Clown in a stranded boat

In addition to being France's best living painter, Jean Dubuffet has also, for over 30 years, served brilliantly as painting's enfant terrible,m chief clown , and most persistent iconoclast.

This artist, who was once the target of blistering magazine editorials and bitter critical attacks, is now esconced as one of the Grand Old Men of Art.

But despite these new-found honors, Dubuffet's art remains as delightfully fun-filled and childlike as ever, a fact which is charmingly verified by his exhibition of recent works at the Pace Gallery here.

These collage-paintings and drawings, collectively entitled "Brefs Exercises d'Ecole Journaliere," consist of brightly colored abstract shapes and patterns within and against which highly simplified, almost cartoon-like human figures go about their everyday business.

His technique is simple. After painting a large number of varying abstract patterns on paper, he cuts them up and rearranges them on canvas much as a patchwork quilt is assembled. Once he has decided upon the composition's basic design, and has glued the pieces onto the canvas, he adds the figures by sketching them in broadly, and without much attention to detail.

The result is a succession of shrewdly conceived but spontaneously executed overall compositions which incorporate formal elements from several periods of his career. They resemble his very early paintings of the 1940s in their joviality, but are bolder and freer since they also make good use of the aggressive linear outlining with which we have become so familiar through his works of the 1970s. All in all, they give the impression of having been created with gay abandon.

I, for one, have always found Dubuffet hard to resist. Even the blunt and brutal images of primitive humanity with which he established his international reputation in the early 1950s had a very real sense of life and liveliness. His blatant vulgarity (which we now perceive as a special kind of "sophistication") was always on the side of life, and never -- although this was hard to see at the time -- on the side of decadence or death.

For all his fame, Dubuffet remains painting's chief post-World War II orphan, in that he belongs to no movement and advocates none of the period's popular cultural cliches. Only Giacometti -- together with Sartre and Beckett in the theater -- felt as culturally stranded as he. It would, in fact, be easy to envision that quartet busily arguing about society's sad plight while seated in a beached and stranded boat.

Of this group, only Dubuffet would be cracking jokes and trying to enliven the proceedings by donning outlandish clothes or standing on his head. And it is from this base of knowing perfectly well how awful things have become, but refusing to let that defeat him, that Dubuffet's art springs.

Caught on a sinking ship, it would be Dubuffet who would be trying his very best to entertain his fellow passengers in order to divert and lessen their fears.

This positive approach to fun in art is not new, of course. Miro, Klee, and Calder, among a few others, have also done their bit to keep up our spirits. But they emerged before the horrors done in World War II, and so their perceptions are not predicated on the defeat and despair brought about by the realities of Buchenwald and Hiroshima.

IF indeed we of this postwar period (and despite all promises and protestations to the contrary, isn't that precisely what this period still is?) feel beached and stranded, Dubuffet is right among us. His attitudes and humor, his basic point of view, all spring from our shared awareness, and address themselves to it.

His art may be whacky, strident, even a bit coarse, but it is profoundly ours.

This excellent exhibition by one of the true mavericks of 20th-century art will remain on view at the Pace Gallery through Nov. 29.

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