In the art world, there are insiders and outsiders. There is what is in vogue and what has been in fashion over the course of the last century (or the last Millennium), there is what a particular society values from its artists, there is what a small number of elite art buyers and critics have come to value, and then there is everything else. Whatever falls outside of the favored, and very small, sphere of lauded artistic practices is considered “outside.” But there are artists who live outside—sometimes by now we call them “Outsider Artists,” and we give them their own museums and their own auctions. We do that, in part, because of Jean Dubuffet.
Dubuffet was never an insider, although in some sense he was a member of the social strata that produces insiders. That meant that he was able to import the lessons from the outside into the world of high art in France (and very effectively in America, as well as virtually every Western art culture). He pioneered what he called “Art Brut,” bringing together artists from the outside and appealing to the nature of the world that is ordinarily untouched and unseen in high art. His vision was revolutionary, and it continues to be important.
Dubuffet was born in La Havre, France in 1901. He died in 1985 in Paris. Early on, he was a largely figural painter in the style of Matisse and the Fauvists. His penchant was for ordinary subjects, which he painted frankly, already prefiguring his denial of the lofty aims of high art that would come later in his career. His aesthetic and technical sense changed radically in the mid to late 1940s when he visited decolonized Algeria. He gained from his time in Algeria a sense of ordinary roughness, a love of flux and change and impermanence, and a desire to strike out the pomp of high art. After that time, he dedicated himself to various incarnations of outsider-influenced art. He never took cues or participated in the fashions of high modernist abstraction or postmodern formlessness (and certainly not the postmodernism of ironic pop art). He had associates as an artist, but more than that he had a mass of contemporaries from whom he was disconnected—the elite art world. Dubuffet’s influence, however, has been profound. In a time when abstraction reigned, he sought figures, and when the flavor of the day was formless minimalism he took to the rough ground of chaotic forms. Anyone who has painted in the light of figures or of forms since him owes him a debt. And anyone who has come from the outside, or who has been influenced by the outside, owes him equally.
Dubuffet’s style changed, as many great artist’s did, but there is something that unifies his work—the roughness of ordinary life. His early Fauvist work was aimed at representing ordinary figures and plain life rather than haughty subjects. His Art Brut work, such as Grand Maitre of the Outsider (1947), sought always rough, textured forms that composed simple images and figures—faces rendered brutishly. Later, he turned to a new aesthetic vision—one of colorful forms, not entirely abstract but neither still figural in any explicit sense. In this late period he often sculpted his forms, sometimes on large scales (he created a series of large biomorphic forms that now reside in major cities, such as Group of Four Trees (1969-72) Manhattan). The smoothness and seeming abstraction of this late work can appear to counter his earlier aesthetic vision, but Dubuffet’s work during this time seems to direct us right to the body, to a kind of form without a figure, and to the earth. The large sculptures in particular, which you can would through and in, clearly directs the viewer, who becomes a participant, toward his or her world (and not toward the lofty world of abstract forms).
Though many 20th Century artists challenged the art world technically and aesthetically, few challenged it as thoroughly as Dubuffet, and perhaps none challenged it socially the way that he did. If for no other reason, Dubuffet is important. Art lovers and makers in the 21st Century are all in some way touched by his career.
La Vie Agreste (The Rural Life), 1949
oil on burlap
34 7/8 x 45¾ inches
Le lit I (The Bed I), 1964
vinyl paint on canvas
77 x 51 ¼ inches
L'heure de la hâte (The Hour of Anticipation), 1961
oil on canvas
51½ x 38¼ inches
Bédouin sur l’âne (Bedouin on a donkey)
oil and mixed media on canvas laid down on board
51¼ x 38 3/8 inches