“The voices of dust, the soul of dust: these things interest me many times more than flowers, trees, or horses because I sense they’re so much stranger.” — Jean Dubuffet
The Hammer Museum’s exhibit entitled Dubuffet Drawings 1935-62 is, according to their literature, the “first in-depth exhibition of Dubuffet’s drawings.”
I’m not sure if they mean in the United States or perhaps even world -wide. No matter. It is an extraordinary grouping of almost 100 works on paper – many borrowed from France – and the sheer volume is not only a treat for the viewer but provides important insights into Dubuffet’s idiosyncratic technique. His “backstory” – as we say here in California – is quite unusual. Apparently, he showed early artistic talent and had many significant artist friends, but for twenty years was a wine merchant. Not until 1942, at the ripe old age of 41, did he finally commit to being a full time artist. He had his first solo show in Paris two years later.
Like many of the Surrealists and early Modernists, he was enamored with the unselfconscious energy of children’s drawings, the compelling distortions of self-taught artists and the charismatic work of the mentally ill. His earliest drawing on display here “Lili devant la fenetre (Lili in front of the window) (1935 Goauche with collage 11 2/8 x 8 7/8 inches) is a bit before he developed his trademark techniques. It does, however, already demonstrate his love of process and attention to detail. Dubuffet had a puppet created that he drew from and which contributed to the odd, unnatural stilted quality that the painting of Lili showcases.
In 1943, Dubuffet was still working in color and completed a charming and somewhat subversive series of subway paintings, which are more abstracted. Each of the four shown here is simply entitled “Le Métro” and are all 14 ½ x 12 inches. For some reason, these jam-packed paintings remind me of a kindler, gentler more up-beat James Ensor. The passenger’s bodies – particularly the repetitive shapes of the women’s knees and the black outlined legs of the men – form a pattern, moving rhythmically from left to right. Though the composition is highly simplified, there is still a suggestion of deep space. In one image, the sign “Rauchen Verboten” jarringly reminds us that this Paris was still occupied by the Nazis.
Soon Dubuffet is experimenting with scratching through a field of black ink to create tumultuous fields of scribbled white lines (perhaps influencing the young Cy Twombly) as in “Paysage” (Landscape) (26 May 1944 Goauche on scratchboard 9x 10 ¼ inches). The energetic edgy lines suggest traces of cars and landscape. Working furiously Dubuffet created thousands of images. He explained his preference for drawing this way: “The reason why drawings are always better than paintings is because you have to produce fifty drawings to arrive at one good one: you can make fifty drawings in a day, but making fifty paintings takes fifty days (if not fifty weeks). So naturally you’re exhausted long before the end…But it’s only the fiftieth that would be really good.”
In 1944 Dubuffet moved to a larger studio, which enabled him to set up an assembly line of sorts. Tables were stacked with hundreds of sheets of paper. Another area was his inking station. As he inked he threw the wet pieces on the floor to dry. In describing the highly textured works he was creating, he mentioned all the debris that he was using: wood sweepings, dust, grains, sugar, and salt. He went early in the morning to the great Paris markets to gather items from the refuse heaps that he could use in his work. Wildly inventive, Dubuffet made assemblages from inked hand pressed monotypes that were later torn, cut and collaged. He was always experimenting with papers that had different amounts of sizing to affect the way ink soaked into the surface.
From 1945-47, Dubuffet worked on a series of unique graphite, india ink and goauache portraits of fellow artist which reference graffiti, cave art and caricature. The memorable drawing entitled “Portrait de Joe Bousquet au lit (Portrait of Joe Bousquet in bed) (January 1947, incised gouache on gessoed board, 19 ½ x 1 ¾ inches) is of the paralyzed bedridden poet. The figure is wonderfully simplified. The image is read from top of the page to the bottom, and consequently reaffirms the flatness of the picture plane. The hunched shoulders are boxy, the eyes droopy and the slack open mouth shows top and bottom teeth. The old wood headboard of the small bed crammed against the white of the wall and the cluttered bed littered with notes or newspaper are all details that not only completely fill the composition but give the viewer a sense of the personality of this man.
Dubuffet was always on the search for new non-traditional materials to use in his work. The most unusual and surprising material he used were the wings of beautiful butterflies in some collages from the early nineteen-fifties (Damien Hirst probably saw these). The humorous “Le Strabique” (The Squinter) (October 1953, butterfly wings and gouache, 9 7/8 x 7 ¼ inches) is composed of the accretion of brownish orange wings, which coalesce into the head and torso of a figure. Dubuffet carefully arranged the wings so that the spots lined up with eyes and nostrils to create a comical expression of surprise.
By the mid nineteen-fifties, Dubuffet was focusing on dense surface manipulation and unusual textures. These often suggested a landscape, with a single figure isolated in it set against an inky dark sky. His work often combined the serious with the comic as in “Le Jardin de barbe (Beard Garden) (May 1959 assemblage of imprints, collage of cut and torn india-ink imprints, 20 1/8 x 13 3/8 inches). Here we see a frontal figure that resembles a children’s hand puppet, with large, deer-in-the-headlight eyes, a balding head and the eponymous beard.
Dubuffet came full circle in the nineteen-sixties with work as fresh and lively as his earliest nineteen forties paintings. However, the Paris he painted now was filled with color, people and cars, and was obviously so much more festive than during the gloomy post-war years. His “Galeries Lafayette” (8 May 1961, gouache 19 ½ x 26 inches) celebrates this famous department store, which is a paean to joyful consumerism. The image is filled with biomorphic people crammed next to charming displays, all seen like from above like a child’s birds-eye view drawing. It reminds one of the Austrian painter Hundertwasser’s work in palette and organic composition.
In a letter to his friend Gaston Chaissac, dated 30 June 1947, Dubuffet said: “I’m absolutely convinced that someone who changes instrument(s) and … rather than drawing with a pencil on paper draws with this finger on fogged glass or with a knifepoint on a lump of butter or with the heel of his shoe in the dust, will be regenerated and led to invent new forms and new means of expression and make all kinds of discoveries which he would never have made with his pencil and paper…” This extraordinary exhibit gives the prolific Dubuffet his due while highlighting his lifelong search for new techniques. The artist who coined the term “L’Art Brut” in 1945 to describe the kind of art he was inspired by continues to inspire, delight and surprise us.
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.