Jean Dubuffet, Lili aux objets en désordre (Lili with Objects In Disorder), 1936, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 24 3⁄4".

Jean Dubuffet, Lili aux objets en désordre (Lili with Objects In Disorder), 1936, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 24 3⁄4".

Jean Dubuffet

Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée

Jean Dubuffet, Lili aux objets en désordre (Lili with Objects In Disorder), 1936, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 24 3⁄4".

JEAN DUBUFFET has been having a moment—or maybe something longer, and certainly more expansive. New York’s Museum of Modern Art had a very well received in-house show of his work in 2014–15, which was quickly followed by a display of the artist’s collection of art brut that opened at the nearby American Folk Art Museum in 2015. (Writing on the latter show, Roberta Smith slyly suggested that many of Dubuffet’s best efforts were made during a ten-year period when the collection was out of his hands, temporarily housed on Long Island.) This New York affair continued in 2016, when Acquavella Galleries mounted a large-scale exhibition and the Morgan Library & Museum presented a selection of his drawings. Over the next two years, museums and galleries in Amsterdam, London, Zurich, and beyond added to the momentum. At the Rencontres d’Arles festival, his photography got its turn. Last year, his musical experiments were rereleased. All of this attention was inextricable from his record auction prices. Maybe it was just a swing of the pendulum—the inevitable rediscovery of one of the most influential artists of the postwar era, whom Clement Greenberg declared in 1949 “perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade,” but who’d come to seem too familiar, and perhaps repetitious, well before his death in 1985.

Jean Dubuffet, La vie sans l’homme I (Life Without Man I), 1959, papier-mâché, plastic paste on panel, 27 1⁄8 × 31 7⁄8".

The renewed interest dovetails neatly with the accent on the (nonacademic) figure in recent painting—I can imagine Dubuffet’s work hanging next to that of Jonathan Meese, Joyce Pensato, or Josh Smith, for example—and with the continuing appeal of deskilling and of the “common,” one of the great themes of Dubuffet’s polemics. This summer, two big European shows were devoted to Dubuffet: one at the Palazzo Franchetti in Venice, which coincided with the Biennale, and a traveling exhibition, “Jean Dubuffet: Un barbare en Europe” (A Barbarian in Europe), curated by Isabelle Marquette and Baptiste Brun at the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée in Marseille. The latter show’s title was a play on A Barbarian in Asia (1933), a book by Henri Michaux, of whom Dubuffet painted a marvelous portrait as a “Japanese actor” in 1946. The curators’ twist illuminated how Dubuffet made himself an uncultured outsider in the West. Accordingly, the exhibition emphasized not only the artist’s passionate advocacy of the art of the mentally ill and others “unscathed by artistic culture,” but also the creations of people from cultures other than his own. As the curators point out, Dubuffet relied, for his investigations, “on a collaborative network that linked artists, writers, ethnologists, and psychiatrists who participate[d] in the emergence of cultural relativism theorized in the field of anthropology of that time.” We’ve heard a lot about research-based art in recent years, and it’s both surprising and refreshing to realize that an art as open to spontaneous impulse as Dubuffet’s is part of its heritage.

The curators illuminated how Dubuffet made himself an uncultured outsider in the West.

Jean Dubuffet, Vénus du trottoir (Kamenaia-baba) (Venus of the Sidewalk [Kamenaia-baba]), 1946, oil on hardboard, 40 1⁄8 × 32 1⁄4".

It was curious to see something of the “prehistory” of Dubuffet’s oeuvre, which really only took off during the war years, when he was already in his forties, though he’d been making periodic stabs at it for a long time. The 1936 portrait Lili aux objets en désordre (Lily with Objects in Disorder) suggests he could have gone in a completely different direction, something like that of Balthus; yet a still-earlier painting, Fond de rivière (River Bottom), undated but thought to have been made in 1927, already points the way to his landscapes of the 1950s, such as Natura Genitrix (Mother Nature), 1952, or La vie sans l’homme I (Life Without Man I), 1959. It’s tempting to choose highlights, and I can’t help mentioning favorites such as the totemic Vénus du trottoir (Kamenaia-baba) (Venus of the Sidewalk [Kamenaia-baba]), 1946, and the abstract Donnée H59, 1984, but Dubuffet’s emphasis on the common—on art as an everyday activity rather than an act of genius—seems to argue against isolating ideal instances. The presentation in Marseille involved 320 objects, not only works by Dubuffet and related documents but also myriad examples of the sorts of folk, outsider, and tribal art he studied and collected. The degree to which Dubuffet was willing to draw on his sources was not unexpected—he seems to have been especially taken by the self-taught European artists Gaston Chaissac and Juva (né Alfred Antonin Juritzky, an Austrian prince who’d moved to Paris to get away from the Nazis and liked to make sculptures with found flint). More instructive was how freely and glancingly he otherwise incorporated items of interest: He was easily inspired, fascinated by too many things to make himself the apprentice of any one of them. In Paris, the crowds on the Métro and graffiti on the ancient walls served as muses, but so did the city’s stones, soil, and roots. Dubuffet was an inveterate detractor of “culture,” but only, perhaps, because his was so much wider than anyone else’s. 

Travels to Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Spain, October 8, 2019–February 16, 2020; Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, Switzerland, May 8, 2020–January 3, 2021.

Barry Schwabsky is coeditor of international reviews for Artforum. His latest book is The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting (Sternberg Press, 2019).