by Hovey Brock
1935 – 1962
The Morgan Library & Museum
September 30, 2016 – January 2, 2017
What’s in a beard? Certainly, when considering the surfaces and materials of Jean Dubuffet’s mature works, the word “rebarbative” (from the Latin barba, meaning beard) comes to mind. Beards feature prominently toward the end of this survey of over one hundred works on paper spanning the early and middle periods of Dubuffet’s career, before he embarked on his papier-mâché sculptures. Born to a bourgeois family of wine merchants in Le Havre, Dubuffet gave up the family business by the Second World War to commit himself full-time to an art practice that owes a debt to Surrealism, but moves beyond the psychological into the social. Art Brut, as Dubuffet defined it, included those aspects of cultural production we now call “outsider art:” art produced by the uneducated, the mentally ill, children—in short the socially marginalized. That sense of the outsider, and the anger that comes with it, accounts for the aggression so often present in the very materials, techniques, and subject matter Dubuffet chose—rebarbative indeed. However, balancing that aggression is his genius with manipulating unorthodox materials to create—in so many of his works—the astonishing effects that make this survey such a pleasure.
There are no inferior pieces in the show, but his earlier efforts from the 1930s and early 1940s come nowhere near the power of his wartime experiments with scratching and staining. Paysage (Landscape) (1944)—a black-and-white gouache on scratchboard— consists of a febrile network of white scores on a black ground with little semblance to any reasonable notion of landscape. While it is possible to see antecedents in Paul Klee’s works, like Flagged Pavilion (1927), the abandon and energy that Dubuffet brings to this piece belies its tiny scale of 9 × 10¼ inches. In fact, this was precisely what Dubuffet was after. He believed that traditional forms crushed the life out of art, and to find redemption one had to move beyond the boundaries of what society deemed acceptable. Certainly, Dubuffet was at his best when he moved beyond the margins.
Conversely, color—a mainstay of Western painting traditions—seems to just get in the way of his attempts to unleash the primal forces of creativity. The works that have color look unwittingly more whimsical than the others and are often pleasing in a way that Dubuffet may not have intended, for example, the Parisian cityscape of Rue des Petits-Champs (Bombance) (1962). While the surface suggests the restlessness of an agitated mind, the overall effect, satirical store names notwithstanding, has a certain charm. Granted this may be so with the benefit of hindsight, but the fact is this piece looks vaguely familiar, when the very best of the works in this show still have the power to stop us in our tracks.
His 1959 painting Baptême du feu (Baptism of Fire)—taking dried leaves and layering them with oil on a piece of paper—simply does not look like “art.” The brown color of the leaves themselves bears no relation to any accepted notions of decorative or aesthetic pleasure. Further, the veins and stems of the leaves create a frankly creepy analog to flesh, as if we are looking at a section of an animal body that Dubuffet flayed alive. Yet, despite the unattractive associations this piece brings to mind, it grips our attention and does not let go—a testament to his gift for surface and materials. Another work that both repels and fascinates is Jardin médiéval (Medieval Garden) (1955). Here Dubuffet creates a quasi-mosaic of dried butterfly wings on a piece of paper. For those who find butterfly collections disturbing, this is one artwork that should induce disgust, and on some level it does, yet Dubuffet also manages to eke out a decorative rhythm based on the symmetry of the wings, as well as a subtly complex palette from their faded pigments.
The survey devotes an entire section to beards; it is appropriately titled “Textures and Beards.” The works here go a long way to revealing the true source of Dubuffet’s power, in what in psychoanalysis is called the “return of the repressed.” So much of what Dubuffet accomplishes takes place in the most intellectually denigrated sensory register of touch. Barbe des colères (Wrathful Beard) (1959) is a bold assemblage of bits of torn paper creating an image of a bald man whose gigantic beard dominates the composition. The beard here is an instance of socially unacceptable aggression. They are scratchy and uncivilized, hence the meaning of the word rebarbative: unattractive or objectionable. Yet, the energy and humor in this image, as well as other beard-related pieces in the show, suggests that it is precisely in those most objectionable and overlooked parts of ourselves—and others—that we should look for what it means to be truly alive, and not just a slave to convention. Such was the case for Dubuffet.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.