First published: Winter 2018/19
“There is superheat in Chicago, a supercharge... My works speak to them, better than any words could. Without their needing to say a word, their faces and their behaviour let me know [that] we – they and I – are on the same wavelength.”
– Jean Dubuffet, 1984
In October 1951, Jean Dubuffet set off with his wife Lili on board the SS Île-de-France ocean liner to spend six months in the USA. The journey ahead promised great things for the artist. His work had been introduced to the American art scene in 1947 by gallery owner Pierre Matisse, and was to be celebrated with an exhibition at The Arts Club of Chicago from December 18, 1951, to January 23, 1952. However, this event was not the main reason for Dubuffet’s trip. He had left Paris primarily to go to East Hampton, near New York, to stay in the residence – known as The Creeks – of Alfonso Ossorio. The American-Filipino painter and collector had offered Dubuffet the chance to install the 1,200 pieces of his art brut collection in The Creeks. Ossorio was also going to finance a book that Dubuffet was intending to write on art brut. In his autobiography, written on the eve of his death in 1985, Dubuffet notes: “After being carefully packed in crates, the pieces were shipped ahead so that an attendant could install them and I could get straight to work when I arrived.” However, Dubuffet had not long alighted in New York when the plan fell apart.
Jean Dubuffet at his exhibition at The Arts Club of Chicago, December 27, 1951 © Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris, photo by Nathan Lerner
The site at The Creeks was not yet ready to receive the collection and, as for the book project, it had been put on hold. Accommodated in a house of Ossorio’s in New York’s Greenwich Village, Dubuffet’s frustrations were not over. The French artist, less a misanthrope than a loner, had issued the condition of being “exempt from any involvement in social circles.” But it was not to be so: “We had barely spent a night there, when there was a knock on the door to ask me to join some visitors, one of whom was Jackson Pollock. Ossorio was fond of long, nocturnal discussions bathed in whiskey. Despite promises, I was trapped where the conversations of aesthetes flowed.”
The next day, Dubuffet left Ossorio’s house. He moved to an apartment in Charles Street and found a studio in the Bowery district of Manhattan. He then devoted himself to his painting and to conscientiously preparing a lecture for The Chicago Arts Club event.
Dubuffet wrote the lecture, “Anticultural Positions”, in English, and the speech itself turned out to be one of the most significant elements of the trip. At first, he had been against speaking. He was suspicious of cultural institutions, at odds with their academic conversations, and resistant to all attempts of promotion and publicity. In September 1951, when William N Eisendrath, co-chair of The Arts Club of Chicago’s Exhibition Committee, urged Dubuffet to go ahead with the lecture, the artist responded: “The conference project disturbs me a bit, and I do not really know how to react, not because I have no idea about art – on the contrary, I have very specific and particular ideas – but I am less and less interested in formulating and communicating them”. However, the artist later relented and on December 11 wrote: “I am working diligently to prepare my lecture, in which my anticultural positions will be revealed. I plan to have my notes transcribed by typewriter and to make several copies, in advance, before the conference.”
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #100