Muñoz's amusing take on the darker side of life revived

Click to follow

When Juan Muñoz died, aged 48, in the year that his Turbine Hall installation at the Tate Modern was met with critical acclaim, Sir Nicholas Serota praised the Spanish sculptor as an artist who took risks, challenged convention and explored the darker side of human nature with humour.

Now seven years on from his untimely death, the Tate Modern is staging the debut European Muñoz retrospective – the first time a large body of his work has gone on display in London.

The exhibition, which opens today, will feature more than 70 of his works.

Muñoz was renowned for placing a cast of mysterious life-size, or near life-size, human figures – including acrobats, ventriloquists' dummies and ballerinas – in architectural contexts. In Double Bind, the 500ft (150m) installation Muñoz created in the Tate's Turbine Hall in 2001, he employed optical illusion using a false floor, two elevators and his trademark figures striking dubious poses.

While the Tate has not revived this for the retrospective, its chief curator Sheena Wagstaff said: "Double Bind was an apotheosis of most of the strands of Juan's endeavour. The retrospective almost unpicks Double Bind."

She added: "Muñoz was important because he was the first sculptor to emerge from post-Franco Spain. He was also one of the first artists to engage with the figure at a time when the prevailing sculptural trend was towards minimalism."

Born in Madrid in 1953, one of seven children, Muñoz first visited London in the early 1970s. He returned to study at the Central School of Art (now Central Saint Martins) and studied printmaking at Croydon School of Art.

It was in the mid-1980s that Muñoz first came to international prominence for works which explored the relationship between illusion and reality and the isolation of an individual. In the 1990s he began to create a series of works called Conversation Pieces, depicting groups of figures made from resin or cast bronze, caught in the middle of an experience or emotion. The Tate Modern show also features Muñoz's Raincoat Drawings, a series of drawings in chalk or ink on blackened gabardine raincoat fabric, depicting sparsely furnished rooms in which doorways lead on to further empty spaces.

Although he was primarily known as a sculptor, Muñoz also wrote a number of radio plays, some of which will be performed as part of the Tate exhibition.

One of these, A Registered Patent, originally starred John Malkovich and the actor may appear in it when it is performed at Tate Modern in April.

As Serota, director of Tate Modern, commented when Muñoz suddenly died from a heart attack while holidaying in Ibiza in 2001: "He challenged convention in his determination to use but not be trapped by his Spanish heritage and in his decision to work with figures when most of his peers were working in an abstract or conceptual vein.

"Muñoz made us look at the darker side of human nature and existence without becoming solemn."