Jean Dubuffet - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “I believe that in all my works I have been concerned with representing what makes up our thoughts – to represent not the objective world, but what it becomes in our thoughts.”
    —Jean Dubuffet

    Hovering against a tangled surface of staccato lines in primary-coloured acrylic paint, three strange, simply rendered figures animate this late work from French post-war master Jean Dubuffet. Despite certain playful idiosyncrasies, these characters are non-specific, moving away from physical referents as they venture into more psychological territory. In Dubuffet’s own words, the works depict ‘nothing more than a notion of a place, with no specificity whatsoever. The human figures have no specificity either. They are rather ideas of figures inhabiting ideas of site.’i


    This quality of indeterminacy or equivalence would come to preoccupy Dubuffet more and more in the highly productive final years of his life, coming to fruition in works such as Site aléatoire avec 3 Personnages where the boundaries between abstraction, figuration, and urban cityscape became increasingly blurred and fluid. Closely related to other small cycles from this period such as the Partitions, Sites aux figures, and Psycho-sites, the present collaged work belongs to Dubuffet’s Sites aléatoires - or ‘Random Sites’ – series, which the artist first embarked on in 1982. While closely connected to certain thematic and stylistic elements established at the outset of Dubuffet’s radically experimental career, these turbulent psychological landscapes also anticipate the last, great pictorial experiments developed across the artist’s final Mires and Non-lieux series. First exhibited in the French Pavilion of XLI La Biennale di Venezia in 1984, just one year before Dubuffet’s death, monumental works such as Le cours des choses are closely related to the present work, developing the more complete dissolution of both pictorial space and the figure that we see Dubuffet experimenting with here.


    Jean Dubuffet, Le cours des choses – Mires G 174 (The Course of Things), 1983, Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou, Paris. Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023


    City Sites

    “My desire is to make the site evoked by the picture something phantasmagoric; and that can be achieved only by jumbling together more or less veristic elements with interventions of arbitrary character aiming at unreality. I want my street to be crazy, my broad avenues, shops and buildings to join in a crazy dance, and that is why I deform and denature their contours and colours.”
    —Jean Dubuffet
    Drawing on the energy and noisy vitality of his Paris Cirque and Hourloupe works, Site aléatoire avec 3 Personnages and the broader series to which it belongs returns the artist to what is arguably his most consistent themes – the figure in urban space and the city as a site of psychological intensity. In their flattened, simplified forms and heavy outlines, the three characters in the present work reference the artist’s earliest paintings, their shallow pictorial space and densely overworked surface recording Dubuffet’s long-standing desire to ‘represent things as we think them rather than as we see them’.ii However, while early works such as Apartment Houses are anchored in the physical reality of Paris itself, these later works masterfully blend figuration and abstraction, the frenetic city and the mind, creating complex inner landscapes.


    Jean Dubuffet, Façades d’immeubles, Paris, 1946, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

    Alongside his deep fascination with the city as a unique site of psychological intensity, its material reality also fascinated Dubuffet, the scumbled textures and palimpsest properties of its graffitied walls presenting themselves to the artist as ‘poignant surfaces, their dense scars and inscriptions bearing witness to the past and present lives of the city.’iii Discussing the late Mires series, Charlotte Flint has directly connected their thick, lattice of overlaid lines to Dubuffet’s early interest in graffiti forms, establishing a thread of continuity across over 40 years that was picked up and developed by a new generation of artists including Rashid Johnson and the prodigious Jean-Michel Basquiat.


    Left: Jean Dubuffet, Mur aux inscriptions (Wall with Inscriptions), April 1945, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023
    Right: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, The Broad, Los Angeles. Image: ADAGP Images, Paris / Scala, Florence, Artwork: © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

    As well as the rich proliferation of gestural marks activating the surface of Site aléatoire avec 3 Personnages, the collaged elements of the piece incorporate a further reference to the textures and built-up qualities associated with the walls of the city. After an extended period in the South of France, Dubuffet’s return to a rapidly urbanising Paris in 1961 redoubled his enthusiasm for these earlier areas of inquiry, allowing him to refocus the ‘lifelong oscillation between the body and the landscape, between figuration and abstraction’ fully realised in his late work.iv

    “I should decide whether or not there is a reality, I doubt the validity of both the notion of reality and the notion of existing.”
    —Jean Dubuffet

    Wildly inventive and radically experimental from the outset, as Christine Burger has suggested, ‘the final decade of Dubuffet’s career was exceptionally productive, with groups of work succeeding one another at regular intervals.’v With confidence and directness, Dubuffet further reduced his simplified figures into the webs of bold and energetic colour, vividly realised in the present work. Doing away with physical realities and dissolving the distinctions between figure ad site, Site aléatoire avec 3 Personnages carries an echo of Dubuffet’s own, self-diagnosed ‘ontological anxiety’ and his musings that, perhaps, ‘we live in a world invented by ourselves. Or might it not even be a world invented by others who have insidiously introduced it into our heads.’vi


    Works from the series are held in permanent collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Fondation Dubuffet, Paris. A similar work from this series was recently exhibited at the 2020-2021 retrospective Dubuffet, un barbare en Europe at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, Switzerland.

  • Collector’s Digest

    • With recent major retrospectives held at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel in 2016 and the Barbican Centre, London in 2021, Jean Dubuffet’s work continues to attract significant critical attention and remains foundational to art-historical discussions of Post-War and contemporary art.

    • Examples of his work reside in major institutions around the world including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate Modern in London, and the Musée National d’art modern – Centre Pompidou in Paris.

    • Developing the concept of Art Brut in the 1940s, Dubuffet turned to the production of those operating outside of the narrow definitions of the Beaux Arts tradition including work made by prisoners, children, so-called ‘primitive’ artists, and the mentally ill in his search for a richer, more expressive model for artmaking. Radically decentring certain dominant art-historical narratives, Dubuffet pioneered more contemporary approaches to both the production and discussion of painting in the West.

    • Works from the series are held in permanent collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Fondation Dubuffet, Paris.


    i Jean Dubuffet, quoted in, Camille Houze, ‘The Swallow and the Dagger’, Brutal Beauty (exh. cat.), London, 2021, p. 247.

    ii Valérie Da Costa and Fabrice Hergot, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona, 2006, p. 91.

    iii Eleanor Nairne, ‘Matter and Memory’, in Brutal Beauty (exh. cat.), London, 2021, p. 11.

    iv Charlotte Flint, ‘Non-Place’, in Brutal Beauty (exh. cat.), London, 2021, p. 235.

    v Christine Burger, in Raphael Bouvier, Jean Dubuffet: Metamorphoses of Landscape, Basel, 2016, p. 194.

    vi Jean Dubuffet, quoted in Camille Houze, ‘The Swallow and the Dagger’, Brutal Beauty (exh. cat.), London, 2021, p. 247.

    • Provenance

      Pace Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, New Jersey (acquired from the above in 1984)
      Thence by descent to the present owners

    • Literature

      Max Loreau, ed., catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet: fascicule XXXV: Sites aléatoires, Paris, 1986, no. 87, pp. 51, 95-96 (illustrated)

Property from an Important American Collection


Site aléatoire avec 3 personnages

signed with the artist's initials and dated ‘J.D. '82’ lower centre
acrylic and paper collage on paper laid on canvas
134 x 100 cm (52 3/4 x 39 3/8 in.)
Executed on 3 July 1982.

Full Cataloguing

£500,000 - 700,000 ‡♠

Sold for £838,200

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023