Assembled from MoMA’s holdings of work by Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), this beautifully realized exhibition illustrates how Dubuffet’s rebellion against conventional good taste and artistic hierarchies was enacted through his materials and techniques. Comprising pieces from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, “Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground” includes wonderful figurative sculptures assembled from slag and tree roots, as well as paintings and drawings depicting people—wandering through deserts, packed into subway cars—crudely scratched into thickly impastoed canvases or inked paper. But its primary focus is on Dubuffet the printmaker, using the medium as “an incomparable laboratory and an efficacious means of invention.”
Central to the show is a selection of lithographs from Dubuffet’s series “Phenomena” (1958–1962), a compendium of 362 allover compositions, created by scuffing, scratching and staining lithographic stones, sometimes with stuff like fruit peels and tapioca. Often, he would cut up the finished results to produce new works.
For the most part, Dubuffet’s recycled prints are representational. In the collage Black Earth (1955), the three figures occupying a nocturnal patch of gray and black landscape are fashioned from the same white-spattered paper as the starry sky above. Elsewhere, characters such as The Sleepwalker and Carrot Nose (both from 1961) sport hats and clothes seemingly made out of cosmic dust. But other pieces are more confounding: paintings with phrases like the key is under the shutter scrawled across scraps of newspaper; monochromatic compositions covered with sand, pebbles or crumpled aluminum foil. Still, however absent of imagery or metaphor, they continue to look radical.—Anne Doran