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Morgan Library & Museum

Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut” Drawings at the Morgan


The French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was a relentless innovator who pushed the boundaries of the conventional. His radical experimentations with form and material led to the founding of “Art Brut” or outsider art produced by the untrained and untutored. Although Dubuffet had a long and prolific career across France and the United States, museum exhibitions have been relatively scarce until recently. Two exhibitions, the first featuring his painted and graphic work at The Museum of Modern Art, “Soul of the Underground” (2014), examined the process Dubuffet used for prints and impressions, and last fall, The American Folk Art Museum’s “Art Brut in America: The Inclusion of Jean Dubuffet” showcased the artist’s personal collection.

2-le-metroLe Métro, March 1943

Now the Morgan Library & Museum has mounted the first retrospective of Dubuffet’s works on paper, “Dubuffet Drawings, 1935-1962,” a collection of nearly one hundred rarely seen drawings on loan from both private collectors and museums. The show, organized chronologically, presents a wonderful opportunity for visitors to trace this eccentric artist’s evolution as he tested the impact of color, played with various techniques and developed unconventional materials which he applied to conventional subjects: exaggerated portraitures, female nudes, cyclists, landscapes, assemblages of printed paper, collages of butterfly wings and gouaches. Using paper, a medium allowing for greater flexibility, freed Dubuffet to experiment with textures and technique.

5-paul-leautaudLéautaud griffures blanches (Lé autaud with White Scratches), November 1946

As a young man Dubuffet studied painting at the Acadèmie Julian and after World War I painted only intermittently choosing to work at his family’s winery. It wasn’t until 1942, at age 41 when he made a commitment to becoming an artist, that he began looking beyond traditional cultural channels and stylistic tradition.  Dubuffet admired the art of both the mentally ill and children whose spontaneity and adventurous approach went beyond the notions of good taste and beauty. He became an avid collector from 1945 on and emulated their style in his own work. Later, Dubuffet established the Compagnie de l’Art Brut (1948-51) together with writers, critics, and dealers from the Dada and Surrealist circles.

12-herzstein-paulhanPortrait de Jean Paulhan (Portrait of Jean Paulhan), July 1955

Organized into seven sections, the first and last feature gouaches made with opaque pigments in water and thickened with a glue substance. One of the first examples is “Le Metro” (1943), a childlike rendering of simplistic one-dimensional stick figures outlined in black that are cartoonish and playful, but whose subway riders’ facial expressions are anything but humorous – a nod perhaps to living through the grim war years. At the end of this phase in the early ‘60s several pieces feature Dubuffet’s vision of the city. “Le Swindle” (1962), for one, is a bleak look at Paris’s darker side.

14-barbe-coleresBarbe des colères (Wrathful Beard), June 1959

In between these two bookend decades are some of the best works in the show – layered pen and ink drawings. He achieved his desired effect for abstract portraits by mixing gravel and sand into pigments he then applied to paper with palette knives and brushes excavating the images by a graffito technique of scratching and scraping. Dubuffet subjects were fellow artists and intellectuals who were less than pleased with their distorted images.

7-trois-arabesTrois Arabes (1948)

During the postwar years, Dubuffet traveled to North Africa to escape France’s cold winters and lack of coal. Here again he dabbled with color this time creating a thick, sticky impasto for a group portrait of three Bedouins, “Trois Arabes” (1948), from the Algerian Sahara.

Dubufett’s drawings are engaging, although without explanations into his methodology. But taking into account his inventiveness and out-of the-box ideas, they offer insight into a rebellious artist’s creative process.

Through January 2, 2017. Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., NYC, 212-685-0008

Photos courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum:

Opening photo: Jean Dubuffet, L’Arnaque (The Swindle), June 2, 1962, Gouache.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Stephen Hahn Family Collection, 1995.
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris.

Jean Dubuffet, Le Métro, March 1943, Gouache.
Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Musee national d’art moderne / Centre de creation industrielle.
Photography by Philippe Migeat.
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Jean Dubuffet, Léautaud griffures blanches (Lé autaud with White Scratches), November 1946,
India ink on scratchboard.
Collection of Judy and Marc Herzstein.
Photography by Thomas R. DuBrock.
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris.

Jean Dubuffet, Portrait de Jean Paulhan (Portrait of Jean Paulhan), July 1955,
Butterfly wings and ink on paper laid on paper.
Collection of Judy and Marc Herzstein.
Photography by Thomas R. DuBrock.
© 2016 Artists Rights

Jean Dubuffet, Barbe des colères (Wrathful Beard), June 1959,
Assemblage of imprints: collage of cut and torn india ink imprints with brush and ink.
Foundation Dubuffet, Paris
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Jean Dubuffet, Trois Arabes (Three Arabs), January–April 1948, Gouache.
Private collection.
Photography by Kent Pell.
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris