Jean Dubuffet - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    The Pace Gallery, New York
    Geraldine Spreckels Fuller, New York
    Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (bequeathed from the Estate of the above in 1999)
    Sotheby's, New York, May 11, 2011, lot 138
    Private Collection, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Max Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fascicule XXXII: Théâtres de mémoire, Paris, 1982, no. 40, p. 205 (illustrated, p. 44)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Perhaps we live in a world invented by ourselves.” - Jean Dubuffet

    Formerly in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Jean Dubuffet’s Le malentendu, 1976, is a striking example of the artist’s celebrated late series Théâtres de mémoire. With a tongue-in-cheek reference to Albert Camus’ theater play Le Malentendu, Dubuffet has here constructed a heavily layered painterly collage that depicts three figures standing in an indeterminate, abstract landscape. Recalling the frenzied action and kaleidoscope of color of his earlier Paris Circus series as well as the interlocking cellular components of the l’Hourloupe cycle, Le malentendu powerfully encapsulates Dubuffet’s continued nuanced engagement with the theme of mental landscapes to explore the vicissitudes of memory.

    From the dawn of his artistic career into his twilight years, Dubuffet relentlessly pushed his practice to new heights. In 1975, having exhausted the possibilities of the l’Hourloupe cycle, Dubuffet embarked upon the Théâtres de mémoire with a vigor and force that wholly belied his 76 years of age. He would create a total of ninety-six paintings from late September 1975 to August 1978, with the two last paintings created the following summer. Containing some of the largest compositions Dubuffet ever made, this would be the last series of paintings of this magnitude before the artist, suffering from back ailments, would be forced to focus on smaller-scale projects. It was seeing Théâtres de mémoire at the Pace Gallery in New York in the late 1970s that first sparked Jean-Michel Basquiat’s deep engagement with Dubuffet’s “art brut”, the impact of works such as the present one coursing through Basquiat’s own revolutionary idiom.

    As Hilton Kramer aptly noted of the Théâtres de mémoire, “the artist is offering us a kind of Proustian remembrance and grand summation of the imagery and ideas that have remained his abiding interests for some 35 years” (Hilton Kramer, "Art: Jean Dubuffet At Pace Gallery”, The New York Times, April, 6, 1979, online). According to the artist, the series was inspired by Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory, a trans-historical study of mnemonic techniques. Dubuffet was particularly drawn to Guilio Camillo’s Theater of Memory, an architectural structure the 16th century philosopher conceived as a spatialization of memory so that anyone who entered it would emerge with a collective knowledge of the world. Dubuffet’s compositions represent visual analogies to this synchronic conception, yet fundamentally challenge the notion of objective and static memories.

    Dubuffet’s interest in the way memories are continuously re-formulated powerfully makes itself manifest in the present work. Entitled Le malentendu (“the misunderstanding”), it references Camus’ eponymous 1943 theater play in which a man returns unrecognized to the home he left years ago only to be murdered by his unwitting widowed mother and sister, who have been making a living killing lodgers staying with them. Dubuffet expands upon Camus’ existentialist investigation of the human condition in a deliberately jovial, yet conceptually sharp visual language. Brilliantly mimicking the play’s failure of recognition and recollection, Dubuffet complicates the viewer’s ability to decipher the figures from the cacophony of visual information surrounding them.

    Dubuffet characteristically built up this dissonant pictorial space through an intuitive, yet highly laborious process. Building on his Tableaux d’assemblages from the 1950s, created with fragmentary pieces of earlier painted canvas, Dubuffet used cut-out fragments of works from his Lieux abrégés series, 1974-1976, and intuitively attached them with magnets across the metal-lined walls of his studio — layering and rearranging until the perfect coalescence of interlocking parts was achieved. The monumental compositions could consist of as many as six overlapping layers and 100 elements, the exact constellation of which Dubuffet would recreate with remarkable exactitude on canvas.

    This assemblage process effectively simulates the act of remembrance. It is almost as if the superimposed elements compete with one another in the discordant space of Dubuffet’s theaters of memory — like individual memories that are not always compatible. Le malentendu demonstrates how Dubuffet, through formal means, probes the interplay between memory and visual perception. As Dubuffet propounded, “One should not confuse what the eyes perceive with what the spirit produces as a result of the perception. The eyes only see what appears to them in a single moment…” (Jean Dubuffet, quoted in Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, 2003, p. 26). Suggesting that memories are inventions of the present tense, and thus inherently in flux, Dubuffet ultimately invites a consideration of how this relativity plays into our very sense of self and subjecthood.

    Le malentendu celebrates a profound moment in Dubuffet’s career — one that saw him recapitulate the past 35 years of his practice, all the while marching forward true to his dictum, "there is only one healthy diet for artistic creation: permanent revolution” (Jean Dubuffet, 1963, quoted in Jean Dubuffet, Théâtres de mémoire, exh. cat., Pace London, London, 2017, p. 43).

Property from a Distinguished East Coast Collection


Le malentendu

signed with the artist's initials and dated "J.D. 76" lower left
acrylic on collaged canvas-backed paper mounted on canvas
27 3/4 x 40 1/4 in. (70.4 x 102.2 cm.)
Executed on December 23, 1976.

$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $1,250,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018