PRINT September 1996



THIS SPRING BROUGHT WITH IT the rare opportunity to view, in its entirety, the donation Jean Dubuffet made to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1967. Presented under the title “Les Dubuffet de Jean Dubuffet ” (Jean Dubuffet’s Dubuffets), this exhibition comprised 21 paintings, 135 gouaches and drawings, as well as six sculptures, all produced between 1942 and 1966. It was unquestionably the best introduction to the work of an artist who, since his death in 1985, has yet to be acccorded a full retrospective. Most striking was the wealth of invention, the supreme indifference to hierarchies and genres—qualities evident from the very first works, through the stunning “Assemblages d’empreintes” (Imprint assemblages, 1955), which at times look very “photographic,” to the Matériologies (Materiologies, 1959–60), or the urban images of Paris-Circus, 1961–62, and culminating in the famous series “L’hourloupe,” 1962–74. In a film about the artist produced by French television in 1961, screened at the entrance to the exhibition, Dubuffet declares: “If I made use of the absurd and the trivial, it was neither to celebrate nor to mock them, it was to negate them.” This power of negation goes hand in hand with a rather uncommon, and certainly irresistible gaiety, a witty eloquence manifested even in the inscriptions on the surfaces of certain works, or in titles such as “Ostracisme rend la monnaie” (Ostracism gives back change).

This master negator got along fairly well with words, as one may see for oneself thanks to Gallimard’s publication, several months before this exhibition, of the last two volumes of Dubuffet’s writings, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, volumes 3 and 4 (Prospectus and subsequent writings), edited by Hubert Damisch. We know that Dubuffet regularly championed art—that is, the individual and his subversive capacities—as opposed to culture, which he viewed as an extension of the State, and in the fourth volume we find a brief text he wrote to commemorate the donation of his work to the aforementioned museum, a text that reveals both the vigor of his convictions and the scarcely tenable position in which they placed him:

True art exists only where the word art is not uttered, not yet uttered. Especially not with those connotations of praiseworthiness, stuffiness, and venerability that we insist on attaching to it, and which are so contrary to the spirit of licentious, if not criminal, play from which art is inseparable. . . . Thus, I wouldn’t go and hang my canvases in a museum if things were going the way I wish they were (in which case there would be no museums at all). But given the current state of things, and regardless of what I want, there is no place in a living city for artworks, and people are so completely indoctrinated that artworks presented anywhere other than in a museum have no chance of being used by the public, or even of being looked at.1

If one still hopes to give some credence to such declarations, perhaps Dubuffet’s donation must be viewed in an ethnological light: in terms of the gift and the counter-gift. Or, more specifically, according to the logic of potlatch, with its connotations of challenge and rivalry, since potlatch always assumes the eventual ruin of the one receiving the offerings. Indeed, potlatch may well be a favored tool of cultural subversion: the word served as a title for the “Bulletin d’information du groupe français de l’Internationale lettriste” (The news bulletin of the French lettrist international) which a small group of Parisian agitators (including Guy-Ernest Debord) distributed from June 1954 until November 1957. The complete collection of these writings has just been republished by Éditions Allia. Offering disorienting yet indispensable reading, this mimeographed newsletter (which ranged between one, two, and four pages, depending on the issue) was sent free of charge “to certain addresses given to the editorial offices,” as was noted in issues from time to time. (The end of issue no. 24—there were 29 in all—is graced with the following: “All the texts published in Potlatch may be reproduced, copied, or partially cited without the least indication of their origin. DO NOT COLLECT POTLATCH, TIME IS WORKING AGAINST YOU.”)

The tone echoes that of early Surrealist tracts and manifestoes—Surrealism in its ossified 1950s version being a constant target, as one might expect—as well as that of Félix Fénéon after he put aside art criticism in order to pour forth his anarchist sensibility in his famous Nouvelles en trois lignes (Three-line news briefs), accounts of trivial events written for daily papers. Language, then, is important; it is the weapon of choice. Take one example: the sentiment “Claudel’s belated death provoked certain literary eulogies which would have been better expressed in private” turns up under the heading “Un chien écrasé” (A run-over dog) in issue no 18, March 23, 1955. As in Dubuffet’s diatribes, the wit favored is of the sort the events of May ’68 would make lastingly popular. But in the lead article of the 16th issue, devoted to the plastic arts, Le grand sommeil et ses clients (The big sleep and its customers), Debord, while recognizing the merits of those “artists who have become famous for disdaining and destroying art,” does not fail to emphasize what might be limiting about this stance: “With this destruction brought to a successful conclusion, its perpetrators find themselves, of course, incapable of realizing the smallest of their heralded aims outside esthetic disciplines. The disdain that these aging discoverers profess, then, for the very values from which they earn a living—that is, contemporary productions which lead to the decline of art—becomes a rather adulterated attitude, the indefinite prolongation of an esthetic death to be suffered, one that is made only of formal repetitions, and that rallies only a backward fraction of the university’s youth.” As for the lesson to be gleaned from the avant-gardes, it was clear that it had to extend beyond the field of artistic practice and situate itself, as Debord advocated, “in relation to a complete lifestyle.” We’re still waiting for the revolution.

For those who persist in visiting places devoted to contemporary art, mid 1996 would have found them planning a trip to Nîmes to see the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Musée d’Art Contemporain. Invited by Guy Tosatto—the director of the Museum, who had just finished mounting a magnificent exhibition devoted to the work of Jean-Pierre Bertrand (one of several French artists who, regrettably, have received little critical attention outside national borders)—Richter selected 114 of his paintings for this occasion, most of them small and medium-size, produced primarily in the last three years and not previously shown. The works hung in the entrance hall set the tone for the show as a whole: Speigel, blutrot (Mirror, blood-red, 1991), a painted monochrome under glass in which the viewer was reflected, faced Arena, 1995, a blurry view of a bullfight that recalled Manet. More than ever Richter seems to be allowing echoes of past painters to enter his works: one thinks, in turn, of Courbet’s landscapes, Degas’ monotypes, indeed of certain of Fragonard’s female figures (Lesende, [Women reading, 1994]) or those of Ingres (Kleine Badende [Small bather, 1994]). The polar opposite of the kind of work advocated by Dubuffet, the art here accepts itself as such, calls itself by that name, and warmly welcomes those memories proper to this ancient appellation. Let us praise museums—which, it must be acknowledged, sometimes have advantages—for allowing us to experience both kinds of artistic production.

A peculiar feature of the current situation in France is that, quite often, contemporary art, and particularly young artists, receive more support far from Paris (where the major event of last season was the opening of the exceptionally well-funded Maison Européenne de la Photographie, and where this season’s most interesting solo show by a living artist at the time of writing was surely that of Swiss artist Beat Streuli, who installed his large-scale slide projections at ARC). A dominant role is played by regional art centers such as, among others, the Consortium in Dijon, the Centre de Création Contemporaine in Tours, the Creux de l’Enfer in Thiers, or even Le Magasin in Grenoble, whose recently-appointed director, Yves Aupetitallot, will hopefully be able to give it the direction it has been lacking of late. Another pioneering institution, the Villa Arson in Nice, which is also an art school, has recently acquired a new director, Michel Bourel, and is hosting an exhibition of Pascal Convert’s work until October 6. Several years ago Convert began to base a large part of his work on the blueprints and plans of long vanished seaside villas, and it is these pieces that are the primary focus of this show. Convert’s most impressive creation in this vein, Sans titre (vues d’intérieur, villa Itxasgoïty) [Untitled (interior, villa Itxasgoïty), 1996], consists of a series of four wall drawings executed with a black marker on a background of bright-red gloss paint which covers the four walls of a vast square room. The drawings—all line drawings—have been perfected with the aid of a computer and combine, in a two-dimensional complex system of superimpositions and transparencies, the various spaces of the villa. The result is a veritable renewal of the spatial experience that this sort of wall drawing can provide. The exhibition also enabled one to discover Convert’s sculptures, including his black or white wax casts of bells; these impenetrable objects, closed in on themselves, the very reverse of the expansion and dilation the architectural views bring into play.

In conclusion a word about the editorial UFO that landed in bookstores at the end of May: the second issue, entitled “Digest,” of the Revue de littérature générale put together by Pierre Alferi and Olivier Cadiot and published by P.O.L. This circa 500-page tome, unencumbered by any traditionally “literary” concerns and guided by the idea of sampling and mixing, presents, for example, the literal transcription of Pierre Bourdieu’s interview with a young man from a working-class suburb next to a montage of extracts from Bakhtin and Arno Schmidt; a facsimile of one of Proust’s rough drafts and a translation of the entrance exam for the New York City Police; instructions for planting gardens by the landscape architect Gilles Clément and Freud’s “Session Notes”; as well as dozens of other texts by the most diverse authors, contemporary or not, illustrious or as yet unknown. All this culminates in an object that leaves one at once perplexed and delighted—an interesting, and awfully rare, sensation.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is editor of Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.


1. Jean Dubuffet, “Dubuffet au musé,” in Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, ed. Hubert Damisch (Paris: Gallimard, 1995) vol. 4, pp 23-24.