The many masks of modern art

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.

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.

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.

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.

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