Jean Dubuffet

Centre Pompidou

Jean Dubuffet (1901–85) was a big deal to an adolescent art lover in Chicago in the ‘70s. His monumental black-and-white civic sculptures were the epitome of bland buoyancy, a kind of European Pop-old master gold standard. His championing of art brut and children's art, not to mention his own funky dirt-, gravel-, and cement-filled canvases, looked to be the very lodestars of the local Hairy Whos’ obsessions. Chicago collectors of Picasso and Ivan Albright took to Dubuffet like one of their own, just as their forebears had embraced French Impressionism, to which Dubuffet's work provided many not-so-subtle links. That air of crusty glamour; that pneumatic, up-with-nature thing; that bold reinvention of the “ugly” female nude, the war-torn landscape, and the hydrocephalic male portrait of literary genius—all this made Dubuffet a living ancestor figure for artists and critics beginning to question the hegemony of the New York School and looking to Europe for alternatives.

All this came back to mind while wandering through the gargantuan Dubuffet centenary exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. Roughly the first half (covering the period ca. 1925–60) of this unwieldy four hundred-plus-work behemoth looked newly authoritative in terms of art history. Dubuffet emerged as a belated Surrealist, an extended Expressionist, a cave painter (and poet) with a yen for existentialist texture. Even stranger, his work struck profound echoes with earlier French art, with Delacroix and Gérôme, showing Dubuffet to be a dyed-in-the-wool Orientalist whose cartoony, leering images of Arabs, made in 1947–49 during three trips to Algeria, now look premonitory both of Twombly's mature sgraffito and Picasso's late-style cavaliers. Most surprising was the gallery devoted to “Prehistory”: the halting urban-angst fantasias he created in the circle of André Masson; and even more in focus, the retardataire, André Derain-derived small paintings of his girlfriend Lili vamping and mugging à la Claude Cahun in their bare-bones Parisian apartment. These hint at a strong performative streak and an eye for oddities of dress that would become full-blown in Dubuffet's “Coucou Bazar” ballet sets and costumes (1973), re-created somewhat somnolently in a static installation at Beaubourg.

The French curators Daniel Abadie and Sophie Duplaix made a case for Dubuffet as an artist of extremes veering between poles of intense figuration and near abstraction. There were entire galleries devoted to the early color explosions of the ‘40s (Dubuffet's subway scenes give Rothko's a run for their money); great lineups of the male portraits (so indebted to Soutine); the nudes (Leon Golub was not far behind); and the lesser-known “Beards” series of 1959, in which fields of facial hair become horror vacui tangles of drawing, writing, and thinking. These segued into an impressive group of nearly “minimalist” earth and pavement abstractions, the “Texturologies” and “Materiologies” of 1957-60, which laid out a strong suit for Dubuffet as a cosmic reductivist on a par with Pollock and for abstraction as a kind of ground zero from which Dubuffet rebounded with his teeming '60s depictions of the city. (These, under the rubric “Paris Circus,” were exhibited in the next room.) Though it was a thrilling curatorial coup de théâtre, I still don't quite buy the works’ singularity or originality vis-à-vis the complex interstices of late AbEx and emerging Pop.

The second half of the show, from 1960 to 1984, reconfirmed Dubuffet's status as a supremely cultured and canny operator. (After all, he'd had a whole first career in his family's wine business.) The '60s canvases of the city, with their humorous wordings of billboards and shop signs, struck a chord with someone used to French shopkeepers.They look particularly close to early Claes Oldenburg; indeed, Dubuffet's importance for nascent Pop needs to be reaffirmed. Sixties Dubuffet also seems to predict '80s Jasper Johns: Both espouse cloisonnist compositions of cell-like structures, concealed figuration, and heavily cooked internal striping. Better yet, Dubuffet's reduced-color sculptures and built environments (only one full-size installation, with low seating, was shown at Beaubourg, the better to enjoy the big city view out a huge gallery window) looked very much in tune with the '60s zeitgeist—free-form modular furniture, organic interiors, not to mention pagan, neo-Stonehenge energy centers. In retrospect, Dubuffet's strenuously trippy built environments from the “Hourloupe” series emerge as some of the more emblematic sculptural places of the era.

Dubuffet's work of the '70s and '80s presents a problem of visibility; it's been there for a quarter of a century, but only now can we begin to see it. One gallery of big “Theaters of Memory” canvases from the '70s argued convincingly for these effortful mixes of collage, drawing, and painting, with their Hofmannesque push-pull of papers glued to canvas, their studied contrasts of sharp internal edges and painterly tablet shapes—all of which had a huge impact on younger European painters in the '80s like Luis Gordillo. The '80s works, made in failing health and often on sheets of paper glued in grids to generate larger formats. are tricky in terms of their senescent spontaneity, their scraggly draftsmanship (recalling Per Kirkeby), and their ambiguous status as aggregates and series. The curators confused this further by hanging small works together, almost as if they constituted single entities. The huge mural Le Cours des choses (Mire G 174, Boléro) (The course of things), 1983, was affecting in its way, with its flurry of abstract marks, near letters, numbers, phalluses, and even KKK-like hooded figures. Though ugly and jangling in sensibility, these late works make us see the '80s differently. Contemporaneous with Jean-Michel Basquiat's and Keith Haring's best work, they seem both zippy and gasping for breath—graffiti reduced to its crotchety essence.

Brooks Adams is a critic who currently divides his time between Paris and New York.