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1/1 - Jean Dubuffet's 'Mire G 111 (Kowloon),' from Aug. 4, 1983. © Jean Dubuffet /The Pace Gallery/Pizzuti Collection, ARS, NY/ ADAGP, Paris .

1/1 - Jean Dubuffet's 'Mire G 111 (Kowloon),' from Aug. 4, 1983. © Jean Dubuffet /The Pace Gallery/Pizzuti Collection, ARS, NY/ ADAGP, Paris .

Jean Dubuffet's Last Blast of Provocation

It was the 1980s, and Jean Dubuffet wanted to be something of an artistic bad boy again. He'd become France's most famous and critically adored artist—best known for messy, tactile paintings that read like expressive updates of cave drawings and tribal totems. By then, the artist had lost interest in his most controversial early works. "He told me that their vitality was only in the period of time where they were provocative," says Arne Glimcher, Pace Gallery founder and chairman. But he still hoped to irk and challenge his fans. Suffering from osteoporosis and emphysema, Dubuffet dedicated the last few years of his life to a series of wild and incongruous paintings. Pace will show about 20 of these staunchly abstract acrylics, made in 1983 and 1984 (the artist died at the age of 83 in 1985). They show how Dubuffet continued to test the standards of taste and convention. Born in Le Havre, France, in 1901, Dubuffet didn't pursue art in earnest until he was in his 40s, at which point he developed a deliberately "unskilled" style inspired by what he termed "Art Brut." He start exhibiting his own work in Paris and championed visceral, antiacademic art made by sociopaths, psychics and the mentally ill. Mr. Glimcher represented Dubuffet in the U.S. starting in 1968 and, by the time of the artist's death, was his exclusive agent. Dubuffet's last works comprise two groups. "Mires" ("Sights," in English) are bright, acrylic-on-paper renderings. All of the figures, objects and animals that appear in much of his earlier oeuvre are seemingly absent—or deconstructed beyond recognition. What's left are hastily drawn, marker-like red and blue streaks and shapes that form stacks of blobs and ellipses in fervent pieces like "Mire G 111 (Kowloon)," from Aug. 4, 1983. Dubuffet called his final paintings "Non-Lieux," a French trial term for "cases dismissed" and a metaphor for a rapidly concluding life. They're coarse, violent streaks on black backgrounds that look like the visual embodiment of madness itself. "He told me they were his last works," Mr. Glimcher adds. "He said, with a chuckle: 'I have been painting for over 40 years—I don't think it is good for my health.' " "Jean Dubuffet: The Last Two Years" will go on view from Jan. 20 through March 10 at the Pace Gallery's 510 W. 25th St. location in New York.

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