ean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985) began his professional life as a wine merchant, but by age 41 he had devoted himself full-time to painting—his true passion, and one that had begun years earlier when he briefly attended the Académie Julian in Paris. After the French liberation, Dubuffet developed a “Surrealist desire” to seek inspiration from street artists, reclusive madmen, and other eccentrics, as well as from the art of children all over Europe. He called this work “l’art brut” or raw art; it possessed “a strength that derived from desire, from magic…Isolated from society [the brut-ists] create their own feasts.” Over time Dubuffet amassed a considerable collection of such work, which now resides at the Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.
As for his own practice, Dubuffet was busy scratching the canvas with his palette knife, a brush, or a trowel. He used sand, tar, charcoal, glass, and varnish to paint cruel portraits of the intellectuals and writers of the 1940s, depicting them like caricatures of monsters. A French art critic greeted one of his exhibitions with the farcical title of “Ubu—du Bluff—Dubuffet,” at first sharply criticizing him and then reluctantly recognizing his complexity, aligning Dubuffet with Eugène Ionesco and the theater of the absurd.
In his old age during the early 1980s, Dubuffet was still the bad boy of the avant-garde—or perhaps was resurrected as such. By this time, he was France’s most famous and critically acclaimed artist, known for messy, tactile paintings that read like expressive updates of cave drawings and tribal totems. The 26 works on view at Pace were created, as the title of the show states, in the last two years of his life, from 1983 to 1984. They make use of bright primary colors, displaying graffiti-like abstract doodles painted with acrylic on paper and then mounted on canvas. The artist’s gestural marks appear as if they were intended for larger surfaces, breaking through borders imposed by the edges of the paper.
Twelve of the works, all but one from 1983, bear the general title “Mire,” occasionally followed by playful subtitles in parentheses, such as “Kowloon” or “Boléro.” Dubuffet assigned each name with care. Paintings titled “Kowloon” evoke the colorful, noisy world of an imaginary Hong Kong bazaar at night, while “Boléro” is applied to a group of paintings in a palette limited to blue, red, and white, suggesting the rhythms of a Spanish dance or perhaps the colors of the vests worn by matadors.
In the back room of the gallery, dark walls highlight paintings from 1984 with black backgrounds, some with color overlays of blue on red creating a deep purple. Dubuffet’s method of applying lines of color relates to the then-historicized styles of American Abstract Expressionists like de Kooning and Pollock. An existential narrative dominates this section of later work, with paintings titled “Epanouissement (Fulfillment),” “Fluence,” and “Expansion.”
Writing to Arnold Glimcher, the founder of the Pace Gallery, in a letter reproduced in the catalog for this exhibition, Dubuffet explained his conception for the paintings as
“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 fro as long as it likes. There is no intrinsic difference between being and fantasy.”
Simply put, Dubuffet created a metalanguage of chaos, entertaining endless irresolvable contradictions of light and void. His paintings are not disturbing, yet still invigorating; not threatening, yet challenging!