What if canonical art history had been written not by academics but by art’s makers themselves? Who would have been included in such a history, and who would have been left out? And what about artists who had missed out on a membership card to the mainstream — those who were never part of any school or movement, or formally trained in the history and techniques of making art?
As it turned out, in the 1940s, one of modern art’s most accomplished insiders, the French painter, sculptor, printmaker and author of theoretical texts, Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), became the champion of some of art-making’s most remarkable — and sometimes unknown — on-the-margins autodidacts. Long interested in children’s art, graffiti and other forms of artistic expression from non-academically trained, “excluded” sources, Dubuffet encountered the carved-wood-and-mixed-media sculptures of Auguste Forestier, a patient at a psychiatric hospital in the south of France, and in 1945 he traveled to Switzerland with the literary critic Jean Paulhan and the architect Le Corbusier in search of other, similar works and their auteurs, as he called them, preferring the French word meaning “author” or “creator” to “artiste.”
Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet, a just-opened exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York (on view through January 10, 2016), examines the aesthetic concerns that led the inquisitive French modernist to investigate, amass and promote this kind of art. It also brings to light a decade-long period during which Dubuffet’s collection temporarily resided in the United States and which was marked by a visit, in 1951, by Dubuffet himself.
This new exhibition has been organized by Valérie Rousseau, AFAM’s curator of self-taught art and art brut, in collaboration with the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the world’s first and leading museum in its field, which opened in 1976.
In his research and field trips, Dubuffet found more of what he was looking for, examples of a kind of art made by non-trained artists whose evident creative impulse was urgent, pure and compelling. Sometimes but not always produced by persons with mental illnesses, it was work he called “art brut” (literally “raw art”) in recognition of the discernible energy that had shaped it and that, inescapably, it exuded. As Sarah Lombardi, the Collection de l’Art Brut’s director, notes in an informative interview in the exhibition’s catalog, most of the “auteurs” Dubuffet identified “do not consider themselves to be artists and they do not designate their production as art.”
The nearly 200 works in a wide range of media and genres that are on view have all been selected from Dubuffet’s personal holdings, which became the core of the Collection de l’Art Brut’s permanent collection when that institution was being conceived in the early 1970s. At that time, Dubuffet gave nearly 5000 works to the new museum. Today, its collection includes some 60,000 objects. Lombardi notes in the catalog, “What Dubuffet designated as ‘art brut’ was the visual expression of a form of rupture by an individual who was not associated with any artistic movement, whether academic, folk art or ‘naïve art.’” She adds, “The concept of art brut is understood as a much broader category in the United States, where all self-taught production is often grouped under the term ‘outsider art.’”
In a recent interview, Rousseau told me, “The exhibition focuses on the so-called historical collection, meaning the works Dubuffet collected between 1945 and 1951; many are not well-known, fragile and full of surprises.”
The story that Art Brut in America recounts, however, begins as much with Dubuffet’s exploration of art brut as it does with the interests of the Abstract Expressionist artist Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990).
Born into a wealthy family in the Philippines, Ossorio was educated as a youngster in England and the U.S. and later studied art at Harvard University and went on to the Rhode Island School of Design. In one of the well-researched essays in the current exhibition’s catalog, Kent Minturn, a visiting assistant professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, recalls that Ossorio purchased Jackson Pollock’s “Number 5, 1948” from the Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan in early 1949. In her catalog essay, Rousseau notes that Ossorio, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, was an enthusiastic, eclectic collector not only of Pollock’s and other modern artists’ works, but also of ceremonial swords, fossils, Mexican ex-votos, shells, scrimshaw, bottle whimseys and more.
Pollock and Ossorio, who both admired Dubuffet’s work, became good friends. Pollock encouraged Ossorio to reach out and try to meet the French artist. An introduction was arranged through mutual acquaintances, and later in 1949, Ossorio headed to Paris, where, two years earlier, Dubuffet, along with such collaborators as Paulhan, André Breton and the critic Michel Tapié, had established the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, an association whose mission included researching, collecting and showing art brut. It used the basement of Galerie René Drouin as an exhibition space.
In Paris, Minturn writes, “Ossorio and Dubuffet immediately hit it off and saw each other constantly. Dubuffet showed Ossorio his latest works as well as examples from his collection of art brut.” Ossorio bought three of the French artist’s paintings and received from his new pal copies of his book, Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre (Prospectus for Amateur Artists of Every Kind, 1946) and of a booklet Dubuffet had produced for a presentation of art brut works at Galerie René Drouin.
In retrospect, that little publication, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels (Art Brut in Preference to the Cultural Arts, 1949), may be seen as a clarion call that publicly identified a new kind of art, or, more precisely, that called attention to a form of art that already had existed but had been overlooked by the mainstream. With it, Dubuffet also declared his rejection of established artistic values and his embrace instead of those he found embodied in art brut. In this bracing manifesto, he described this art as:
[…] anything produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything — subjects, choice of materials, means of transposition, rhythms, styles of writing, etc. — from their own reserves rather than from the stereotypes of classical or fashionable art.
After their days in Paris, Dubuffet and Ossorio’s friendship developed with gusto. In 1950, Ossorio spent ten months in the Philippines painting a mural in a church that had been built for workers at his family’s sugar refinery. Dubuffet, who was as prolific a letter-writer as he was an art-maker, sent Ossorio dispatches about his art brut finds and even technical advice about painting on cement. Ossorio sent him samples of works on paper he had produced apart from the mural, which eventually led to Dubuffet’s writing of an insightful monograph about the Filipino-American artist’s work.
Dubuffet, too, was affluent; in May 1951, he and his wife invited Ossorio and his partner, Edward (“Ted”) Dragon Young, to join them at a nudist colony on an island near St. Tropez. (Dubuffet had come from a wine-selling family in Le Havre but rarely drank and, when he later visited New York and met Pollock, was turned off by the American paint-slinger and Ossorio’s booze-fueled, late-night gabfests.)
As the exhibition documents, all of this heady bromancing led to Dubuffet’s decision to send his art brut collection — 1200 pieces — to the U.S. in the hope of increasing appreciation of the newfangled genre. In late 1951, he traveled to New York with Ossorio, who installed the collection in his East Hampton mansion, where it stayed for a little over a decade.
In December of that same year, in conjunction with an exhibition of his own paintings at the Arts Club of Chicago, Dubuffet traveled to Chicago to deliver a cri de coeur declaring a new aesthetic. Despite the title of his talk (“Anticultural Positions”), which he delivered in English, in it he took a less than vituperative stance against conventional art and its support system. (No doubt he was aware that some prominent Chicago collectors had already fallen for his unusual work, with its distorted, seemingly flattened human figures and vigorously worked textures.) His remarks were still deliciously subversive enough, however. Among the bon mots he laid on his Chicago audience:
I consider the Western notion of beauty completely erroneous. I absolutely refuse to accept the idea that there are ugly people and ugly objects.
Art addresses the mind and not the eyes. That is how it has always been regarded by “primitive” societies[,] and they are correct. Art is a language, an instrument of cognition and communication.
[P]ainting is a much more spontaneous and much more direct language than words[,] much closer to a shriek or to dancing. This is why painting is a means of expression for our inner voices and far more effective than words.
Dubuffet’s promulgation of art brut values resonated with Chicago art aficionados and artists; historians have traced its influence right through the work of the Chicago Imagists of the 1960s-1970s and linked it to longstanding support of folk art, outsider art and assorted indigenous art forms by those artists and numerous local collectors.
Art Brut in America features gems by such definitive Swiss art brut masters as Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964) and Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), and by Heinrich Anton Müller (1869-1930), who was born in France and later settled in Switzerland. The inventor of a vine-cutting machine, Müller ended up in a psychiatric hospital after learning that someone had stolen and exploited his idea; there, he created haunting images in pencil and chalk on kraft paper or cardboard of human figures and imaginary beasts. One of his masterpieces, an untitled image of a wiry young man with watery eyes and a snake (colored pencil on drawing paper, circa 1927-1929) is on view, as are several of Wölfli’s complex, colorful drawings, whose dense compositions sometimes include the artist’s original musical notation and refer to his own life story or to his alter ego’s universe-creating narrative.
Some of the works on view feel as fresh and timely as anything coming out of the studios of artists for whom drawing is still important today. Among them: watercolor-and-ink pictures, with liquid, florid lines, of birds, men and animals by Guillaume Pujolle (1893-1971); a map of part of Switzerland and some mysterious, sexually charged ink drawings on paper by Joseph Heuer (1827-1914); boldly outlined images of multi-limbed, Janus-headed figures and other creatures in ink, pencil and colored pencil on paper by the Spanish-born Miguel Hernández (1893-1957); and a depiction by Robert Gie (1869-?) of the “distribution of emanations” among a trio of ghostly figures connected by a network of wires. Are they lumbering cyborgs way ahead of their time?
The exhibition also features carved-wood-and-mixed-media sculptures by Forestier and sculpted volcanic-rock figures by an unidentified artist who has become known as “Barbus Müller.” Small embroideries in wool and cotton on cardboard by Juliette Elisa Bataille (1896-?), along with boldly colored images of gangsters and other figures in colored pencil on paper by Gaston Dufour (1920-1966), and faces made with shells by Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve (1863-1934) all cleverly blend abstract and recognizable forms.
While Dubuffet’s collection was on display at Ossorio’s home during the 1950s, many of the era’s prominent art-world figures, including, among others, Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and the critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg visited the artist and saw the unusual works. However, their reactions were generally less enthusiastic than those of the French modernist and his American comrade. It was not until years later, just before the collection was sent back to France in 1962, that a show at a Manhattan gallery of some of its holdings, which coincided with a Dubuffet exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, brought it more serious critical appreciation. Today, with art brut and outsider art forms exerting considerable influence on many contemporary artists, a show like Art Brut in America takes a consideration of this subject area back to its very roots.
“Art brut is art brut, and everybody has understood this well,” Dubuffet wrote in one of his earliest texts about the genre he had identified. Banging his drum emphatically, he added that its “auteurs” were people who created their works “for their own use and enchantment, without expecting any grand destination for them.”
“Modest art!” he called it, of a kind that often did not even realize that it could be called art. No wonder there was — and remains — no tidy place for it in mainstream art history’s narrative. For its most avid admirers, with proud defiance, it doesn’t even fit.
Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet remains on view at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through January 10, 2016.
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