony (Small Balcony With Figure), from 1984, features a miniature blackened steel balcony, about a foot and a half across. The “figure” of the title is a charred piece of wood with four holes driven through it.

Soon, Muñoz was combining those cryptic architectural pieces with clever uses of perspective. He began making his balconies a little bigger and sticking them high on the gallery wall, about 10 feet off the floor. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much there: a wrought-iron balcony above your head, sometimes with the “HOTEL” spelled out alongside. But think about all the allusions provoked by a simple balcony jutting out from a façade: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated on the open-air upper level of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.; a dictator, or a pope, addressing the crowd below; a scene from Romeo and Juliet or A Streetcar Named Desire; a hotel room (with a view) that you can’t afford.

More than that, think about what kind of position such a piece puts you in. The balcony pieces are really about two figures: the present viewer and the absent occupant of the balcony. You are left looking up, which means in a spot to be looked down on. You become the opposite of a voyeur.

In recent years, Muñoz began populating those architectural pieces. The room-sized Many Times (2000), which is the anchor of the Hirshhorn show, has 50 Asian-looking men (Muñoz called them “Chinese”) in clusters behind a railing 10 or 12 feet off the ground. Some face each other in small groups, but others look down toward the viewer. Made of cast resin and colored a dull gray, they wear identical baggy outfits, and their heads are shaved.

If Many Times doesn’t actively alienate the viewer, it immediately raises a long list of questions: Are those figures just laughing, or are they smirking? Are they going somewhere? Are they on a ship leaving port? Are they prisoners out for their 45 minutes of daily fresh air? Or are they waiting to watch some gruesome entertainment in a pit below (a pit, come to think of it, in which you’re standing…)? As with a particularly good stretch of dialogue in a Beckett play, you understand just enough to feel ill at ease. And like a painting of an empty plaza by de Chirico, Many Times places you in a world that looks superficially like our own but is also profoundly alien—a vaguely sinister dreamland.

Muñoz’s use of the figure in pieces such as Many Times is ingenious. Even from below you can tell that the people are not life-sized. (They’re about three-quarters human scale.) Their tininess makes them seem strange, as Muñoz discovered in other works using dwarfs and ventriloquist’s dummies, and their Asian features are clearly meant to imply an added otherness. As Muñoz once said in an interview, these figures “don’t try to coexist in the same space as the spectator. They are smaller than real figures. There is something about their appearance that makes them different, and this difference in effect excludes the spectator from the room they are occupying.”

The figures in the works from Muñoz’s well-known Conversation Piece series, one of which was installed on the Hirshhorn’s plaza in 1997, rouse the same feelings, though not nearly as efficiently as Many Times does. Women with rounded bases instead of legs, they’re too immediately inhuman to maintain the careful balance between recognition and the shock of small but piercing difference that Muñoz achieves elsewhere.

Most recently, Muñoz was working on pieces that are more ambitiously architectural. He created an installation called Double Bind for the mammoth Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern that’s on view there through March; it includes figures partially hidden from view and sealed elevators moving relentlessly up and down. On a smaller scale, Muñoz was experimenting with tiny, empty streetscapes that he constructed and then photographed from above to make them look life-sized; one, The Burning of Madrid as Seen From the Terrace of My House, shows buildings with flames leaping out of the windows. It’s a cross between Ed Ruscha’s 1965-1968 painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire and the painstakingly arranged miniature buildings of James Casebere. The Burning of Madrid isn’t included in the show—which is too bad, because it’s an especially good piece and seemed to hold the potential for moving Muñoz’s explorations of alienation in a new direction. Or, maybe, in an old direction—back to the eerily vacated spaces of his earliest work.

Without that piece, the Hirshhorn show, elsewhere so successful, finishes with a bit of a whimper. Right near the end is a work that focuses the fuzzy sense of unease Muñoz is known for into something sharper, albeit less compelling. Towards the Corner (1998) features seven of those Asian men on wooden benches, which look a little like the low stands at a high school football game. The benches are arranged in a large room so that when you come in, you’re behind the figures. Then you wander into the corner and see their faces. You realize that they’re laughing at you—howling, actually.

Towards the Corner is highly choreographed: You’re guided directly to the point of ridicule, as directly as an actor striding to his mark on a stage. It’s a neat trick, but the piece gives up all pretense of ambiguity. This time you know the sense of being mocked is intentional. And as soon as you understand the mechanics of the work, its energy drains away: A loss of mystery leads pretty quickly to a loss of interest. CP