Jean Dubuffet, one of the great cultural rebels of the 20th-century, was born the son of a prosperous wine merchant in Le Havre. At the age of seventeen, he moved to Paris to pursue the study of painting, but soon grew skeptical of the artist’s privileged status, and in 1924, went to Argentina to work in a factory. Although he painted on and off until the early 1940s, it was not until the age of 41 that Dubuffet devoted himself to painting full-time. He soon began to exhibit in Paris, and attracted the attention of prominent Parisian intellectuals such as the poets Paul Eluard and Henri Michaux, and the critic Jean Paulhan. Together with Paulhan Dubuffet travelled to Switzerland, seeking out examples of “art brut,” at that time more or less synonymous with that of asylum inmates. He subsequently travelled extensively in the Sahara, immersing himself in what he saw as the vital culture of a non-Western, pre-literate society.
By the mid-1940s, Dubuffet had become an influential force in post-war art, with an international reputation as an iconoclast. Working from a permanent base in Paris with long sojourns in Vence, Dubuffet developed a quasi-abstract style in the ‘fifties which emphasized textural elaboration, and also experimented with musical instruments and non-musical sounds, producing a number of eccentric records and tapes. In the next few decades, Dubuffet became increasingly involved with ambitious sculptural and environmental projects, including important public commissions such as the Group of Four Trees (1970-72) in New York’s Chase Manhattan Plaza. After the establishment of the Dubuffet Foundation at Périgny-sur-Yerres in 1974 and the inauguration of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne in 1976, Dubuffet returned in his later years to drawing and painting with the assemblage pictures Théatres de mémoire (1975-78), and the airy abstract series Non-lieux (1984). A compulsively productive artist, Dubuffet continued to be prolific until his death at the age of 84, in 1985.
In the catalogue of one his seminal exhibitions, Jean Dubuffet wonders, “In the name of what… does man adorn himself with necklaces of shells and not spiders’ webs, with fox fur and not fox innards? … Don’t dirt, trash, and filth, which are man’s companions during his whole lifetime, deserve to be dearer to him, and isn’t it serving him well to remind him of their beauty?” But if Dubuffet focused his subject matter around dirt and filth, it should be equally said that his method of emphasizing this was through a destabilization of the visual, replacing it with touch. Distancing himself from skill and technique normally attributed to painters, he claimed his principle tools were fingers and spoons. His pigments were mixed with gravel, dirt and sand to give the canvas a textural feel, and his descriptions of his works challenged the Aristotelian idea of vision as the noblest sense. Through this primitiveness, Dubuffet believed that the artist could return to the “depths” of his practice.