Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was born in Le Havre and moved to Paris, where he was briefly enrolled at the Académie Julian. Leaving the school in 1918, he began to follow his own path in painting and, after a brief sojourn in wine dealing (the family business), spent the rest of his artistic life seeking an authentic art based on the work of prisoners, the insane, the naïve, and other marginal outsiders. The style he developed, and which ultimately became its own school, is now called Art Brut.
Dubuffet often presented himself as outside the "art world," but this is mildly disingenuous. He was a close friend of both André Masson and Antonin Artaud. His copious writings on art were gathered in the seminal book Asphyxiating Culture -- almost a bible for art students following the wave of Neo Expressionism and the Transavantgardia in the late 1970s and '80s. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Terry Winters, and Brice Marden, to name a few, made work that would have been nearly impossible without Dubuffet's trailblazing Hourloupe works in the '60s.
In The Last Two Years, we are given examples of two series of paintings Dubuffet did in the '80s: Mires (Test Patterns) and Non-Lieux (No-Grounds, a legal term meaning neither guilty nor innocent). These high-energy, reductive, free-form works compress many of the themes and effects that Dubuffet often sought into concise, thoughtful paintings that belie the age of the artist. (These are his final works, much like Matisse's Cut-Outs.) At the time they were shown, Daniel Abadie wrote that the works demonstrated Dubuffet's "ambition to create a meta-language of visual art with its own rules and syntax free of any habitual mind-set, thereby eluding both the sneaky subliminal conditioning of the culture and established social norms, in which the painter discerns the same reductive power, the same refusal of any independent adventure...."
Adventure was and is the keyword to approaching Dubuffet's paintings. In "Mire G 96 (Kowloon) June 22, 1983" (above), Dubuffet's graffiti lines and simplified red-yellow-blue palette remind us of Keith Haring's large-scale works and describe a Chinese peninsula -- one that Dubuffet wanted to visit but never did (or would). In some ways he used limited means to suggest greater stories, like his compatriot Jean-Luc Godard (with Alphaville). He created worlds that both existed in reality and were shaped by his own vision of reality. "Mire G 67 (Boléro) May 11, 1983" alludes to the bolero, a form of Spanish dance, as well as the waistcoat worn by bullfighters. The speed of execution and the mastery of the paint handling remind us of Picasso's late works; Dubuffet also finished a painting a day toward the end, proudly inscribing the dates and times on the back of the canvases. (Fragonard was known to do this too.) The reference to the bullfight is significant. Picasso identified with it; it was almost his signature theme. In these paintings Dubuffet is in the ring, so to speak, with Picasso. The card should read "Picasso v Dubuffet."
Dubuffet wrote about these final efforts to his dealer, Arne Glimcher: "These paintings were intended to challenge the objective nature of being. The notion of being is presented here as relative rather than irrefutable: it is merely a projection of our minds, a whim of our thinking. The mind has the right to establish being wherever it cares to and for as long as it likes. There is no intrinsic difference between being and fantasy; being is an attribute that the mind assigns to fantasy. One could apply the term 'nihilism' to this challenge of being, but it is reverse nihilism, since it confers the power of being on any fantasy whatsoever, given that being is a secretion of our minds...being and thinking are one and the same."
Ça plane pour moi. - Bradley Rubenstein
Pace Gallery is at 510 West 25th Street in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.