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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Early Work Spectre

Self-portrait, 1936, Jean Dubuffet
As "unknown" artists (or relatively so at least), most of us are really not conscious of one of the more persistent worries accompanying the level of having "made it" in the art world. It's what I call the "early work" spectre. Most of us cherish our early work, whether that means art from our first grade or our first decade as professional artists. We probably worried more about it at the time than we do now. Now we just look back and laugh... Aside from its amusing entertainment value, we prize it because, placed next to our current efforts; it makes us look good. It's a very satisfying reminder of just how far we've come without reminding us just how far we have yet to go. But for artists who have made names for themselves, they often see their fumbling, bumbling, trembling early work as a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, threatening to be discovered by curious collectors for next to nothing, threatening (in their own minds at least) to give them a bad name, threatening to destroy their self-esteem, their market value, and even their careers. Some pretty big names have even gone so far as to destroy some of their early work in an effort to get out from under the perceived threat of its ominous dead weight.

Lecciones Botanica, 1924-25, Jean Dubuffet,
one of his earliest works.
An artist who didn't, but now (from his grave) probably wishes he had, is the French "noble savage" painter, Jean Dubuffet. The Pompidou Centre in Paris several years ago arranged a retrospective of Dubuffet's work which concentrated on his earliest painting efforts in an attempt to show Dubuffet's development as an artist--work referred to by that artist as "prehistory." Ordinarily, putting together a traditional exhibit of Dubuffet's work would be one of the easier curatorial assignments in art. I mean, the man left behind when he died in 1985 more than 10,000 works in virtually every art museum spread around the world. The problem is that, first of all, there was absolutely nothing traditional about Dubuffet's "mature" work. And conversely, it's his "immature" work that is more traditional. Even the use of terms like "mature" and "immature" with reference to Dubuffet are fraught with complications and irony in that there is a very immature, childlike quality to his mature work and a fairly mature, adult-like quality to his early or immature work. Stylistically, one might even go so far as to observe the paradox that his development as an artist was a deliberate act of regression.

Vinous Landscape, 1944, Jean Dubuffet
Dubuffet had the misfortune of coming of age as an artist rather late in life and, worse yet, during the worst years of World War II in an occupied Paris that had no time for art, and in any case, even after the war, was an art capital long abandoned in favor of New York by anyone who really mattered except for Picasso (and even he was under virtual house arrest during the Nazi occupation). Most of the Pompidou exhibit dealt with Dubuffet's pre-war and wartime art, works such as his 1943 series of gouache portraits of Paris subway passengers (bottom, left)  depicting them whispering, hanging onto subway poles, or looking straight ahead in dour passivity. Other items included glittering collages made of butterfly wings, a kinky comic book, a series of desert nomads and camels under a blistering sun, and disturbingly "ugly" portraits of enormous, misshapen, naked women. Dubuffet created a series of life-size clowns called the Coucou Bazaar, also his free form doodles made while talking on the phone. Later works after the war are more familiar, "paintings" in which he piled tar and broken glass on his canvases, rendered children's drawings and finally, an unsettling series of mostly black paintings done the last year of his life up until he suddenly ceased painting just five months before his death. They are spare, sombre, depressing and, most strikingly, in marked contrast to the extravagant textures and bright colors Dubuffet used so profusely during most of his lifetime.

Lili Masque, 1936,
Jean Dubuffet
The greatest number of early Dubuffet works were found filed (hidden?) away in storage at the time of the artist's death. Among the earliest are three whimsical masks dating from 1935-36 (right) showing men and women with fleshy, rosy cheeks, one with a forced smile, one merely surprised, but both of which seem to foreshadow Dubuffet's childlike, noble savagery after the war. Dubuffet had high esteem for this savagery, based upon instinct, passion, whim, violence, and madness. His later work employs a "savage" use of color and especially texture, his paintings often more closely resembling montage or assemblage sculptures than even the most nontraditional abstract paintings. Whether concrete, sand, leaves, glass, plaster, plastic - if he could shape it and make it stick to canvas, it was fair game.

Subway (detail), 1943,
Jean Dubuffet
Vache à l'herbage, 1954, Jean Dubuffet.
Whatever would stick to canvas.
Artistic regression?

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