From Id to Paper: Dubuffet intros art brut

Feb 2, 2012

The year starts off with quite a bang at Ricco/Maresca Gallery. The current exhibition, Dubuffet and the Art Brut, is a museum-quality exploration of Jean Dubuffet, as well as the circle of artists that he admired and in some cases collected. Undoubtedly these had a profound effect on Dubuffet’s own artistic development. The connections made in this show between Dubuffet’s work and that of his peers is both visually stunning and historically illuminating.

Dubuffet coined the term “art brut” to describe art made by nonprofessionals, those living outside of the boundaries of mainstream society in one form or another. Today, we refer to this genre as outsider art, and a lively universe of academics, collectors and galleries have sprung up to support and occasionally exploit these self-taught outsiders.

This exhibition, co-curated by the gallery and Jennifer Pinto Safian, is painstakingly precise in its curatorial choices. The show is jam-packed with 35 works of art, and each one is significant. It includes four exquisite drawings by Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), a mentally ill Swiss artist who is often cited as one of the first recognized art brut artists.

Wölfli’s work is dense, deeply drawn with crayon and graphite. The images go to the very edge of the paper and seem as if they could spill out into our world if not for their tightly constructed borders.

My favorite of his works on display here is entitled “Picture Puzzle: Where is the Little Bernese Woman?” She is, of course, upside down, nestled in the crotch of another androgynous figure. Imaginary words float up and down and throughout the drawing like music. The three figures are locked in an eternal puzzle of psychological and pictorial complexity. You can see immediately why Dubuffet fell in love with this work.

Other pieces by what are now considered “blue chip” art brut artists—Madge Gill, Scottie Wilson, Carlo Zinelli and Dubuffet’s friend, the surrealist painter Alfonso Ossorio—turn this show into a dance of color, line and emotion.

Dubuffet’s work is strongly represented here by some of his early, raw drawings. “Corps de Dame” is classic early Dubuffet. The naked female form is drawn as a child perceives its mother or perhaps as man sees woman in the depths of his psyche. She is a great flattened shape, a delicious mass of hips and tummy. She has tiny little arms, a mat of curly hair, a delighted grin and funny little bosoms that have migrated to somewhere near the sternum. I find this drawing hilarious, sexy and unabashed in its love of women.

Though many of the other artists in the show may have been compelled to make art by darker motivations, Dubuffet shares their freedom to break the rules and paint directly from id to paper. It is a joyful journey, and we are lucky to share in it.

Dubuffet and the Art Brut
Through Feb. 18, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., 212-627-4819,

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