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Longread — 7 Jul 2017 — Dr. Sophie Berrebi, University of Amsterdam

Dubuffet: The Deep End was originally intended as an exhibition exploring the idea of disorientation in Jean Dubuffet’s oeuvre, a key topic that took many forms throughout the forty or so years of his artistic output, from 1942 until his death in 1985. However, in researching the exhibition in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum and at the Dubuffet archives held at the Fondation Dubuffet in Paris, it became clear that the process of how those works came to be acquired by the Stedelijk Museum was itself a fascinating story that says much about changing tastes over time, the position ofAmsterdam on the international art scene, and the policies of two of the museum’s directors. This exhibition therefore effectively attempts to tell two stories at the same time.

The first story finds its source in my interest in the notion of underground as both a metaphor for unusual and clandestine activity and as a long-standing subject matter of Dubuffet’s art, first materialized in a series of gouaches, lithographs, and a painting from the 1940s on the subject of the Paris metro.Following this, Dubuffet dedicated a large number of works to the subject of the floor, the ground, and what is beyond it—the underground. In certain works, like Texturologie L (sablée) (Texturology L [sandy]) (1958), it is unclear whether he is depicting a cross section of the earth or a fragment of ground.But what is clear in all these works is his desire—also reaffirmed in his writings—that viewers learn to think differently through looking at his art.Time and again he repeats his belief that art should unsettle and disengage viewers from the cultural habits that govern the way they think and look. The exhibition shows how this wish manifested itself in the 1950s, in earthcoloredpaintings made through experimenting with different effects oftexture and non-artistic materials. In the second gallery, moving into the1960s, the works in the display show how he pursued this aim through apared-down pictorial language consisting of swirling lines in black and white with additions of color. 

The second story told in this exhibition is that of the acquisition of Dubuffet’s works by the Stedelijk. Consisting of sixteen paintings, one sculpture, and dozens of lithographs, the acquisitions include an extensive ensemble of works dating from the 1940s to the late 1970s. Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, who had seen several exhibitions of the artist in Paris, purchased the first two paintings in 1958. Archival sources suggest that Sandberg wished to acquire Dubuffet paintings that would help him to create a context in which he could show the close connection between the Cobra movement, which he strongly supported, and major European artists such as Dubuffet. Sandberg later bought two assemblage works made from leaves and other “botanical elements” to coincide with his organization of an exhibition on the theme of nature and art. He retired from the Stedelijk not long after this show, in 1963. His successor, Edy de Wilde, had already professed his enthusiasm for Dubuffet’s work when he was director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and he had acquired several important paintings by the artist while there. His first purchases for the Stedelijk show that De Wilde, unlike some of his contemporaries, did not shy away when Dubuffet took a radical turn in his art in 1962, beginning what is known as the decade-long series L’Hourloupe. De Wilde chose several magnificent, large paintings from this series and, in showing the museum’s commitment, these purchases probably helped to convince Dubuffet to agree on the Stedelijk hosting a retrospective exhibition of the artist, something that De Wilde had considered for some time. 

“Among the exhibitions that I would like to organize in Amsterdam, an exhibition of your works has the first place.”

— wrote De Wilde to Dubuffet in 1963, as soon as his new position was announced.

Following that retrospective, which took place in 1966, Dubuffet made a generous gift of five paintings to the museum, letting De Wilde choose from among works in the artist’s possession from all periods of his oeuvre. De Wilde’s selection consisted mainly of works that were contemporary to those purchased by Sandberg. This suggests that he somehow attempted to create a context around them within Dubuffet’s oeuvre, and that he aimed to show the great variety of the artist’s practice during the 1950s. The exhibition shows this in the first gallery, with strong examples from no less than seven major series developed by the artist in that decade. De Wilde’s later purchases continued in the same vein, strengthening the existing selection with historical works in order to further construct an understanding of the artist, in addition to supporting the artist’s new experimentations. The present exhibition shows the results of this exemplary collecting practice.