Juan Muñoz was among the first generation of American and European artists (Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Katharina Fritsch, etc.) to embrace sculptural figuration in the late 1980s. Muñoz’s early figures included wooden acrobats, ballerinas, and ventriloquists’ dummies. Theatricality and performance were central to his work, exemplified by sculptures of small architectural elements, such as spiral staircases and balconies that invoked stage sets.
Throughout his career, Muñoz was intrigued by human interaction and communication—and the act of paying attention. One of his earliest works, Oreja (1984), is a tiny painted clay ear that hung on the wall. By the late 1990s, he was producing groups of figures seemingly engaged in conversation, listening and responding to one another. Small wonder, then, that when he came for a residency at the Gardner Museum in 1995, Muñoz was entranced by Gentile Bellini’s exquisite miniature of a young man deep in concentration as he begins a drawing, since it captures a moment of pure attention. Bellini’s Portrait of a Seated Turkish Scribe or Artist (1479–80) became such a touchstone for Muñoz that he was inspired to make an installation about it. Portrait of a Turkish Man Drawing (1995) included Arab, an almost life-size sculpture of a young boy based on the seated scribe, and a series of “mouth drawings.” The drawings were stark, featuring only the image of a human mouth rendered in charcoal against a white background. Hung in a grid, the drawings faced the back of the seated figure, as though commenting on or judging the artist’s work—and yet without eyes to see it.
In addition to the Portrait of a Turkish Man Drawing installation, Muñoz created a site-specific work for the Muddy River that runs through the Fens, the Frederick Law Olmsted–designed landscape that is part of the Emerald Necklace, and is visible from the Early Italian Room, where the Bellini is on view. Two stereo speakers were submerged in the water, their rims just brushing the surface. They were functionless, but created a sense of expectation, tacitly encouraging passersby to pay close attention to any sounds that might emerge. Like the silent mouths behind the sculpture of the seated scribe, or the blank piece of paper in Bellini’s drawing, the absence of content proves as powerful as the physical presence of objects or bodies in space.
Juan Muñoz was once called “the most significant of the first generation of artists to achieve maturity in post-Franco Spain, and one of the most complex and individual artists working today.” His works have been displayed in such galleries as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum in New York, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Tate Modern in London. In 2000, Muñoz was awarded Spain's major Premio Nacional de Bellas Artes in recognition of his work.
His death in August 2001 shocked the art world, and he was subsequently honored with his first full retrospective in the United States at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The show included nearly 60 sculptures, multi-figure installations, drawings, and paintings spanning Muñoz’s career from the mid-1980s. Tate Modern also presented the first major retrospective of his work in the UK in 2008.