Dubuffet’s Soul of the Underground

In the aftermath of World War II, the art world’s focus on American art meant to a lesser extent the promotion of Post-War painters from the former art world capital of Paris. However, there was one particular French name that emanated within the American landscape like none other. Parisian painter, sculptor and printmaker Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was considered the most important French artist in the United States during this era.[1] Clement Greenberg declared “As the brightest new hope of the School of Paris since Miró, it is quite fitting that Dubuffet should rise to notice on the wave of the first new aesthetic movement in Paris since surrealism, which similarly inspired Miró.”[2]

Dubuffet was widely known amongst artists of the New York School and the Chicago School of painters and sculptors. There was a kinship and a common denominator between their works. Existentialism was a much more prominent philosophy in European art. However, there were discussions amongst Abstract Expressionists about Existentialism’s idea of the personal, subjective experience and the autonomous freedom of the individual. Perhaps the most well-known discussion of Existentialism in America was Peter Selz’s show New Images of Man, in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Selz conflated the work of contemporary American figurative painters like Leon Golub, Jan Müller, and Richard Diebenkorn – who were leading Figurative Expressionists in Chicago, New York City, and California’s Bay Area respectively – with European figurative artists such as Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, and Jean Dubuffet. The central focus of the exhibition was a revolt against what Paul Tillich noted in the exhibition catalog, “in abstract or non-objective painting and sculpture, the figure disappears completely … [because man] is losing his humanity and becoming a thing amongst the things he produces.”[3]

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New Images of Man. Ed. Peter Selz. New York: Ayer, 1959.

When Dubuffet spoke to an audience at the Arts Club in Chicago in 1951 in a lecture titled “Anticultural Positions,” – Chicago Imagists known as the Monster Roster Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Cosmo Campoli, and George Cohen were in the audience- he expressed his credence that contemporary art should be associated with reality and be responsive to the violent and insane qualities of humankind. Dubuffet wrote, “Personally I believe very much in values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” The Americans, most notably the Abstract and Figurative Expressionists also rebelled against the traditional notions of beauty and rationalization, and yearned for an art which was a sincere expression of daily life in the context of the harsh and poignant reality of the human condition.

In the exhibition Soul of the Underground at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the kindred spirit of the Post-War European and the Post-War American Figuration is apparent. The work on display shows Dubuffet’s experimentations with various mediums to create a ground for his figures to emerge. From the primacy and abstraction of the paint he presents a vision of war-torn Europe, seeking a means to the aesthetic problem of depicting a representation of crisis within the cotemporary world through figuration. Dubuffet’s experimentation during the 1940s to the mid-1960s with form and material draws some stylistic similarities to the simultaneously produced works of American Figurative Expressionists Leon Golub and Jay Milder in particular. Another commonality between the American Figurative Expressionists and Jean Dubuffet is the rejection of classical humanism in favor of a new language (a “New Humanism”[4]) that is indicative of contemporary concerns. The autonomous Humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras seemed in some ways irrelevant in light of the dehumanizing problems that arose in the post-industrial world, and these developments also had an enormous impact on the course of art history. Since the early twentieth century, some of these stylistic movements (Cubism, Futurism, abstraction) have complemented the technological development and the technocratic direction of society; others, however, have resisted the technological urges and focused on humanity and on the vision of what we as a society have become.

During the 20th century, the need to render the figure in a naturalistic manner—as was typical of Renaissance and Romantic figuration—lost some of its importance, as the new brand of humanist and civic artists came to see naturalism as a limitation in rendering the authenticity of the human experience.[5] Dubuffet refuted the classical forms regarded by tastemakers as high culture as “a dead tongue that has nothing in common with the language now spoken in the street.” [6]

While New York art -in general- was mostly concerned with presenting this language in a subjective manner using non-representational/abstract gesture and form, Chicago art, with its strong surrealist, existentialist, and progressive ties, concentrated on keeping the figure as a key element of the composition. It was in Chicago, where American artists best received Dubuffet’s imagery. The figurative tradition of the Mid-West was influential in the foundation of figurative art groups such as the Hairy Who from Chicago and the Rhino Horn Group from New York (founded by members who met at the Art Institute of Chicago among other locations). Hearing the elder Dubuffet’s existentialist ideas was certainly significant in confirming the ideas that Chicagoans had been experimenting with too. Monster Roster artist George Cohen reflected that “Seeing Dubuffet’s work was surprising and stimulating. Its source seemed to be the source we were seeking.”[7]

Overall this survey of Dubuffet’s work (the first in over 25 years at MoMA) is a great addition to the gallery and museum shows happening this season in New York City. The exhibition will continue through April 5th, 2015 in the Paul J. Sachs Drawing Galleries, on the third floor.


[1] Aruna D’Souza “I think your work looks a lot like Dubuffet: Dubuffet and America, 1946–1962,” Oxford Art Journal 1997 20: 61-73.

[2] Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, (University of Chicago Press, February 1988). p. 91

[3] Paul Tillich, “Prefatory Note,” in Peter Selz, ed., New Images of Man (New York: Ayer, 1959), 9.

[4] See Barry Schwartz, New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change (New York: Praeger, 1974).

[5] See John Bird, Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

[6] Jean Dubuffet “Anticultural Positions,” Lecture at the “Arts Club of Chicago” Thursday December 20th 1951.

[7] Alan G. Artner, “Jean Dubuffet’s Lasting Influence on Chicago” Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2001, Posted online.


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