New York

Jean Dubuffet, Plage aux baigneurs (Beach with Bathers), 1944, pen and ink on paper, 6 3/8 × 9". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Jean Dubuffet, Plage aux baigneurs (Beach with Bathers), 1944, pen and ink on paper, 6 3/8 × 9". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Jean Dubuffet

Jean Dubuffet, Plage aux baigneurs (Beach with Bathers), 1944, pen and ink on paper, 6 3/8 × 9". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The Morgan Library & Museum’s impressive and comprehensive “Dubuffet Drawings, 1935–1962” comes at the end of a recent wave of Dubuffet mania that spawned three other New York shows: at the Museum of Modern Art, the American Folk Art Museum, and Acquavella Galleries. While the Morgan’s exhibition putatively focuses on Dubuffet as draftsman, drawing here is broadly defined. The works on paper range in material from graphite pencil and watercolor to india ink imprints, wax crayon, gouache, butterfly-wing collages, incised scratchboards, and paint with gum arabic.

Curated by Isabelle Dervaux, the show highlights the artist’s penchant for creating paper versions of the many series of larger-scale oil paintings for which he is best known. To this end, and by way of comparison, two of the wall labels (for Mouleuse de café [Woman Grinding Coffee], 1945, and Portrait de Jules Supervielle, 1947) contain reproductions of the larger paintings. One cannot help but ask, what exactly is the relationship between the two? The smaller works on paper are not so much preliminary preparatory sketches, or reinscribed afterthoughts as they are necessary equivalents, made in conjunction with the paintings: two sides of the same conceptual coin.

Dubuffet was also a prolific writer who strategically used his writings and correspondence to control and shape his own reception. Given the evidence presented in this exhibition, it seems that he used his works on paper to accomplish something similar.

Begun shortly after D day, the works in the “Messages” series, 1944, contain cryptic sentence fragments (MY HEALTH STILL EXCELLENT . . .) that efface their (sometimes German) newspaper supports and call for a response from the viewer/reader. Dubuffet’s name is the first word in a particularly vulgar one, which seems to act as a negative advertisement for himself. Notable too are the number of works in this show in which Dubuffet both signs his name and inscribes the work to someone else as if it were meant for some kind of symbolic exchange, like a gift or a letter. Next to the drawn figure in Femme assise au fauteuil (Seated Woman in an Armchair), 1944, for example, Dubuffet includes the inscription to JEAN PAULHAN, the important editor of La Nouvelle Revue Francaise and the artist’s first champion, explaining that the work is meant to be “a permanent message of [Dubuffet’s] deep friendship.” The two collaborated to make the book La métromanie, ou, Les dessous de la capitale (Metromania, or, The Underground of the Capital, 1949), also included in the show.

Paradoxically, however, just as Dubuffet’s drawings enabled him to reinscribe and circumscribe his own production, they also allowed him to “withdraw” from his surroundings and, ultimately, himself. His drawings of the beach in the southern town of Cassis let him escape occupied Paris, yet they show nothing of the war. The beach is covered with carefree sunbathers, not the barbed wire and barricades that would have filled it at the time. Likewise, Dubuffet made three extended trips to the Sahara to escape “Occidental culture,” but his drawings from North Africa elide the realities of the colonial situation. In the late 1950s his drawings take this idea of withdrawal even further. Here we see a move from his attempts at directly reinscribing nature, greenery, and elements of the paysage, as in Végétation sauvage (Wild Vegetation), 1957, to a purposeful dépaysement, or feigned alienation from the world around him and himself, as in Transcription aux pierres (Stone Transcription), 1958. The delicate copying and imprinting of the veins of leaves gives way to the ink drawing of an obsessive network of arbitrary interlocking cells and networks, within which the artist loses himself. Dubuffet, however, cannot relinquish the idea of authorship entirely—he still gives these works recognizable titles.

Finally, there are drawings related to larger “Paris Circus” paintings, 1961–62, in which Dubuffet takes as his subject the bustling capital, as he did years before in his early “Vues de Paris” (Views of Paris), 1943–44, and “Métro” series, 1943. Image and text are again fully fused. This time around, however, Dubuffet’s work is more overtly critical of capital, commerce, spectacle, and consumption. Words such as L’ARNAQUE (the swindle) and MIJOTE (plotting or cooking up) abound, as if we are unknowingly playing a part in some overcalculated ruse. One droll drawing from this moment shows two flattened automobiles, clearly designated as FORD and CITROËN. The show rightly ends here, just before Dubuffet moves on to his “Hourloupe” phase, centering on an eponymous invented world in which the artist would envelope himself from 1962 to 1974—which was defined by an anonymous wandering line that would become Dubuffet’s signature style and enable him to become an internationally recognizable brand.

Kent Minturn