“HIS WEREN’T CANVASES to be framed,” curator and historian Mark Rosenthal says about the renowned French artist Jean Dubuffet, whose early work in painting and sculpture is the focus of a new show at Acquavella Galleries, opening today. Indeed Dubuffet, who, alongside artists like Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, is often associated with the generation of Europeans who emerged in and around World War II, made work that refused to bend to convention—it’s an attitude that also shaped Dubuffet’s life.
Born in Le Havre, France in 1901 to a family of bourgeoisie wine merchants, Dubuffet’s early involvement with art was marked by periods of inactivity, during which time he preoccupied himself with the family business. But in 1942, he decided to devote himself to his art full time. But unlike Giacometti and Bacon, whose disquieting works directly reflected the wartime period, Dubuffet explored subtler terrain—many times depicting in his work caricatured representations of friends, women, and even, cows. “Dubuffet never painted a tortured figure in his life. Rather, he took off on another existential path as if to say, I’m going to do what I want to do—he was more concerned with subverting conventional ideas of art,” says Rosenthal, formerly of the Detroit Institute of Art. At the same time, a number of portrait shows went up in Paris, featuring paintings of handsome war heroes and members of the elite. “He was doing everything to transgress against that,” says Rosenthal. “He made paintings that had very rough surfaces, often containing stones and plaster and tar. He deliberately made his figures look wild and grotesque.”
Later, his resistance to the traditional led Dubuffet to champion outsider art— which he coined art brut (“raw art”)—in the form of a collection of art works by African artists as well as those suffering from mental illness. Of course, as Rosenthal is quick to point out, these subjects weren’t unknown—Picasso was interested in African art as far back as the turn of the century, as was Paul Klee—but it’s undeniable that Dubuffet certainly furthered the idea that such art was as legitimate as that by European traditionalists.
This latest exhibition at Acquavella surveys Dubuffet’s work from 1943 to 1959, on view together for the first in over two decades, showcases an passion that influenced countless neo-avant-garde artists like Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer. “Dubuffet was one of the great disruptors of art history,” says Rosenthal. “He utilized the most humble of materials, all of which projected new visions of beauty.”
Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions is on view at Aquavella Galleries in New York City through June.