QUIXOTIC QUICKSAND? JEAN DUBUFFET'S "GROUNDLESS" PAINTINGS
For one year, from February 1983 to February 1984, Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) painted nothing but what he called Mires (Test Patterns). He then followed them, for the rest of 1984, with a series he called Non-Lieux (No-Grounds). Works from both series are on display at the Pace Gallery, suggesting their affinity. Boldly gestural, both have a swashbuckling, free-form look, although the Mires’ gestures sometimes seem to form faces and figures, resembling children’s drawings, and sometimes loosely align in a grid, while the Non-Lieux works seem more chaotically “instinctive,” and also anguished. They seem more from the “dark side,” as their black areas suggest, however overrun by red, white and blue streaks, quixotically interlocking in an unstable pattern, while the more tightly constructed Mires, with their luminous red, white and blue, seem lyrical in comparison.
Indeed, some of the Mires allude to the bolero, as their subtitles indicate, a lively Spanish dance in triple meter. A bolero is also a waist-length jacket open in front, typically worn by bullfighters, suggesting the confrontational daring of Dubuffet’s painterly handling. But however delightful and fanciful the Mires and dramatic and morbid the Non-Lieux, both stem from Dubuffet’s longstanding interest in graffiti: they are street art elevated to high art -- abstract expressionism, more broadly arte informal.
The “indeterminacy” and “disorder” of the Mires links them to Dubuffet’s Texturologies and Materiologies, as Daniel Abadie noted when they were first exhibited at Pace in 1985. All three involve what Abadie called Dubuffet’s “ambition to create a meta-language [of visual art] with its own rules and syntax free of any habitual mind-set, thereby eluding both the sneaky subliminal conditioning of the culture and established social norms, in which the painter discerns the same reductive power, the same refusal of any independent adventure of the mind.”
The Non-Lieux paintings supposedly continue this project: “The mind has the right to establish being wherever it cares to and for as long as it likes,” Dubuffet writes in a letter to his art dealer Arne Glimcher, explaining them (April 19, 1985). He adds, “There is no intrinsic difference between being and fantasy; being is an attribute that the mind assigns to fantasy.” If it does so, it is crazy: there is a great difference between being, which is reality, and fantasy, which is not real, however personally real. And is it so personally real, considering that it follows what psychoanalysts call unconscious logic, which is universal? Are there an infinite number of fantasies of being possible, confirming its completely “relative” character, as Dubuffet says, or is it the case that there are a finite number of basic fantasies -- basic themes that take fantastic shape, as it were, that are idiosyncratically elaborated according to circumstance -- as psychoanalysts think?
And are Dubuffet’s paintings so fantastic, so free of cultural conditioning, such independent adventures of the mind, or, for that matter, of art? Is art so groundless? Is being so up for grabs? The fact that the Mires take habitually recognizable forms, that they have a certain normative structure, suggests that they are following familiar rules, have a familiar syntax, however nominally skewed. They reify the rules of graffiti art and children’s art -- seemingly rule-less and unruly, yet with their own rigid conventions and predictable character -- just as the Non-Lieux reify and rigidify (into predictability) the language and “illogic” of pure gestural painting. Neither is as “indeterminate” as they are thought to be, however “instinctive” they may be: but the instincts have their own determinate character.
Dubuffet hasn’t escaped culture, neither street culture nor the culture of high art, but rather confirms their inescapability. Even his credo is culturally conditioned and ratified avant-garde gospel, a supposedly independent “speaking out” that has become tediously dependent on visual clichés, as Dubuffet’s paintings are. They are not the fantastic “riddles” they claim to be, but are among the many pretenders to the throne of an imperialistic avant-garde institution that has seen better days. Dubuffet is the prisoner of a naďve, hidebound psychology -- an ideologized psychology as well as avant-garde (both suffering from a hardening of the creative arteries) -- because it involves an obsolete, simplistic idea of the mind’s relationship to being, the reality that is beyond it even as it participates in it.
Jean Dubuffet, "The Last Two Years," Jan. 20-Mar. 2012, at the Pace Gallery, 510 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.