By 1934, collage, assemblage, drawing and painting had blurred together into freakish hybrids that seem products less of objective experiment than of pathological obsession. Two drawing-collages on reflective paper from this time have an unhinged, fun-house look. A third, of uncertain date, combines ripped paper-doll figures with tied-on cardboard paint tubes resembling cartridge shells.

The whole piece looks derelict and must have even when new. That it survives is a miracle, though I wonder if Miró intended it to. Durability — timelessness, art is eternal and all that — was yet another aesthetic myth that he took pains to trash.

As Miró doggedly continued his assault on art in the 1930s, the world was assailing him. Fascism was on the rise across Europe. Events that would lead to the Spanish Civil War were brewing. At this time, he was living in the Catalan town of Montroig, a favorite retreat, but his anxiety was building. And as it grew, he returned to painting as if seeking solid ground.

In the fall of 1934 he finished a series of 15 extraordinary pastels on paper, most of them of single scowling, extravagantly sexualized figures so luridly colored and amorphously shaped that they look like walking cancers and oozing sores.

They were succeeded by small narrative paintings. Done in tempera on Masonite, and in oil on copper plates, like “The Two Philosophers,” their diminutive scale and assertive color gives them the toothsome innocence of fairy-tale illustrations. But they are not sweet or innocent: they are battle scenes from a psychic hell. They are also formally exquisite. For them Miró summoned all the virtuosity that in the cause of revolution he had labored so hard to suppress.

He makes just one more murderous lunge at tradition, in a series of paintings on Masonite panels from 1936. The attack is very physical and feels a bit desperate. In many ways this series brings him back to 1927. The pictures are abstract; he leaves the Masonite surface mostly bare. But what he adds has changed: oil stains, vomitlike substances and fecal-looking hunks of tar and dirt. In addition he hacks away at the surface, stabbing and gouging and leaving deep ruts and splintery scars.

At that point, with Spain in chaos, he leaves for Paris. The final picture in the show was done there. Titled “Still Life With Old Shoe, ” it is in a conventional oil-on-canvas medium, in semi-realist style, on a traditional theme. The search-and-destroy is over. Painting has survived and won. Miró as master painter, the new, oddly adorable artist of popular fame, more or less starts here.

He must have been exhausted. I was when I reached the last gallery, but exhilarated too because I felt I’d been through something: not the blockbuster slog but the experience of one artist’s creative process and the experience of an exhibition as a form of thinking. Like reading a book, the process makes you part of the trip, not just a witness to it.

In this case the trip is fairly demanding but one I suspect that audiences with even a casual interest in how art is conceived and made will enjoy. From beginning to end, the particular audience I had in mind was a special one, art students.

For them the show could serve as a manual of anti-authoritarian moves. Unpopular Mechanics of Painting, you might call it. But it could also be a guide to living a creative life. This is particularly true for students who are under pressure to choose a single medium (painting, say) and stay with it; to firm up a signature style and stay with it; to get to the market early and stay there.

To these requirements, the Miró show says: no, no, no. Change mediums, like habits, as often as possible. Make your signature look a no-look or every-look, and keep changing that. Get to the market early if you want, but then go home and stay there awhile and work. Then stay longer. Destroy the artist you think the world thinks you’re supposed to be, and you’ll start to find the artist you are.

Holland Cotter
New York Times