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Normal = 'Lack of imagination' at Jean Dubuffet's Hammer Museum exhibit

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

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Jean Dubuffet, La fermière (The Farmer’s Wife), March 1955. Pierre & Tana Matisse Fdn. Photo Christopher Burke Studio. © 2016 ARS/ADAGP

Off-Ramp arts correspondent Marc Haefele reviews Dubuffet Drawings, 1935-1962 - "the first in-depth museum exhibition of Dubuffet’s drawings" - at the Hammer Museum through Apr 30. It was organized by the Morgan Library & Museum, and curated by Isabelle Dervaux, Connie Butler, and Emily Gonzalez-Jarrett.

Jean Dubuffet, subject of a new exhibit  at the Hammer Museum, seems to have spent many of his painting and drawing years unlearning what he learned in art school. At the same time, Dubuffet taught himself lessons of his own, including how to draw like a psychiatric patient, or like a child … but one who brings a ferocious, fresh intellect to his work.

Dubuffet, who lived from 1901 to 1985, said, “Normal means lack of imagination.” So, he sedulously evaded what was normal for a modern painter, even one working in Paris and New York. As the 1900s closed, his work was occluded by the likes of Pollack, De Kooning, and Rothko. They retain their pioneering prominence in the public eye, but Dubuffet was more pioneer than they.

Jean Dubuffet,  Personnage au chapeau, seins bas superposes (Figure with a Hat, Superimposed Low Breasts), January 1952.
Jean Dubuffet, Personnage au chapeau, seins bas superposes (Figure with a Hat, Superimposed Low Breasts), January 1952. Pierre & Tana Matisse Fdn. Photo Christopher Burke Studio. © 2016 ARS/ADAGP

But now he’s roaring back. The Hammer is showing almost one hundred Dubuffet works from the 1930s to the 1960s, borrowed from private and public collections in France and America, organized by New York’s Morgan Library. Most of them are drawings. All of them have a lot to say. 

Dubuffet generally avoided the purely abstract, so you can see figures in his works, but they’re done in a way many found irritating, provocative, even enraging. For example, “The Farmer’s Wife” (at the top of this page) looks like a black and white negative of the set of SpongeBob SquarePants. The wiry style makes his "Visit to the Dentist" look like a torture chamber.

Although the exhibit reaches back to 1935, Dubuffet’s true leap into artistry began after 1940.  After a few years toying with folk art, puppets, and the like, he sold his business - he’d been a wine broker - and finally committed himself to making art.

His early results are quite impressive, particularly his brightly-colored 1943 views of Occupied Paris Metro cars full of polychrome commuters, complete with creepy “No Smoking” signs in German. The arrangement of the subjects shows a skill that Dubuffet must have learned in his early art studies, but he’s also retained the eye of the child … the commuters have the innocent, inept geometry of children’s drawings.

Jean Dubuffet,  Corps de dame (Lady's Body), June–December 1950.
Jean Dubuffet, Corps de dame (Lady's Body), June–December 1950. Joan & Lester Avnet Coll, Digital Image © MOMA/SCALA /Art Resource

His 1943 “Jazz” drawings, on the other hand, can only be described as “hip.” They represent a specific performance at Paris’ famous Hot Club de France, and, while the notes on the wall at the Hammer don’t tell you so, Dubuffet was depicting Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club Quintet. The faces of the musicians are all limned with a uniform lumpiness, as the performers’ poses surge with the action of the music. You can also feel danger and urgency— the Hot Club was a center of Resistance activity, and some of its employees died in concentration camps.

Toward the end of the war, Dubuffet dove deep into his individual quest for expression. He began drawing and scratching figures on dark inked surfaces, and writing within his work, sometimes scrawling obscene messages on pieces of blurred newsprint. Subsequent portraits involved incising and scratching, as well as a pseudo-childish style of huge heads and tiny necks. Rarely, they burst forth in joy, as they do in his 1946 “Four Personages.”

Jean Dubuffet,  Quatre personnages (Four Figures), July 1946.
Jean Dubuffet, Quatre personnages (Four Figures), July 1946. Richard & Mary Gray & Gray Collection Trust. Photo Tom Van Eynde. © 2016 ARS/ADAGP

After the claustrophobic confinement of the war years, he traveled to Algeria, and his works change from brown, gray, and tan – and depressing -- into the freedom of a tropical countryside full of new colors and figures … and new media: he increasingly works with textures and common materials like glue, dirt and sandpaper. It was a period of incredible austerity, refinement, and abstraction.

But in the end of this incredible decade, in the early 1960s, we see Dubuffet revert to a prodigiously colorful, joyful series of street scenes, full of people, cars, and sly store signs. It is a bright-hued return to the feeling of his early work, but matured by his intervening 20 years of introspection and exploration.

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