Jean Dubuffet: Ardent Celebration
Dates: February 25 to August 21, 2022
Curated by David Max Horowitz, Assistant Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Throughout his career, Jean Dubuffet rejected cultural conventions and socially enforced ideas of beauty, instead exploring stimulating new perspectives. He sought to inspire his audiences to access more authentic and enriching ways of experiencing art, creativity, and the broader world around them.
Jean Dubuffet continually reinvented his approach to making art. He explored a host of media and compositional strategies, pursued a wide range of imaginative subjects, and moved freely between figuration and abstraction.
With the Hourloupe cycle, Dubuffet established a vocabulary that enabled him to create and explore an ever expanding, fantastical universe, unified by its shared visual expression. It also allowed him to more pointedly take on phenomenological and epistemological issues, which would remain a focus through the end of his career.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Jean Dubuffet: Ardent Celebration, sponsored by BBK, an exhibition surveying the defining decades of the career of Jean Dubuffet, spanning his first years of committed artistic production in the 1940s through his final fully developed series, completed in 1984. The exhibition is drawn primarily from the rich holdings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and supplemented by important selections from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.
At the end of World War II, Jean Dubuffet (b. 1901, Le Havre, France; d. 1985, Paris) began exhibiting paintings that defied entrenched artistic values. He rejected principles of decorum and classical beauty, along with pretentions of expertise. Instead, he looked to the commonplace and the unheralded, employing crude materials, mundane subjects, and a style that spurned any outward sign of academic training. In this approach, Dubuffet was challenging norms that he believed obstructed authentic expression and devalued everyday experience. However, his goal was not only to reveal how threadbare cultural conventions were; he also wanted to illustrate the vitality of life freed from them. As he once claimed, “I would like people to see my work as a rehabilitation of scorned values and . . . make no mistake about it, a work of ardent celebration.”
The ability to present a full survey of the artist’s career largely from the collection of New York’s Guggenheim Museum is thanks to the close relationship the museum established with Dubuffet. The museum hosted three major exhibitions on the artist during his lifetime, including Jean Dubuffet 1962– 66 (1966), Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective (1973), and Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective Glance at Eighty (1981). The institution also collected his work in depth, beginning with the acquisition of the Door with Couch Grass (Porte au chiendent) (1957) in 1959.
Dubuffet was born in Le Havre, France, in 1901. At seventeen, he began studies at Académie Julian, a respected art school. However, he soon became disenchanted with the curriculum’s distance from real world concerns and dropped out. In the following years, he remained engaged with the creative community in Paris, circulating with artists like Raoul Dufy, Juan Gris, Fernand Legér, André Masson, and Suzanne Valadon. In 1923, he came across the work of the visionary artist Clémentine Ripoche, and the next year, he discovered Dr. Hanz Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill. These two encounters began Dubuffet’s life-long, integral engagement with art made by psychics, children, and people experiencing mental illness— a kind of artistic production he would later term “Art Brut.”
For much of the 1920s and 1930s, Dubuffet worked in his family’s wine distribution business. It was not until 1942, at the age of forty-one, while living in Nazi-occupied Paris, that he decided to devote himself to being an artist. The works he made in the ensuing years were a direct challenge to commonly held ideals about beauty, skill, and the elevated status of art, as revealed in Miss Cholera (Miss Choléra) and Will to Power (Volonté de Puissance), both made in January 1946. Dubuffet complemented this production with publications and talks in which he explicated his belief that the mechanisms of mainstream culture were moribund, stifling, and should be cast aside.
Alongside his clear criticality, Dubuffet was experimenting with alternate paths forward, paths that he believed would lead to more fruitful, genuine modes of expression. During the 1940s and 1950s, he invited audiences to fundamentally reconsider the concept of beauty and demonstrated how worthy of admiration ordinary things could be. His work of this era delights in the qualities of quotidian and base materials. To emphasize the physicality of his paint, he used additives like lime, cement, or sand to thicken his oil paint into a paste he called “haute pâte.” With this medium, he could create deeply textured, complex surfaces, and he could shape his compositions in more immediately physical ways. Dubuffet sometimes went a step further in his explorations of materials, using found objects like rocks, rope, and, later, aluminum foil in his paintings. In parallel, he sought to overthrow socially enforced notions of beauty with nontraditional choices of subjects and the inventive ways in which he depicted them. This goal is particularly apparent in his early portraits, like Portrait of Soldier Lucien Geominne (Portrait du soldat Lucien Geominne) (1950) and his series of nudes, Ladies’ Bodies (Corps de Dames) (1950–51), but it extends to his depictions of frequently ignored objects, including dilapidated walls, rustic doors, soil, and rocks.
From 1962 into the 1970s, Dubuffet pursued his most extended body of work, the Hourloupe cycle. These paintings and sculptures are distinguished by networks of interlocked cells, many filled with parallel stripes, most often in red, blue, and white. Though this cycle marks a significant stylistic shift, it continues Dubuffet’s commitment to constructively realigning his and his audiences’ engagement with art and the world more broadly. With the Hourloupe, cycle, which is represented in this exhibition with the works Nunc Stans (1965) and Bidon l’Esbroufe (1967), Dubuffet established a vocabulary that enabled him to create and explore an ever expanding, fantastical universe, unified by its shared visual expression. It also allowed him to more pointedly take on phenomenological and epistemological issues. The intricacy of the patterning can lead to visual ambiguity, especially when multiple pieces are seen together. This enigmatic quality suggests the transience of what seems permanent and the contingency of an object’s supposedly defining form. Together these effects occasion a rethinking of the relationship between perception and reality, an aim that was of deep importance to the artist.
For the last decade of his life, Dubuffet continued to focus on the workings of the mind, especially as they relate to the external world. By drawing attention to these mental functions, he hoped to inspire new, liberated ways of thinking. In the Theaters of Memory (Théâtres de mémoire) series (1975–79), Dubuffet established a vocabulary for expressing how the mind mixes perception, memories, and concepts as it tries to make sense of events and surroundings. His last two series, Sights (Mires) (1983–84) and Non-Places (Non-lieuxs) (1984), represented in this exhibition by Sight G 132 (Kowloon) (Mire G 132 [Kowloon]) (1983), and Given (Donnée) (1984), respectively, are characterized by tangles of lines and are largely absent of recognizable imagery. With these paintings, Dubuffet considered what experience would be like if the mind did not sort the outside world into preconceived, socially defined categories—extending even to the distinction between the real and imagined. Free of such constraints, the artist believed people would be able to access new, limitless possibilities of experience and creativity.