Looking at the sculptures of Juan Muñoz (1953-2001), I always feel that I’ve gone suddenly deaf. The figures in the works are involved in such intense and preoccupying dramas that their chattering and murmurs should ring out, but I never hear them. The details of the conversations are forever out of earshot.
The ongoing retrospective of Muñoz’s work at the Tate Modern does an admirable job of giving voice to the late artist’s oeuvre. Hailed by many as the first significant artist to rise up in post-Franco Spain, Muñoz was an incredibly learned and observant artist. A Renaissance appreciator, he incorporated tenets of humanism in his work and often established subtle layers of meaning by referencing well-known artistic and literary precedents such as Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Degas’ dancers, or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
He also established his individuality by working figuratively in the 1980s, a time when conceptual and abstracted asceticism held sway. He molded humble, scaled-down figures and established situational uncertainty and tension in a way that easily draws viewers in, because the field of vision is akin to the one in which we exist every day. Contrast that to the planar mammoths of Richard Serra, who Muñoz worked with at one time during his career. The works of both are engaging, but Muñoz responded to and respected the power of the human scale, no matter how complex the setting might be.