What was it with modern artists and the circus? The Impressionists devoted some of their jauntiest canvases to clowns and acrobats; so did Toulouse-Lautrec, Chagall, and Rose-Period Picasso. Calder had a career-long love affair with the iconography of the circus, and for his early masterwork Cirque Calder (1926–31) he built a miniature one, complete with wire sword-swallowers and lion-tamers. This last example suggests why so many radical innovators admired what is basically quaint European folk art: the circus is a charming, low-key alternative to the academic traditions modern art scorned. It is, at the same time, a monumental form. (If you went as a child, you’ve probably never shaken the memory of the elephants towering over you). It’s evocative of a melancholy past as well as a new way forward—unpretentious yet revolutionary, immodestly modest.
Jean Dubuffet, whose career was founded on a kind of immodest modesty, was bound to arrive at this subject matter sooner or later. Art Brut, the rough, unlettered style of painting he made world-famous beginning in the 1940s, was supposed to be a rebuttal to the bombast of the Parisian art world, but it ended up plenty bombastic itself. His best works may begin with a childlike simplicity, but they rarely end there: their simplicity is a dagger aimed at the soft skin of civilization, and the longer you stare at them, the more violent complexities they reveal. In the early ’60s Dubuffet began experimenting with ballpoint doodles that seemed the very definition of childishness. Over the next ten years, the experiment yielded drawings, then paintings, then reliefs, then models, then monumental sculptures in epoxy resin. Some of these sculptures are still standing. Many survive as models but were never built. And one, modeled in 1970 and now exhibited at scale for the first time, is called—but of course—Le Cirque.
The first thing I noticed about Le Cirque when I saw it at Pace was its clumsiness. The sculpture is comically, endearingly big: thirteen feet tall and almost a hundred feet in circumference, with elephant legs and zebra stripes like scribbles blown up a thousandfold. Since it didn’t have to compete for attention (the only other work in the exhibition was a 1968 maquette of Dubuffet’s equally sprawling Jardin d’émail), it seemed even bigger. As you walk through it, Le Cirque suggests the organic and the architectural all at once, as though the big top has somehow merged with the animals. For all its maker’s prestige, there’s still a whiff of third-grade daffiness in the air—I suppose there are higher compliments for the father of Art Brut, but I’m not sure what they’d be.
I’ve got nothing but love for this monster; its cage is a different story. Dubuffet’s late, large sculptures look their best—and were, in many cases, designed to be looked at—en plein air. They feel friendlier when they’re in plazas or next to buildings, closer to us than the structures they decorate. For its full-scale debut, however, Le Cirque has more in common with the building than the spectators. Its polyurethane skin hardens under the ceiling lights, its whiteness feels chillier and less eccentric—in all, it loses some of its pulse. Maybe I’m being unfair to Pace, which can hardly be expected to knock down its walls for the sake of one sculpture. But Dubuffet always had a love-hate relationship with institutions, and thirty-five years after his death, his art is still negotiating with the strictures of the gallery world. This time around, I’m not sure it strikes a good deal.
This review appears under the title “Jean Dubuffet” in the January/February 2021 issue, p. 67