Jean Dupuy, N° 71, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 55".

Jean Dupuy, N° 71, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 55".

Jean Dupuy

Jean Dupuy, N° 71, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 55".

The French artist Jean Dupuy is best known for a strange piece—part heart monitor, part sculpture—called Heart Beats Dust, 1968, which was exhibited that year in Pontus Hultén’s “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The work consisted of a wooden box in which a cone of infrared light illuminated a pile of dust that pulsed to the rhythms of the viewer’s heartbeat. A stethoscope registered the body’s sound and then amplified it to a degree that allowed a person’s subconscious energies to take visual form. For this Dupuy won a competition for artists and engineers working in collaboration sponsored by Experiments in Art and Technology.

Heart Beats Dust prefigures today’s technophilia in the arts. If you also consider the fact that Dupuy had bid painting adieu in 1967, when he destroyed much of his work in the medium before moving to New York, then you can understand my surprise at this small show, “Jean Dupuy en 4eme vitesse” (Jean Dupuy Going Full Speed), which brought his surviving paintings from 1964 to 1966 to light once again after a long slumber. In these canvases, the largest of them about six and a half feet tall and five feet wide, Dupuy had dripped acrylic paint of various colors in unidirectional lines on smooth white grounds. My first impression was that these were polished offshoots of art informel. The drip as a sign of subjective spontaneity was clearly his primary concern, though, to his credit, he pursued it in a much more reserved and restrained manner than would have been the case in the work of his friend and colleague Jean Degottex, or in the more pompous production of Georges Mathieu.

But upon closer inspection, Dupuy’s secret was revealed. These canvases were not at all the product of some wannabe Pollock. In fact, each “drip” had been carefully painted in, the immediacy of the gesture being a calculated illusion in which a photograph of an originally much smaller work on paper had been projected at large scale onto a canvas that Dupuy then meticulously filled in with color.

Now why would someone in his right mind do such a thing? We know that American Pop artists liked to paint from projected photos. But their reference images were usually recognizably culled from popular culture. When their finished works did depict things like brushstrokes, as Roy Lichtenstein’s did, the paintings tended to be tongue-in-cheek and ironic. Dupuy’s paintings, in contrast, seem relatively earnest, as if the artist were still trying to preserve something of the aesthetic seriousness to which art informel aspired. As a result, the work has much more in common with that of other deconstructors of the pictorial mark working in Paris in the early to mid-1960s, people like Simon Hantaï, Martin Barré, or even Daniel Buren, than it does with art informel. What the folded canvas, the spray can, and the preprinted striped fabric did for these artists, respectively, is what trompe l’oeil did for Dupuy: That is, it provided a means of mechanizing the process of painting. So perhaps the distance separating Dupuy painting drips from our hearts beating dust is not so far as I’d previously supposed.

Paul Galvez