Much to the horror of the art-world elite in 1950s France, Jean Dubuffet’s work had a tendency to look like it was made by an amateur. His paintings, which have chunky surfaces that look either like vomit or shit, feature humans that are disproportionate, and his subjects were aesthetically unpleasing. At the time, this was risky business—and, in the end, it would become massively influential. A leader of a movement known as art brut, Dubuffet, who died in 1985 at 83, drew his inspirations from outsider art; his collection of work by the mentally ill, children, and prisoners and its impact on American art is now the subject of “Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet,” a show that closes this weekend at the American Folk Art Museum, in New York. In honor of that show and an upcoming Dubuffet retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler, in Switzerland, below is a profile of ARTnews’s May 1952 issue. The article, which charts Dubuffet’s progress as he paints Exodus (1952), follows in full below.—Alex Greenberger
“I have a great interest in madness, and I am convinced art has much to do with madness,” said Jean Dubuffet—in the surprisingly fluent English he taught himself on the ship coming over from France—to a Chicago audience this winter. A visit to the Paris apartment of this painter, whose growing reputation is one of the few to emerge from postwar Europe, would demonstrate Dubuffet’s interest and conviction, for sculptures and pictures by the insane are as apt to be hanging on the walls as his own heavy, shocking paintings. But trips to Dubuffet’s neat, whitewashed New York studio, just off the Bowery, where he worked from last fall until this spring, tend to demonstrate an even greater interest in method—in the mobile, “living” materials with which he builds his landscapes, still-lifes and figures. The materials become the picture, not only in both literal meanings of the verb, but also conceptually, and even ethically.
The painting starts on the floor—one of five or six in progress strategically disposed around the small loft. Its bare surface is a masonite panel fastened to a wood frame, which reduces warping and facilitates handling. On it will be spread the base for a relief (in fact Dubuffet’s pictures not only have the look and feel of sculpture, but also the weight). In New York he has generally used one of two materials for this, “Sparkel” and “Spot Putty”, manufactured by the firm of H. Behlen & Bro. The latter is a lacquer-base (nitrous cellulose) compound mixed with inert thickening material (silex), plaster size (to reduce shrinking) and pigment (in this case, zinc oxide). Spot putty is used commercially for retouching metal or wood surfaces painted in lacquer; it has the properties of expanding slightly after application, which gives a smooth finish for the retoucher, and of rapid drying. Sparkel is used by house painters to cover and fill in cracks or other blemishes in plaster walls before starting the new coat, or as a sizing for raw board walls. The prepared dry mixture contains plaster, hide glue and zinc oxide. Along with water, spar varnish can be added to make a harder, more surely waterproof material which is less subject to shrinking when the water evaporates. The mixture of spar varnish and Sparkel is known as “Swedish putty.”
These are cheap materials, vulgar in the reference of the great academies’ hand-ground ideals; they go with sand, pebbles, dust, bundles of rags, a rough day’s work then a beer at a bar. And to Dubuffet this is philosophically as well as technically appropriate—although he is no great beer drinker, but a connoisseur of French petits vins and of coffee and Scotch whisky in America. His preferred stage is the bar and the bistro, not the ballet or the theatre. He rejects the impositions and pretensions of culture; the differentiation between the “beautiful” and the “ugly,” the “artistic” and the “ordinary.” Yet this is not a basically contemptuous or patronizing attitude—like that of so much “socially conscious” art in which all the lower classes must be visibly loved and pitied. Dubuffet rejects that distinction as well, and feels free to like or dislike the appearance of the Bowery bum staggering beneath his window. His “vulgar” materials are eminently suited to his needs, and the fact than an R.A. would despise them only makes them more suitable.
From an R.A.’s point of view, Dubuffet’s whole career would appear despicably and wildly unprofessional. Born in Le Havre in 1901, he was educated by a conventional, well-to-do family and France’s classicizing schools. In 1918 he went to Paris to study painting and met such figures as the poet Max Jacob and the painter Suzanne Valadon, although he remained more or less isolated from any aesthetic movements, as he has ever since. He quit painting in 1923, traveled, then returned to Paris where he founded a small, financially “acrobatic” wine firm. He resumed painting in ’33, and in ’37 renounced it again for commerce. At that time his pictures were rather reminiscent of art populaire and he also made some grotesque masks and marionettes. Mobilization in 1939 interrupted the wine venture, which he resumed after his discharge, in 1940, in occupied Paris. In 1942 he got rid of the business, resumed painting and in two years began to show his pictures in a series of exhibitions which ever since have been arousing enthusiastic response in many advanced circles and howls of dismay from official culture guardians at such institutions as the Louvre and the Luce publications.
There are several different ways Dubuffet can begin to paint a picture. If he uses spot putty, it is spread unevenly over the masonite with a large, wide, stiff putty knife. When the panel is covered, he draws with a corner of the knife in the rapidly drying, shiny white coat. The result is, in this case, a landscape of spidery lines—like the cross-section of a brain—with loops and dashes devouring the surface. The artist makes a number of similar but independent drawings on paper at the neat work table by his north window. Here the unsplit nib of a Japanese bamboo pen replaces the knife point, but the black meandering line is the same: weaving up and down, in and out, in a hypnotic play of ravels and snarls.
When the drawing on the spot putty is completed, Dubuffet lets it dry a bit and then starts working the surface with his hands. He will beat it with the heels and flats of his palms making a strange unrhythmic drumming. Mounds are pulled together, then spread out; sections are picked up and pushed down; the material keeps moving, and as it dries it takes on the wrinkles of old skin (“like the hide of a hippopotamus,” Dubuffet said, in French: all quotations given to the artist here are of necessity paraphrased by translation). The manipulation of the surface continues, and more drawing is added with the knife, until the putty’s resilience is almost gone; then the panel is left for overnight drying and the painter goes on to another picture. As daylight failed, Dubuffet stopped work; leaving the studio, he glanced admiringly at the wrinkled, lined surface. “Now the putty is doing its work,” he said, “swelling up and out, filling in, destroying my drawing, gaining wrinkles. Tomorrow I may not find anything interesting in it.”
“Then what would you do?”
“Scrape it off, or put it aside for a while. Sometimes a painting goes right through; sometimes I stammer and grope in it.”
The base of another landscape, whose evolution is illustrated on these pages, was made of Swedish putty. First Dubuffet stirred the water, Sparkel and spar varnish in two bowls and then added colors which he had mixed on one of his palettes made of wood planks, half a dozen of which are set on stools scattered around the newspaper-covered tables in the south (or painting) end of the loft. Four colors were used, which necessitated emptying the bowls at one point and refilling them with other mixtures: a light grey-purple (made of burnt Siena, yellow ocher, ultramarine and white), golden yellow, orange and pink. For the colors themselves, he uses standard Grumbacher and Permanent Pigment tubes; for white, house painter’s titania paste or zinc white. The first coat applied was the off-purple, smeared on thickly with a knife. Heavy rectangular strokes gave a crude masonry look. Then the other colors were added, some spread, some thrown on.
Using ingenious and calculated methods of throwing, Dubuffet can control three effects which have been as mysterious to the average spectator as has the wrinkled-skin look of the spot-putty base paintings. By dropping the Swedish putty lightly off the trowel, he creates soft, amorphous lumps, some, over 1½ inches high, like the egg-shape in the top center of the initial stage of Exodus. By throwing a little harder, the impact flattens the material and it spreads over heavy or wet layers as if it had oozed on the panel; on drier or thin layers it explodes in drops and ragged edges. By throwing sharply, gobs of Swedish putty will penetrate the thick under-surface and dig holes with raised lips or little craters. There are, of course, innumerable variations of these basic effects, and in this stage of his creative process, Dubuffet feels a kinship with such American painters as Jackson Pollock.
“What do you think of the element of chance in such a method?”
“I don’t think chance means much in art. Some people will say everything is chance—like the path through the fields, near some trees. You look down and see all sorts of patterns and landscapes in the ground and they say they’re chance. But those patterns and landscapes were made by various laws and processes of nature. The path was rained on, the leaves dripped water, it dried, the wind blew, dust. . . . And similar and just as true laws of nature and phenomenons are reproduced by the artist.”
“You mean it’s impossible to let chance work on a painting if the artist has his eyes open?”
“Perhaps, but I also try to keep a balance, to mediate as an artist between the forces at work. I see opportunities, invitations, faults. One cannot work in a state of total irritation, exasperation and violence, for one ends up at partial paralysis—like after way too many cups of coffee or too much alcohol . . . like what we call “l’amour bref.”
“It looks as if it could be very enjoyable to use these materials and gestures of throwing and spreading.”
“Yes, there is enormous pleasure in these things.”
The masonite panel covered with Swedish putty was left to dry overnight. Next morning its brilliant oranges and yellows had become mat and dusty-looking from the drying, and Dubuffet gave the panel a coat of white shellac to bring out the hues back to their previous intensity. He was satisfied with the relief effects he had achieved, although in many pictures he goes over the dry surface with his knife and sandpaper to “soften” the forms and bring them together.
When the shellac had dried, the process of painting—rubbing, glazing, brushing, erasing—began. It is a question of browns, thin and thick, towards red, yellow, blue or grey, some of which cover, some of which reveal the bright under-tones. They are mixed from ultramarine blue and burnt siena; yellow ocher, cadmium red and burnt ocher. Cadmium yellow, dark and orange, and alizarin crimson complete this basic palette of muddy, greasy tones which recall ancient woods and stones, petrification, scabby tissue, the wounding, healing and endless aging of the earth and its inhabitants. For these are inhabited landscapes, even those without figures.
“I see my landscapes as a marriage between the conceptual and the concrete. Here are the forms of the earth, the terrain under your feet, the landscape which is everywhere: under that table, in this can of turpentine.” Dubuffet pointed at the little figures, part-animal, part-mineral, that he sees in his reliefs; shapes which are at first as faint and later as dominating as those recognized in clouds or cracks in the ceiling. “These are the matrix of life, they the metamorphosis of ooze to cells. This one, lying stretched out, already has eyes, it spreads its arms. That little one crouches, attempting to rise. It is inert matter thinking about becoming alive.” And you recall that the very materials of which these reliefs were made has a sort of life—shrinking, swelling, wrinkling in its rapid stages of drying.
The tones of the painting change drastically from day to day, as the reproductions of four stages of its growth indicate. Mounds of color are mixed on palette boards with long, flexible knives. Turpentine and varnish are added to thin the paint to a desired transparency. Sometimes color is applied with soft house-painter’s brushes, between 2 and 2½ inches wide. Saturated with pigment, these are dragged across the picture, often merely flopping over the high points of the relief, sometimes distributing pats and streaks in the valley. Sometimes color is rubbed on with a rag (the loft is conveniently located above a linen and woolen remnants jobber), or poured on in glazes. Much of the work involves rubbing off to the under colors with rags soaked in benzine. But through all this complex of processes, the painting is invariably changed as a whole. Parts are never brought to individual near-completion, but at each stage of development the picture will be uniformly wet.
“Drying is a problem of capital importance, and one that is not generally understood today,” Dubuffet says. “There is a point in time when the undercoat is in the perfect state to receive the next layer of color. Sometimes I may hit it; sometimes not. Then there is the job of bringing the surface back to a state of receptivity. You must know exactly when to work and when to let the picture alone. But this is often too demanding; I get impatient and throw myself into work anyway—but I usually can save it. For what is medium anyway except a binder, a gum to fasten the pigment to the surface, and a distillate to give it the proper consistency. The distillate evaporates quickly, so it makes no difference. The gum will bind, even when you leave exact formulas; if it doesn’t, you can add more binder in the form of varnishes. The only problem is that horrible substance, oil, which does not dry for a hundred years, darkening and changing the paint, and often destroying it when it finally oxidizes and solidifies.”
Probably one of the reasons the artist was led to experiment with so many commercial house painter’s products is that of drying. His earlier relief paintings, which he called “hautes pâtes,” were executed in oils, and months would go by before the pictures could be brought to completion. And perhaps because of the years of painting missing from his biography, Dubuffet works with a need for speed and for rapid realization. The putties and various other materials (like Kem-Tone, sometimes mixed with sand; various oil and water emulsions; a French commercial compound of chalk and zinc oxide; and a homemade “paste” of zinc oxide and a polymerized oil) seem to be logical answers to this demand.
In the fourth illustrated stage of Exodus, a horizon for the first time separates earth from sky, and the final days of work and the most drastic changes begin. Blues, whites and browns, with many minor in-between tints, were brushed in the sky. Pure turpentine was sometimes squirted on the paint to separate the strokes and float some colors off their position. Dubuffet feels that the anchoring of earth to sky in his landscapes is of primary importance and he frequently contrives “beautiful passages” from one to the other, which remind you that this artist was trained in and stems from the great prewar Ecole de Paris.
The figures of the two straggling emigrants are of spot putty, and were applied to the surface and then manipulated and wrinkled. Mouths and eyes were scratched through, and the white putty was blended and tinted with the tones of the landscape, for no part of the picture can appear separate or “drawn.” The artist wants the finished image to look as if it were “done in one stroke,” and he is perfectly willing to sacrifice any part—no matter how happy it may appear—to this simple unity.
Finishing Exodus is a series of last touches, little adjustments and corrections that continue until Dubuffet feels nothing needs to be changed and that he is pleased with the results. As for the last thought, the title, he believes a painting has as much right to a name as a child—a name that will serve as a convenient and appropriate means of identification. The title of Exodus, with its two tattered figures limping across a mineral wasteland, is surely self-explanatory. As for the place, it recalls North Africa, where Dubuffet spent several winters, one on the Sahara, which he describes as a land of “flats without end, scattered stones.”
If the finished work is not to be “beautiful,” for Dubuffet rejects that whole concept, then what is it, and what is the painter trying to do to the onlooker?
The image, the artist feels, becomes an object for hallucinatory meditation, like a crystal ball. And the goal of the artist, his ambition, is to conquer souls— “not whole nations of souls, like Mahomet, but a few, maybe fifty . . . that is worth the fight.”