In 2011, the American Folk Art Museum in New York relocated when the Museum of Modern Art acquired its building on 53rd Street. Luckily, its new storefront is no less glamorous: located on a busy Manhattan intersection, the museum’s concrete facade is bathed in the bright lights of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts at night. The move offers a chance to take folk and outsider art out from under MoMA’s formidable shadow. The Folk Art Museum has fared well on its own, and this fall it is eager to prove it with an ambitious new show, Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet.
This is an exhibition about roots. In its title, art brut both names its mythical founder and maps its course from France to America. The goal is to show that this art has a pedigree and a rich exhibition history: an art-historical endeavor staking out art brut’s claim that, it should be viewed today as a vital branch of the art world. The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet reaffirms that outsider art is not a recent whim of the fickle art market. Rather, it has existed for nearly as long as modern art, and it is here to stay. Certainly, these are important claims to make. When, in 2013, curator Massimiliano Gioni included multiple outsider artists in his gargantuan “Encyclopedic Palace” at the Venice Biennale, this was seen as a bold, confusing, and controversial choice. So, The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet is a significant — indeed historic — show; it reveals the repressed history of outsider art’s legacy within the art movements of the last century.
Yet, this forcefully constructed genealogy may be to art brut’s detriment, as well as to its favor. Who is Jean Dubuffet, and what origins are claimed in this historical display? Furthermore, what kind of future is projected for it?
The works now on the walls of the Folk Art Museum are on loan from their permanent home in Lausanne, Switzerland; this is their second American tour after being exhibited in New York City between 1952 and 1962. Presiding over the current show’s opening was art historian Sarah Lombardi, visiting on behalf of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. In her presentation, she explained how this body of work came about, and why it is once again being displayed in New York City.
Dubuffet, a figure of the mid-twentieth-century Paris art world, invented the term “art brut” (literally, “rough art”), and made it his lifelong project to collect work that qualified as such. For Dubuffet, Lombardi explains, “art brut” designated works “by self-taught people who create outside any institutional framework.” In other words, art brut is a synonym of what is also referred to in the United States as outsider art, and it presaged the contemporary outsider art movement. For Dubuffet, however, the connotation was more extreme in the sense that its creators were exclusively “solitary people” and those “living on the fringes of society or in psychiatric hospitals.”
While it is established that Dubuffet is, indeed, the founding father of art brut/outsider art, Lombardi’s account of his motivation gives reason for pause. His goal, she says, was to broaden the aesthetic horizons of modern art. “By taking an interest in works outside the confines of official art,” she said, Dubuffet “widened the boundaries of art” as had “Pablo Picasso with African art and Paul Klee with children’s drawings” before him.
Picasso’s inspiration by and appropriation of African masks, at the heart of his ‘invention’ of a new artistic style, ranks among the more problematic episodes of modernist art history. For the past one hundred years, European artists have been fascinated with the idea of the “primitive” ̶ the individual who exists outside modern society, supposedly untainted by industrialization and whose ways of life and perceptions of the world are pure in their backwardness. Gauguin ventured to Tahiti and painted portraits of the natives. A destitute Van Gogh went to the small villages of the French countryside and painted its peasants. Picasso, on the other hand, went to the Trocadero, the ethnographic museum in Paris, and reportedly experienced a revelation about a new kind of art. While the mention of Picasso in relation to Dubuffet in this manner may appear to elevate the importance of the latter’s project, in fact it situates him within a somewhat troubled history.
Asked directly about this connection, Lombardi draws an even closer comparison. She explains that “instead of going to other countries like Picasso or Gauguin, [Dubuffet] went into psychiatric hospitals. These were places that were very far away, but not geographically. But the process was the same.” She emphasized, “what is interesting is that when you look at the works here, you can find some similarities with primitive art.” Lombardi seems to suggest that, in a way, Dubuffet was searching for local primitives.
This reading is confirmed by an artifact in the show itself. Facsimiles of the typed pages of the script of a talk Dubuffet gave in Chicago in 1951 entitled “Anticultural Positions” are displayed on the wall, framed not unlike artworks unto themselves. These pages reveal how Dubuffet added additional, handwritten passages to the typed manuscript expounding upon the nature of what he called “primitives” and “savages.” A selection reads: “I, personally, have a very high regard for the values of primitive peoples: instinct, passion, caprice, violence, madness.” The text of this talk can give rise to some soul-searching.
Apart from the history of Dubuffet’s collection, there is the artwork, itself. The display of drawing, painting, sculpture, and textile work is incredibly rich. Three rooms branch out from the museum’s lobby, each showcasing artworks displayed in frames, vitrines, and transparent glass panels that bisect the space. There is no core narrative, and the works are arranged based largely upon aesthetic affinities or contrasts. Enigmatic palimpsests of writing coexist with colorfully patterned drawings, and works by more famous artists appear next to those with anonymous creators that were collected by psychiatrists as diagnostic evidence.
Francis Palanc’s large abstract canvases stand out with their bold juxtaposition of black and gold. Pointy, jagged shapes in red, green, and purple evoke stylized landscapes. The grainy texture of the paint suggests that it may have been mixed with sand, though in fact Palanc used finely ground eggshells. His stark lines, smoldering colors, and innovative geometries are displayed near Guillaume Pujolle’s watercolors inspired by Chinese visual culture. Pujolle paints a tiger jumping over a river so quickly that his body appears distorted by the wind; the dynamic composition is framed by reeds, starkly outlined, like the tiger, in undulating black lines. Like Palanc, Pujolle’s more realistic style evokes a fairytale world.
Jean Mar’s constructions of cardboard comprise original frames for organic-looking shapes, soft wool, string, and leaves—tactile compositions evoking cobwebs and cocoons, equally comforting and disturbing, and reminiscent of the smaller sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. Adolf Wölfli paints a colorful visual melody–one of the most strikingly beautiful pieces in the show is his Untitled (Saint Adolph bitten in the leg by the snake), in which several lines of musical notation are superimposed over the winding body of the snake and framed by ornamental borders like an illuminated manuscript.
Yet Wölfli’s work creates an almost lurid impression next to Robert Gie’s rendering of skeletal silhouettes whose eyes, heads, and intestines are connected by black, branching lines. The effects of the different works vary from the gentle and dreamlike to the hallucinatory and disturbing. A walkthrough of the entire show results in a somewhat psychedelic experience.
It is the power of each of these artists’ visions—and all others represented in the entire collection—which stands as Dubuffet’s legacy more than his parochial attempts at theorizing art brut or his ties to the Paris art world. What emerges from the exhibition is the realization that Dubuffet really was a man with a unique vision. He did not amass art brut pieces to use as inspiration or raw material for his own work, as Picasso did with African art. To Dubuffet, the authors of the pieces he acquired were true artists. Though there were limitations and constraints of a medical nature, most were credited with their real names whenever it was possible. Furthermore, he instituted not only a collection, but also an archive of biographical information, even visiting and getting to know some artists personally.
Though rich in expounded art history genealogies, what was most striking about Sarah Lombardi’s talk was an anecdote about red shoes. When Aloise Corbaz, an artist living in an asylum in Switzerland, asked Dubuffet for the gift of a pair of red shoes, he obliged. Lombardi speculated that Corbaz had a preference for the color red, as it is often present in her works. Yet, there may be another dimension to this interaction. According to legend, the wearing of red shoes was a privilege once reserved for the emperor of Rome. While employed as a governess in the court of Prussia’s William II, Corbaz had fallen hopelessly in love with the emperor. Royalty also regularly featured in her drawings, which included the likenesses of Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra. More than a kind gesture or an act of charity, Dubuffet’s gift can be seen as an acknowledgment of Corbaz’s claims to similar status. By granting her red shoes, he affirmed that he saw her in her own terms.
Dubuffet’s collection allows us to see art that to other European artists was “primitive” as an original creation in its own right. He has laid the groundwork for today’s outsider art movement and has empowered artists to express their vision independently of the aesthetic norms and needs of a canonized “high art”. The strength of the Jean Dubuffet show is that, in the display itself if not the accompanying program and catalogue, Jean Dubuffet takes a back seat and the works from the collection are allowed to speak. The facsimile of “Anticultural Positions” may be a rather uncomfortable inclusion, but it serves to remind us how far we have come. Art brut does not need allusions to Picasso— we can leave such things to MoMA. And in the future, art brut may no longer require a Jean Dubuffet.