Juan Munoz at Tate Modern

    Spain may have played a huge and heroic role in the early chapters of modern art, with Picasso, Miro, Dali and Julio Gonzalez all making critical contributions, but, around the halfway mark of the 20th century, this remarkable national effort began to run out of steam – and, after Picasso’s death in 1973, it seemed to cease altogether. Of course, the Spaniards the selves would passionately disagree, as Spaniards do. They would argue that the sculptor Eduardo Chillida and the painter Antonio Tapies are important modern figures. But I, too, am cruel and demanding, and I beg to differ. Chillida and Tapies are pequeños amos. The only truly significant Spanish artist to have emerged since the death of Picasso is Juan Muñoz. The evidence has just gone on show at Tate Modern.

    Muñoz will be best known to British audiences for Double Bind, the mysterious grey mega-structure with ascending lifts and spying figures that he built inside the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2001, in the second of the Unilever series of unusually large Tate installations. Muñoz followed Louise Bourgeois into the Tate’s grand canyon and, by a mild coincidence, he is doing so again now, for, just as Bourgeois’s superb and passionate retrospective closes at Tate Modern, so Muñoz’s retrospective opens. In one sad respect, however, there is no similarity between them. Because Bourgeois, amazingly, is still alive and still making challenging art at the age of 96. While Muñoz, alarmingly, died in the year that Double Bind was unveiled. He was 48.

    The Turbine Hall has never felt as threatening and sinister as it did when filled by Double Bind. I still feel this late-night car park of a sculpture creeping about my imagination now, unsettling me for no good reason. But trying to recall its exact geography is a challenge. Most of the action seemed to take place in the shadows, between floors, beyond edges, at the ends of vistas. Which is how Muñoz’s art always operates. It’s an art of corridors and corners, whispers and glimpses, suggestions and inferences.

    Typically, his retrospective opens before you enter it, with a series of miniature Spanish balconies arranged high up on the vestibule wall, flanked by a set of iron signs saying “Hotel”. These tiny additions manage to have a mighty effect, because they successfully imply that the Tate’s blank and functional interior is actually a mysterious Spanish exterior: a narrow street filled with hotels and the naughty rustles of discreet liaisons between passing strangers that a hotel sign must always encourage.

    That, of course, is my reading of Hotel Declercq, made in 1986, but I feel no nervousness in sharing it with you, because Muñoz was clear about his ambition to involve the spectator fully and actively in his mysteries. He saw himself as a story-teller, a presenter of situations through which you, the audience, are encouraged to wander and draw your own conclusions. Where other sculptors sculpt with touchable materials and carvable stuffs, Muñoz works with unseen things: the mood of a room, its spatial feel. So much of his sculpting is done in the psychological dimension.

    He came late to sculpture; he came late to art. Born in Madrid in 1953, he blundered down various scholarly alleys, and tried his hand at curating and writing, before finally emerging, in the middle of the 1980s, as the first Spanish sculptor of note of the postFranco era. The earliest works in this show were made in 1982. And, as he died in 2001, we have before us the contents of a strikingly short and concentrated career. Yet that is not how it feels. An impressive number of swings and variations were achieved in his absurdly brief stay, and his work never appears rushed or speeded up. The mysterious unveilings in this show always do their jobs at a notably languid and dreamy pace.

    At the far end of this retrospective, you will find Many Times, the second most ambitious piece he ever made, after Double Bind. It consists of 100 milling figures arranged in groups around a room through which you, too, are encouraged to meander and investigate. The figures are nearly life-sized, and spooky. All of them are bald. All wear the same grey and functional work uniforms that Muñoz came to prefer. And, although they are all posed differently, and seem to be busily involved in different moments, you note quickly that all sport exactly the same grinning Asiatic face. No clues, no prompts, no agendas. All you can do is blunder among these mysterious baldies and suspect what they are up to.

    I decided soon enough that their combined effect was deliberately reminiscent of the Terracotta Army, and that perhaps something cynical was being said about the uniformity of Chinese factory conditions.

    But, having now come home and puzzled about it further, I no longer suspect any of that. Muñoz is never that literal. And, sitting at my desk, I am getting weird whispers from my own body, telling me the sensation of moving between Muñoz’s figures, trying not to brush against them or knock any of them over, is a more compelling aspect of the sculpture than the meaning of the grinning figures. From beyond the grave, Muñoz is still pulling my strings.

    That said, the mad perma-grins on the faces of the identical Asiatics struck me as a quintessentially Spanish expression. Something is being mocked in that particularly bitter and savage way that the Spanish enjoy. Think of Goya. Think of Dali. Muñoz’s debt to his national tradition is made even clearer at the start of the show by a series of early works featuring the lonely figure of a dwarf. The dwarf was introduced into art by Velazquez, who famously questioned the reality of his times by encouraging a misshapen array of little people to stare at it extra-fiercely. In Velazquez’s day, the royal dwarf was the only member of court allowed to question the decisions of the king. Muñoz’s art appears to grant him this same licence to challenge.

    A haunting piece from 1988 shows the dwarf pressed against a wall behind three large Solomonic columns that seem to imprison him as they compare their large, twisting size with his. A nearby work, called The Prompter, is dominated by a large stage decorated with geometric patterns; only some stumpy legs, poking out of the bottom of the prompt box at the front, identify it as another dwarf sculpture. The silence is deafening. No play is being performed. There is nothing to prompt. It’s a fabulously poignant ensemble.

    Although Muñoz is rightly credited with ushering in a new era of figurative sculpture in the 1980s, his first interest was minimalism; and, no matter how high the body count grows in his art, or appears to grow, he never gave up the precise placement of shapes in space that minimalism demands. His colour schemes, too, are strikingly spare. The entire show has been created out of a narrow range of monochrome greys, browns and blacks. Even Muñoz’s “paintings” – a revelation to me, as I was only dimly aware that he had produced any – are made with white chalks on black fabrics.

    I was much taken by these strange black pictures. A set of haunting interiors of what seems to be an ordinary apartment into which the light has seeped in dark, Hitchcockian pools was particularly fascinating. Although the monochrome colour schemes are flavoured with minimalism – Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt were Muñoz’s named favourites – these dark, mysterious paintings hark back also to the black-and-white moods of Spanish baroque art – to Velazquez, again, and Zurbaran. Like so many aspects of this show, the Spanishness of the colour schemes builds slowly and spookily, becoming ever more insistent. It wasn’t until I reached the end that I finally realised how many of Muñoz’s key concerns, from the dwarfs to the mirrors, from the empty architecture to the constant whispering and murmuring, are derived directly from Velazquez’s quintessential Spanish masterpiece Las Meninas. Unless, of course, I am merely imagining it.