PRINT August 1962


Peter Selz’s The Work of Jean Dubuffet

Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet (New York: Museum of Modern Art), 1962. Illus., 187 pp.

THE EXHIBITION IS TAKEN DOWN; the paintings are returned to their owners, or to the artist’s studio. What remains is history, and more and more that history has come to be embodied in “the catalog.” Nowadays, the catalog is often a full-length book, written by some notable critic or curator. The exhibition brings forth the book; the book purports to be the history of the exhibition. If the books represent the paintings to have been something which they were not, how can they, stacked in corners or hanging in living rooms, defend themselves? Take, for example, Dubuffet’s 1959 concern with the shape and texture, (and comedy) of beards. Having decided to be amused for a while with beards, and producing a series of works with such titles as Beard of Uncertain ReturnsBeard VaseBeard Map, could Dubuffet in his wildest dreams have imagined that he would soon be sending scholarly Peter Selz scurrying to the libraries to research the entire history of beards? And that the section of his exhibition devoted to these works would consequently become history in “this” fashion?

Their shapes recall the menhirs of Stonehenge and the Winged Bulls from Assyrian palaces. The beard is the ageless symbol of manhood, and most cultures worshipped bearded divinities such as the Greek earth gods, Titans and Cyclops, as well as the Olympians who followed them, the vengeful Hebraic god as well as the first person of the Trinity. It is the memory of these archetypes that Dubuffet now evokes . . . The beard has become the essence. The whole world of geology and mythology—i.e., earth and man—seems to be contained in the great and majestic beard of the “Beard Map” . . . Man is reduced to being a beard carrier; or is he “elevated” to this position since the beards have indeed become a universe?

This drivel—Stonehenge, Assyrian palaces, Titans, Cyclops, Olympians, Jehovah, God, essences, geology and mythology, earth and man, a whole universe—can that have been what those beards were all about? That’s what the catalog says, and the exhibition, alas, is gone. Dubuffet will think twice should his attention turn to mustaches.

The book is redeemed by a series of fine illustrations, and by the inclusion of a series of texts on his work by Dubuffet himself. If most artists act like lunatics and paint with all the excitement of organization men, Dubuffet acts like an organization man and paints with all the excitement of a lunatic. Even in reproduction, any one of Dubuffet’s paintings brings more of the esthetic emotion welling out of one than any ten one-man shows of his lesser contemporaries together. Winged Bulls from Assyrian palaces or no, these illustrations alone make it clear that we are dealing with one of the three or four greatest painters of our century.

Dubuffet’s own notes are full of wit and insight and provide in themselves a view of a very fascinating mind at work:

Nothing seems to me more false, more stupid, than the way students in an art class are placed in front of a completely nude woman standing motionless on a table, and stare at her for hours. The normal conditions under which a man has seen unclothed bodies are thus disregarded in a perfectly insane fashion . . .

In the case of the works discussed here, the extraneous controlling logic imposed on the paintings is that of laziness, negligence, and the headlong haste with which the pictures seem to have been painted. I see little use in traveling. I must say I have all my life always loved tables.

Discussing his series of horrendous paintings of the nude of 1950, he writes:

When I ask myself what has brought me to this subject, so typical of the worst painting, I think it is, in part, because the female body, of all the objects in the world, is the one that has long been associated . . . with a very specious notion of beauty . . . ; now it pleases me to protest against this aesthetic, which I find miserable and most depressing . . . The idea that there are beautiful objects and ugly objects, people endowed with beauty and others who cannot claim it, has surely no other foundation than convention—old poppycock—and I declare that convention unhealthy.

The passage ends with one of the most eloquent credos ever stated by an artist:

I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent celebration.

Philip Leider