The many masks of modern art
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But if his work was challenging and effective, his presence, cultural stance, and creative ''voice'' were even more so. Very few French postwar cultural leaders achieved anywhere near his level of respect. He was watched and listened to. And, as one decade succeeded another without any weakening of his creative powers, and France's contemporary ''old masters'' (Matisse, Braque, Leger, Dufy) slowly disappeared from the scene, he found himself becoming the conscience and standard-bearer of French art.Skip to next paragraph
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It was a role he filled with ease and grace, and without pomposity. In fact, his work became increasingly lighthearted and lyrical. By the 1960s, he was producing brightly colored calligraphic canvases and sculptures that somewhat resembled scrambled jigsaw puzzles. And toward the mid-1970s he was turning out colorful collages that both broke new ground and synthesized several of his earlier creative concepts.
I suspect, however, that the best is still to come. At least that was my feeling after seeing an exhibition of paintings executed by him in 1980-81. It was a life- and color-drenched experience, with paintings every bit as raw and direct as those of the 1940s, but with a directness that took its cue from hot, fervent color rather than from rough texture and primitive imagery.
Black and white reproductions cannot begin to convey the quality of these works, and even good color reproductions fail to capture their remarkable vibrancy. These are extraordinary paintings, with all the ''simplicity'' of a child's exuberant splashings and scribblings - and yet no child could have painted any of them. A child could never have juggled and related each work's forms and hues with such sophistication nor have consistentlym evoked coloristic magic with such style and grace.
After spending a great deal of time these past two years looking at the many blatantly ''expressive'' and often luridly colored canvases of the recent neo-expressionists, it was a delight to find such an ''old-timer'' as Dubuffet beating these young whippersnappers at their own game. Not only was he as passionate, direct, and uninhibited as any of them, he was also in complete control. Where they committed everything they had to achieve maximum physical impact, he had more than enough left over to shape his painterly raw material into art.
Dubuffet has always acted in close partnership with his craft. Like a master chef, he knows precisely what to add or leave out to achieve a particular result. After all these years, his ''vocabulary'' of effects is enormous - to the point where there is little over which he cannot assume almost total control. And that most particularly includes the ability to create with extraordinary shrewdness and wit - but to make it all seem as simple and easy as child's play.
There are very few painters around today who possess that ability, although there are many who appear at first glance to have it. The test for its existence is simple: prolonged or repeated exposure to the work itself, as well as a ruthless study of it for inconsistencies, evasions, or gimmicks. This ability cannot be faked no matter how hard or long the ''artist'' tries. If the work is genuine, it will reveal a clear artistic identity. If not, it will rapidly ''fall apart'' - and prove all too painfully that it is nothing but a bundle of unresolved and undirected gimmicks and effects.
My original reaction (as well as repeated visits to Dubuffet's recent show) proved to my complete satisfaction that his latest paintings are not only genuine works of art but exceptional ones as well. Perhaps not truly major or important in the sense those words are used in art circles, but extraordinarily vital, delightful, and enriching nevertheless. In the overall history of twentieth-century art, Dubuffet will probably not rank among its very top figures. But he will, as far as I'm concerned, come very close.