Amputate tradition, torture the past, terrorize the present. The impulse to destroy was part of what made early Modern art the guerrilla movement it was.

Cubism sentenced illusionistic art to the Death by a Thousand Cuts. Dada unleashed an anti-aesthetic Reign of Terror: Beauty? Off with its head. Decay? Let’s have more. Surrealism, a slippery business, let the killer instinct run amok. Tossing manifestos, dreams and libidos like bombs, it aimed to bring Western civilization to its knees and keep André Breton in the news.

So in 1927, when Joan Miró said, “I want to assassinate painting,” he wasn’t saying anything new. What was new was the way he carried out his cutthroat task. That process is the subject of “Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937,” an absorbing, invigorating and — Miró would be mortified — beautiful show at the Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition illustrates, step by step, exactly how Miró stalked and attacked painting — zapped its conventions, messed up its history, spoiled its market value — through 12 distinct groups of experimental works produced over a decade. If, in the end, painting survived, that’s neither here nor there. The story’s the thing. Crisp, clear and chronological, the show reads like a combination of espionage yarn and psychological thriller set out in a dozen page-turning chapters.

In 1927 Miró was 34. He was a successful artist and an early devotee of Surrealism, working in a polished, fantastical-realist mode. But he had a restless temperament and lived in provoking times. The high-flying 1920s were winding down, the political climate was growing tense. Surrealism, he discovered, had limitations. He was ready for a radical change in art, but he realized that he would have to create it himself. He decided it would take the form of a crime. Painting would have to go. He would deliver the blow.

How to start? With dissection, which entailed taking painting apart, piece by piece, and throwing out essential things. This is what we see happening in the seven stark abstract paintings that open the show, all done in Paris in January to mid-February of 1927. The pictures look intact enough, with their handwritten phrases and clouds filled with dots, until you notice that something is missing: paint, or all but a minimal amount of it. Most of each picture is raw, untouched canvas on which the words and clouds drift like flotsam from a ship gone down.

A year later Miró gets rid of something else: skill. The wood panel used as a support in a piece called “Spanish Dancer I” is covered with a sheet of colored paper. A small rectangle of plain sandpaper is tacked on top of it. Glued to the sandpaper is a tiny cutout image of a woman’s shoe. That’s about it: no paint, almost no image, almost no artist.

Then in a third series the hands-on painter comes back with a vengeance to demolish art history. In a work called “Dutch Interior,” Miró takes an image of a lover serenading his lady, from a 17th-century painting, and turns it into a hostile clash of bloated, sluglike forms. So much for the golden age of Dutch realism. And you can kiss Renaissance idealism goodbye. In Miró’s version of the famous picture “La Fornarina,” Raphael’s beauteous sitter becomes a big brown blob with a leering red mouth and one yellow cat’s eye.

At least these paintings, with their bright colors and sharp outlines, are recognizably Miró-ish, which is not true of the collages that come next. If you happened to wander into this section cold, you’d think, “What drab, funky artist is this?” Not that the collages aren’t wonderful; they are, with their holes and glued-on circles, and stretches of industrial tar paper, which looks as if it might smell bad, yet suggests a starry sky.

By this point a certain pattern to Miró’s aggression becomes clear. In a rhythm of thrust and feint, he alternates direct attack on painting with turning his back on it, as if wishing it would go away. After the collages, he’s in attack mode again, wielding ridicule as a weapon in five oil paintings of preposterous size, seven feet high, the scale of altarpieces or imperial portraits but covered with scribbles, as if they were made by some cretinous child.

Who, in 1930, would have bought such daft things? Nobody, and the pictures went into storage. We can appreciate them now because they look so new and because we can see what Miró was up to. In these giant doodles, Kandinsky’s music-of-the-spheres abstraction takes a hit and falls to Earth.

There it is met — why not? we’ve seen everything else — by sculptures: squat, homely, nailed-wood things from 1931 and 1932. Although touched with grace notes of delicate painting — Miró was a fabulous brush technician — they are mostly about their baser accouterments: screws, chains, machine parts, sequins, a piece of bone, a single chickpea painted cobalt blue and encased in a tiny shrine.

Holland Cotter
New York Times

Part 2 of this article will be posted tomorrow.