Jean DUBUFFET (1901-1985), Joe Bousquet au lit (1947), oil on canvas, 146 x 114 cm, MoMA
Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, New York City (15 April-10 June 2016)
While I was a student there was a revival of interest in the work of Jean Dubuffet. Unfortunately, it was the late work. I took a look at the books and magazines and decided there was nothing much to see. Encountering the occasional illustration of an early work in a general reference book or magazine did not really inform me and – with so much other art to look at – I never got around to educating myself on Dubuffet.
The current exhibition in New York is the logical place for all of us to rediscover early Dubuffet. His success at exhibition at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York ensured he was a constant presence in the New York art scene and many of his early mature-period paintings entered American public and private collections. The current exhibition includes loans from those collections and features 51 outstanding examples of Dubuffet’s painting and sculpture, all dating from before 1962. Wisely, with a single exception in a small hallway space (the 52nd item), drawings are excluded from the display. The inclusion of graphics would have diluted the powerful impact of the bold and visceral paintings.
During the occupation of France in the Second World War, former art student and then-current wine merchant Jean Dubuffet took up painting again. He was essentially starting from nothing. Having rehearsed styles and subjects popular during the pre-War period, Dubuffet had never developed any definite attachments to a movement or technique. He had no style to speak of. The works he began in 1942 were childlike drawn figures with colouring. Subjects were people on the street and daily life. This exhibition surveys these early colourful paintings and the rawer, more brutish paintings that followed in the later 1940s and 1950s. Topics include figures, portraits, landscapes, animals and street scenes; approaches include painting, collages and objets trouvés sculpture.
The definition “mixed media” might have been coined to describe Dubuffet’s paintings. He spurned pure artist’s oil paint and instead concocted his own media, mixing pastes incorporating household and commercial paints to which he added sand, gravel, dirt, charcoal, resin, coal, straw and plaster. This would sometimes be applied over heavily textured surfaces built up in plaster or putty. (Dubuffet had been alerted to the potential of textured surfaces by seeing Jean Fautrier’s Hostage series when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1945.) All of this heavy material demanded strong supports such as wood or Masonite. The coloured paste was applied with trowels and furrowed with sticks. At times it seems that Dubuffet’s aversion to beaux-arts was almost more of an imperative than any other motivation. Contemporaneous with Pollock, Dubuffet was working his own horizontally oriented planes the way a farmer ploughs a field. Dubuffet thought of himself as closer to an artisan or a labourer than a practitioner of fine art. However inaccurate that belief, it was clearly a productive and sustaining one: Dubuffet’s art shows evidence of his sustained engagement and consideration throughout his career.
The vital, unruly and uncultured figures here are an expression of hope in humanity and humanism as a counterbalance to the horror and grinding inhumanity of genocide, war and nuclear annihilation. Their depictions exist within the Existential discourse within French culture of the 1940s and 1950s. Dubuffet knew and painted many of the leading thinkers of French world of art, literature and philosophy. Dubuffet’s figures are literally earthy: they are formed of coloured dirt, sand and pebbles. They are fertile as the soil – aggressively so – with their genitals roughly outlined. In Will to Power (1946), a portly man with body hair of gravel sports his sex organ like a club. These are uncouth men and women who can (and will) procreate, regardless of bourgeois anxiety.
A small selection of portraits shows how Dubuffet negotiated the issue of description within figure paintings. “For a portrait to be useful to me, I need the features of the figure not to be too fixed. Not at all outlined – to the contrary, more erased. Confidential, even. […] In portraits you need a lot of general, very little of specific. Usually there is too much specificity, always too much. Maast says that before the portrait of Monsieur Dubois can look like Monsieur Dubois it should begin, more than anything, by looking like a man. He says that in many portraits we are in the habit of seeing, an artist has forgotten to make a man, and to manage to give him life, before making him look like Monsieur Dubois.”
The fierce and accurate likeness of Joë Bousquet (1947) is loaned from MoMA. In it the paraplegic writer is shown in his bed surrounded by his books and papers. It is like a sgraffito panel excavated from some primitive Pompeii. In this case, the painting-as-object has personality – almost a history and integrity in itself. This lends the object a certain authority, aside from its pictorial attributes. The painting as object in Dubuffet’s art would be a fruitful subject for study.
Other portraits shown here have great immediacy and directness which bypass more aesthetic depictions. It is a fictional sheen of authenticity of course: Dubuffet applies aesthetic criteria during the creation of his art objects as other artists do, the only difference being that Dubuffet’s affiliations are for outsider, naïve and children’s art.
The works exhibited demonstrate the artist’s mental dexterity and sensitivity. The abstract paintings rely on delicately patterned surfaces to build up an organic or mineral shimmer. The patinas can be sumptuous, with glazes puddles suspended on a surface of gold foil. One could compare Dubuffet’s abstracts to Asger Jorn’s decorative Luxury Paintings, in which the Pollock drip method has been neutered and applied as an all-over surface pattern, yet Dubuffet’s surfaces have stubborn substantiality. Dubuffet’s surfaces have geological and cartological aspects in that they both describe surfaces and exist as surfaces, complex, compacted and distressed. The collages including butterfly wings and tobacco leaves echo Surrealist experiments of the inter-war period: Ernst’s forests and devastated decalcomanie landscapes. Dubuffet must have known Klee’s paintings and drawings and one wonders how they might have influenced his collages. Perhaps all collages of vegetal matter and tessellated surfaces inevitably share certain characteristics with Klee’s herbarium-inspired drawings.
The most unexpected items in the exhibition are wooden statuettes composed of lightly modified pieces of driftwood. The eroded fragments have a richly striated surface like weathered skin and with a hole here and there and an astute combination Dubuffet summons golems he entitles The Old Man of the Beach and Long Face (both 1959). The Astonished Man (1959) is a rubbery faced figure who gawps at us in incredulity, unable to believe what he sees. His silver-foil surfaced form is alchemically unstable, part vegetable, part mineral. These are sculptures Arcimboldo might have made, yet with greater wit, elegance and intellectual litheness than that painter had. The sculptures are comic and grotesque, pathetic and sinister and really startle.
Cruelly crippled and clownish, these grotesques menace us but also seem to beseech. “We are no different from you”, their presence suggests, even though one feels these freaks should not exist and that their existence mocks our own. They are counterpoints to Giacometti’s gnarled slivers of humanity. These country personages seem in rude health (wizened yet energetic), full of spiteful humour and gleeful buffoonery, in contrast to Giacometti’s anguished, frail dwellers of plazas and streets. Dubuffet’s personages are like wild animals or crude peasants brought into the dining room. Brut et informel , knowing and caring nothing for etiquette, they pull faces, gawp, guffaw, belch and fart.
The intelligent selections and careful placement of works enhances one’s understanding of – and sympathy for – Dubuffet’s art. Seeing such excellent examples first hand in the tranquil setting of Acquavella’s belle-époque townhouse is the best possible way to re-discover Dubuffet’s early art. This is vintage Dubuffet.
Gallery website: http://www.acquavellagalleries.com/
Fondation Jean Dubuffet: http://www.dubuffetfondation.com/home.php?lang=en
30 April 2016
 pp. 68-9, Mark Rosenthal et al., Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, 2016, HB, 208pp, ISBN 0 8478 5851 4