New York

Jean Dubeffet

Perhaps due as much to the peculiar new climate of American painting as to the style of his current work, Jean Dubuffet suddenly looks more up-to-date than he has in 20 years. Not that he has gotten easy to take. There’s still that damned facility and feckless proliferation of plasmic imagery, that squiggly line he’s been spinning out since the 1940s that, if unkinked, would probably stretch to Jupiter by now. His unflagging robustness, high spirits, panache, etc., can still make one want to go lie down somewhere, and the floor of his black and white prints and drawings at the two-story Pace Gallery I found completely daunting. The paintings upstairs, however, looked very good indeed.

The paintings are actually collages from other paintings, on paper, in a very wide range of exuberant, brushy styles, some of them recognizable from Dubuffet’s past work and some like tachiste and Cobra parodies. The paper paintings are cut up in irregular patches, which are glued down on canvas to form dense, brassily dissonant quilts. There are two series, a country one and a city one: “Scènes Champêtres,” lyrically vague terrains whose dominant hues are green and brown; and “Scènes Banales,” jumping friezelike “social” landscapes featuring sharp red, blue, black. Dubuffet’s typical funny and/or anguished faces and figures appear at strategic places in the hectic compositions, evidently having been pasted on last—like stamps to make sure the paintings deliver. (Indeed, without them the pictures would be sludgy or chaotic messes.)

Are we willing again, or for the first time, to take Dubuffet seriously? (Willing, that is, to suspend judgment on values foreign to us in more ways than one, for instance the paradox of a cozy, best-selling anarchism.) It would profit us to try, I think, at a time when our own nonrealist artists are starting to lay hold on the outside world again. Dubuffet has been ramming the whole world through the funnel of his work for 35 years now, and he has a lot to teach. There’s his protean use of the figure, for one thing, as a semaphore of gaiety and distress; to hazard an emotional identification with it, as I find with the new paintings, is to have one’s sense of oneself in the world stirred up in a wild way.

Nor do I think social content is entirely a paper tiger in Dubuffet’s work, especially in his big outdoor sculpture, which I happen to think is the only, and I mean the one and only, body of contemporary monumental sculpture fully deserving of the name “public art.” Being figurative, it can hold scale in architecture as, it increasingly seems, no abstract sculpture (and no Oldenburg) can do, ever; being charming, it can inspire identification, even love, in people alienated by most of what the contemporary city presents to their eye; being subversive in both form and subject matter to the values coded into the corporate urban scene, it might, just might help focus a spirit of nonacquiesence.

I have in mind less the Chase Manhattan’s Four Trees, which is lovely but rather tame, than Dubuffet’s steel-petal figures, for instance La Chiffonière (The Rag Woman), which is supposed to remain at the southeast corner of Central Park through most of June. Cunningly placed on an axis with St. Gaudens’ great Sherman monument, such that it directs its bleary stare directly at the general’s horse’s ass, this tatterdemalion symbol of the underclass holds fierce, heart-lifting sway over its surroundings. I’d give a lot to see this or another of Dubuffet’s metal personages permanently installed in the city, but I’m not holding my breath.

Peter Schjeldahl