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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / February 3, 1983

Jean Dubuffet deserves a verbal bouquet. Not so much because he's France's best living painter, or because he's one of our few living ''old masters,'' but because he's currently painting with more verve and passion than most artists fifty and sixty years his junior.

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His most recent exhibition was a riot of color, and much more dynamic and alive than any exhibition I've seen by the newer neo-expressionists. But then, that should come as no surprise. Dubuffet has been kicking up his painterly heels for the past forty years, and alternately shocking and delighting us with his wildly imaginative and profoundly iconoclastic creations.

America's first encounter with his work in the late 1940s left some of us intrigued and challenged, but most of us deeply offended and enraged. It is difficult to understand after all these years just what the fuss was all about, but his paintings were reviled at that time as obscene and immoral, and as final proof of twentieth-century decadence. Dubuffet seemed to have stepped beyond the bounds of decency. Pollock and Kline could at least be dismissed as pointless doodlers, but he could not. His starkly frontal, tough, and heavily textured paintings seemed like a slap in the face to decent America and to our humanist tradition - and we reacted precisely as though we had been physically assaulted.

What offended us most was his apparent perception of man as bestial and brutal, and without any of the spiritual graces we held so dear. And the fact that these images were executed in a style that resembled nothing so much as the scribblings of the insane or the hopelessly childish was more than we could bear.

How things have changed! Those very paintings that offended us so deeply over thirty years ago now hang in many of our major museums and private collections, and are now seen by many as among the most thoroughly delightful and special works of the entire post-World War II period.

We fortunately caught on to what he was trying to do and say. We began to understand that he was a critic of what he perceived as the soft underbelly of decay overtaking European art, and that he acted in protest against the ideals of beauty first set forth by the ancient Greeks but corrupted by decades of Victorian sentimentalism. As he wrote, ''Surely I aim for beauty, but not that one . . . . I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and . . . a work of ardent celebration.''

Rather than being barbaric, Dubuffet was actually acting as an extremely civilized man trying to establish new artistic guidelines. To him, our classical ideals of beauty were merely the decaying vestiges of a dead past. And what we perceived in his art as brutal vulgarity was actually the result of his profoundly serious attempts to find and to strike creative bedrock - and thus to give depth, substance, and significance back to such traditional artistic realities as beauty and truth.

If anything, Dubuffet was a realist. He saw things as they were, and acted upon them in the best way he knew. The result was art that did a great deal to clear the air of still-existing prewar sentiments and illusions, and to help set the stage for the more stark and stripped-down art that was to follow.

In particular, Dubuffet served as a desperately needed corrective for French postwar painting, which had lost most of its punch and was fast deteriorating into a voluptuously handsome form of painterly decoration. He strode into this somewhat precious atmosphere and quickly established himself as one of the strongest new painterly voices in France, a position he relinquished only to assume the mantle of France's best living painter a decade and a half later.