RIHA Journal 0221 | 30 August 2019

Painting in Danger: Jean Dubuffet’s Hautes Pâtes*

Rachel E. Perry

Jean Dubuffet made his dramatic breakthrough into the art world in the spring of 1946 with what would become his signature innovation, the hautes pâtes (thick or high pastes). Experimenting with unorthodox materials and techniques, he loaded his canvases with materials so heavy and unstable that even before their public debut in the exhibition Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie., his unwieldy pastes began cracking, crumbling, and melting off the canvas and onto the floor. According to Dubuffet’s apologists, he welcomed these 'modifications', delighting in mutable, mutant materials that succumbed to the forces of gravity and entropy. Revisiting the story of Dubuffet’s meltdowns, this article highlights the uneasy double bind Dubuffet found himself in at the beginning of his career, as his theoretical interest in ephemerality gave way to his clients’ and dealers’ well-founded practical concerns over the longevity and material durability of his work.

It’s when things are put at risk [en extrême péril] that they start to sing. Personally, I like to put the things I love into extreme danger.--Jean Dubuffet1


[1] In the spring of 1946, Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) burst onto the Parisian art scene with what would become his first and perhaps best-known innovation, the hautes pâtes (thick or high pastes). Experimenting with unorthodox materials and untried techniques, he loaded his canvases with materials so unwieldy and unstable that even before their public debut in the exhibition Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie., Hautes Pâtes strange things began happening. A wandering eye, a missing tooth: Dubuffet’s too-heavy pastes were cracking, crumbling, and, in some cases, melting off the canvas and onto the floor. According to Dubuffet’s apologists, he welcomed these modifications, delighting in mutable materials that succumbed to the forces of gravity and entropy. Declaring himself an "actualist",2 and a "presentist and ephemeralist",3 he made works that were not only hard to hang (as they were so impractically heavy) but also difficult to preserve (being so precariously unstable).

[2] It began with the gift of a painting by the artist to his new friend, the writer Jean Paulhan. Eager to impress, Dubuffet had hand delivered it to Paulhan’s apartment. He followed up with a letter, laced with anxious apprehension: "I brought the painting [one of his early Views of Paris] over this morning and placed it on top of the radiator in your foyer, does it please you?"4 There is no record of Paulhan’s response (because Dubuffet destroyed all of his letters when they had a falling out years later), but it certainly was not what Dubuffet was expecting, as his next letter makes clear. He had been fishing for compliments, not criticism, and Paulhan’s message caught him completely off guard: the painting, which had been imprudently placed above a heated radiator, had melted off the canvas.5 The incident might have passed under the radar had Dubuffet’s close friend, critic Michel Tapié, not publicized it in Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie.: Hautes Pâtes de J. Dubuffet, the book he published in conjunction with the exhibition which was sold in the gallery to promote it. Thanks to Tapié, by the time the hautes pâtes were publicly unveiled at the opening, all of the critics had been apprised. In small, strategically placed parentheses set off at the foot of the page, Tapié relayed two different anecdotes:

The game of destruction becomes total, once time intervenes and the destructive spirit […] in a game that can go all the way to "frenetic restlessness". (Note: Sometimes it’s also the material that gets overexcited. One painting, over the course of an entire night, spit all over the harmonium, to the great fury of Lili [Dubuffet’s wife, Emilie Carlu]. Another allowed itself a similar unseemliness all over Jean Paulhan’s mantelpiece. Mr. Macadam [a reference to the exhibition’s titular painting, Dubuffet’s eponymous Monsieur Macadam] becomes terribly soft when it’s too hot. Jean Dubuffet enjoys these adventures enormously, calling them "hippopotamus sudations").6

Dubuffet’s "destructive spirit" entailed more than a grandstanding attack on easel painting and the conventions of belle peinture, Tapié argued; it extended to his embrace of the actual physical deterioration of the work of art over time. The "hippopotamus sudations" were only literalizing the artist’s "game of destruction".

[3] Dubuffet regularly described his materials as living, breathing things, made of vital, vibrant matter. Keenly attuned to the physical and affective properties of materials, he wrote of their animacy and agency: "I don’t see a great difference (metaphysically speaking) between the paste I spread out and, for example, a cat, a trout, or a bull. My paste is a being as much as they."7 Restless, agitated and spitting, he viewed his paintings as oversized, overweight animals, heaving and languishing in the heat, exuding beads of perspiration and sticky streams of steamy sweat. The sudorific metaphors capture the paintings’ heat-induced liquefaction into a disquietingly viscous material.

[4] Not only zoomorphic, Dubuffet’s works were also anthropomorphic. Playing on the sexual connotations of the word hot, the critics compared the paintings to shameless, lewd tramps, at once promiscuous and uninhibited, improper and unpredictable. "These 'hautes pâtes' are behaving in a very loose manner", critic Justin Saget wrote.8 Surely Dubuffet’s titles pushed the critics toward such readings: Scorieuse is both made of slag and depicts a slag (a promiscuous woman or, colloquially, a slut) and Venus of the Sidewalk [du trottoir] is made of asphalt but is also a streetwalker. The other term Dubuffet used to describe these meltdowns, in his correspondence with Paulhan, was a "phenomenon of hematidrosis".9 A medical term for sweating blood, hematidrosis is a condition precipitated by heat in which the body’s vital fluids hemorrhage and blood is secreted with sweat. Analogizing his canvases to invalids afflicted with an unsightly medical condition, Dubuffet noted their "flows that stain everything placed under the painting in the dirtiest way".10 In fact, the first title Dubuffet had proposed for the series likewise conceives of the paintings as the unexpected consequences of a physical ailment or malady. In place of the moniker "hautes pâtes" that Dubuffet settled on a month before the exhibition, the discarded title described the paintings as "séquelles": Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie., Séquelles.11 From the Latin sequi, to follow, the term séquelles means aftereffects or consequences. Squeleae refers to a serious illness or contagion resulting from a disease or injury. Dubuffet’s original title suggests that he viewed the paintings in much the same way: as the unintended, uncontrollable consequences of a physical accident or infection.

[5] This article revisits Dubuffet’s initial foray into matter painting in 1945–46, a period of incredible technical and material experimentation that coincided, significantly, with his full-fledged entry into the gallery system. Although he had already mounted two exhibitions, at René Drouin in 1944 and at the smaller Galerie André, on the Left Bank of Paris, in 1945, the opening of Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie., Hautes Pâtes in the spring of 1946 marks the moment when his works, made of "very vulgar substances with no value" became subjected to intense commercial attention andspeculation.12 The story of Dubuffet’s meltdowns offers us a window into these early years of his burgeoning career as he began to enter the spaces of art, balancing his already hard-set, anti-establishment stance (what Tapié called his "game of destruction") with the demands of the market. Relying on a range of primary sources, including press reviews, published writings, and the artist’s correspondence with his dealers and closest supporters, this article examines the uneasy double bind Dubuffet found himself in at the beginning of his career, as his interest in ephemerality ran up against his clients’ and dealers’ well-founded practical concerns over the longevity and material durability of his work.

Curious Laboratory

[6] The elaboration of the hautes pâtes was a lengthy process of trial and error, false starts, and missteps. Dubuffet experimented with a cocktail of, in his words, "unusual materials and techniques"13 that lacked any fine-art connotations, any suggestion of refinement, expertise, aesthetic decorativeness, or permanence (Fig. 1).Committed to the principle that "All of the usual tools of painting—canvases, easels, brushes, paint tubes—bring about a paralyzing effect on whoever uses them",14 he embarked into uncharted territory, and, as he broke away from materials and methods tried and true, the technical problems he faced were considerable: "I am working on my paintings; I am making an incredible mess, smearings; I try greasy putties, mixes of varnish and plaster, of ceruse and plaster, etc., and then it doesn’t dry, or else it fails in one way or another; I have a lot of problems."15

1 Jean Dubuffet in his studio, rue de Rennes, 1951 (photograph © Robert Doisneau / Gamma-Rapho; © VG Bild-Kunst 2019)

[7] These "messes" and "problems" varied from inconsequential glitches to serious casualties, and the pages of Dubuffet’s correspondence detail these incidents with alarm and amusement. In one notable instance, a portrait by Dubuffet that Paulhan had mounted over his mantel became welded to the wall due to the heat of the fireplace, with the cement and tar in the painting adhering inextricably to the wall. Paulhan was supposedly proud of this "peinture attachante", using a word that means both "attached to" (by an adhesive) and "endearing, engaging and charming".16

[8] With no guidebook or do-it-yourself manual to consult, Dubuffet tried to solicit advice from other artists, in particular Georges Braque and Jean Fautrier.17 He wanted to know more about their "working methods", but didn’t want to "bother" them or "appear nosy or intrusive", so he asked Paulhan to serve as an intermediary:18

What you write me about Braque’s working methods really interested me. If he would agree to speak with me for an hour to give me his advice on the use of [I]sorel or contreplaqué, and how to organize the layers of coats in order to achieve a quick drying of the color even when it is used in thick masses (like Fautrier achieves) and how to obtain a certain mat shine, etc., it would be infinitely valuable to me.19

Following a visit by Fautrier to his studio, Dubuffet desperately wanted feedback: "I would be very interested if he [Fautrier] would relay his observations and advice."20 Not daring "to contact him directly", he pressed Paulhan over and again to "be good enough to intercede" on his behalf with Fautrier who was notoriously secretive with his working practices and materials.21

[9] When his fellow painters did not readily share all of their secret recipes and expertise, Dubuffet undertook what he called "technical studies", arranging for a series of apprenticeships with tradesmenhousepainters, bricklayers, and a mason"who thoroughly explained the use of these mortars, and I made them and used them with him".22 Moreover, he sought out experts in the paint industry for information about the physical properties and chemical composition of the fixatives, emulsions, glazes, and varnishes on the market. When he began a new round of "technical studies" in the summer of 1946, he turned to "several chemical engineers who specialize in colors painting and varnishes", among them the chemist Albert Corduant, an employee of the paint firm Lagèze et Cages who assisted him with his "research on materials and techniques" by providing information on the various "new mastics and new mixes" commercially available.23 Some of these were new materials, like Rollplastique and Spot Putty, which were used by housepainters and purchased over the counter in the hardware store (rather than a specialized fine arts shop). Not satisfied, Dubuffet made his own concoctions based on improvisation and gleaned from a host of behind-the-scenes players (merchants, suppliers, workmen). Lastly, during this period, Dubuffet began to inventory his own practices in detailed studio logs (carnets d’atelier) that can best be described as a time-lapse record of each painting’s durational genesis (Fig. 2).24 These logs are a remarkable document of Dubuffet’s process. In each entry, he listed the materials he used (their weight, heft, cost, durability, etc.) and how he used them, specifying the sequence and method of application. Initiated in order to document his successes and failures, these notebooks also demonstrate Dubuffet’s industry and drive, his openness to improvisation, and his steep learning curve.

2 Pages from Jean Dubuffet’s studio logs (1947–1950) showing entry of 23 June 1947. Fondation Dubuffet, Paris (photograph © Archives Fondation Dubuffet)

[10] Georges Limbour, Dubuffet’s oldest friend and first critic, described his studio as a "curious laboratory"25in which the artist fabricated strange concoctions, mixing the homemade and the store bought, the hand-mixed as well as commercial emulsions from paint and water, plasters used by housepainters, and ready-made household paints such as Duco and Ripolin. As Robert Doisneau’s 1951 photograph of Dubuffet in his studio (Fig. 1) makes manifest, in addition to the use of standard tubes of paint, Dubuffet used a variety of unusual liquids, powders, and pastes. In particular, Doisneau focuses our attention on the amorphous spread of a thick, viscous material resembling mortar in the foreground. Dubuffet adored the thick, mushy materiality of any kind of putty: "All sorts of putties fascinate me a lot."26At one point, he even tried working with toothpaste.27 In 1946 Tapié describes Dubuffet’s "primary material as a mix of white lead and whiting chalk" with a variety of ingredients including bitumen, lime, cement; an array of varnishes, drying agents, and glues; sand, loose pigments, pebbles, shards of mirror, broken bottles, frayed string and twine, straw, and gilded tin.28 By 1947 Dubuffet had settled on a mixture of "a material made out of whiting chalk mixed with rabbit-skin glue" (ironically, two of the most traditional painting materials imaginable).29 But before hitting on this winning solution, he went through a host of materials—asphalt, plaster, and even caulk or grout, ultimately abandoning them because they did not adhere to the support or dry sufficiently:

I have used plaster umpteen times but it’s not a practical material because it dries so quickly and then it only adheres to certain supports (I’ve also had paintings that I’ve found the next day in pieces on the floor) […]. Asphalt slides and softens in heat and has also given me disappointments […]. I’ve used common window sealant as well but unfortunately it doesn’t really dry all the way through.30

Dubuffet was looking for a viscous material with the right consistency to create a high relief but with a short drying time. With haute pâte, Dubuffet noted, "drying is a problem of capital importance".31 Not only were his paintings not drying, but exposed, albeit accidentally, to a source of heat, they were melting down into viscous goo—slipping, sliding, dripping, dropping on to the ground in heaps and puddles.

[11] Dubuffet had begun exploring the decomposition of matter over time in the Messages series of 1944 created on weathered and abraded newspaper, but his hautes pâtes were going one step further. Undone by fragile, unstable materials, they were succumbing to the forces of entropy. Predicated upon the principle that physical forces in the material world move toward a condition of maximal disorder, entropy results in dissipation, not concentration; chaos, not cohesion. No precautions could stave off the inevitable ruin of a paste that had not been sufficiently dried or protected for long-term conservation. Mutant, Dubuffet’s materials were going rogue. Time, heat, and gravity were working against them.

Weighing In

[12] Matter was dripping onto the floor not only because of high temperatures or because of the material’s inherently viscous properties but for the simple reason that there was so much of it. Dubuffet referred to the materials’ enervation as "hippopotamus sudations" because, like the animal, these paintings weighed a ton. Here was "A series of canvases in which the lightest doesn’t weigh less than fifty kilos".32 Critics routinely specified the weight of his work ("These paintings on plaster board weigh almost two stone"33) and the thickness of his paintings (describing them as "a whitish mass three fingers thick"34). American critic Thomas Hess noted that "Dubuffet’s pictures not only have the look and feel of sculptures but also the weight".35

[13] The question of weight is absolutely central to Dubuffet’s matter paintingits trademark, one might say. In order to call attention to the works’ materiality, Dubuffet needed, first and foremost, more matter, more stuff to throw in the public’s face. Limbour explained that for Dubuffet, "The materials of traditional painting seeming too diaphanous and thin to him, he wanted to give it [a] body".36 Not to be outdone by Jean Fautrier, his partner in matièriste crime who required more than fifty tubes of white paste for his Otages (Hostages), according to poet Francis Ponge,37 Dubuffet requested a surprisingly large amount of Rollplastique paste from Corduant. Specifying the material by weight, he wrote: "I said fifty kilos, but I’m using a lot of it and therefore a hundred kilos would be better."38

[14] The provocation of haute pâte rests as much on its height (high pastes) as on its weight. Macadam, after all, is a heavy substance. High pastes are heavy pastes—he might have called them "pesantes pâtes" (heavy pastes)—and making heavy pastes required new materials and different techniques. Weight profoundly impacted how Dubuffet’s hautes pâtes were made, exhibited, transported, and installed. As David Young Kim has rightly argued about matters of weight in Renaissance art,

To speak of weight is to acknowledge artistic agency and ambition, the deliberate calibration of materials and support which involves risk, at times to the point of collapse. Weight ultimately deals with the 'force' of works of art, their heaviness and thus their presence, a physical and metaphorical characteristic that informs our aesthetic comprehension of things in the world.39

It goes without saying that Dubuffet was not firmly established in the art world before the unveiling of his pastes in 1946. Loading the support with so much weight was a risky venture—a weighty decision, in both senses of the word—bringing with it entirely unpredictable consequences: notoriety if successful, but real hazards that could make or break his budding career.

[15] With paintings so choked with matter, their mass could deter potential clients and negatively impact their salability. Could such excessive, ungainly, heavy paintings even be mounted on the wall? And, if so, what special installation services would they require? One critic remarked:

It is said that Jean Dubuffet loads his recent canvases with so many layers of paint that their weight causes serious problems, as a result, when they are hung. Will it be necessary for qualified engineers to create a report (for each work and delivered with it) concerning the strength of the nail necessary to hang the work?40

In an almost programmatic way, Dubuffet’s hautes pâtes took on the full list of modernist biases—but, in particular, its disavowal of weight. If modern art, as Clement Greenberg later noted, acted "without regard to the laws of gravity", operating under the assumption "that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage", Dubuffet would make this property inescapable.41 In place of immaterial lightness, facility, and ease, he would call attention to the artist’s labor and the work’s material presence, its sheer physical heft, as a burden for both the artist and his public to shoulder.

Gravity Check

[16] Dubuffet might not have initially understood the full gravity of the situation. Whether due to their prodigious weight, to their exposure to a source of heat, or to their formation from unpredictable materials, many works that had been successfully elevated and mounted on the wall gravitated back to the horizontal prone position in which they had been made. Such heavy paintings made of capricious materials were a liability. With each added ounce, Dubuffet tempted fate and tested the laws of physics. The question was not how to make hautes pâtes but how to then hang them on the wall and keep them there. As their supports groaned under gobs and globs of material, the pull of gravity became a force to contend with, threatening to undo any vertical suspension.

[17] The weight of Dubuffet’s pastes entailed, perhaps forced, a realignment of the canvas and a new modus operandi. Indeed, his "material turn" was predicated upon a physical turn of the support, a full 90-degree rotation from the vertical axis of the easel to the horizontal axis of the floor. Using newspaper as a model of what Leo Steinberg called the "flatbed picture plane",42 Dubuffet began experimenting with horizontality in the Messages drawings of 1944 and the prints of Les murs and Matière et mémoire of 1945, both created on the horizontal surface of the table. When he adopted this unorthodox working stance for his paintings in the spring of 1945, a full three years before Jackson Pollock exhibited his drip paintings, the reception took note. Tapié notified the visitors to Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie. that the artist "often forms his mixtures by pouring them out from above the canvases placed flat on the ground".43 Limbour specified that "He works [...] on all fours over the canvas laid flat on the floor, so that the thick liquids he pours rapidly from his pots don’t run too quickly".44 An entry in the exhibition’s guest book went one further, addressing the artist directly: "Next time, paint directly by shitting on your canvas (from a ladder)—that would be even better."45 Dubuffet’s matter painting entailed an almost systematic per-version (a literal turning around) of the "civilizing process" described by Norbert Elias:46 reversing the "passage of the simian to the human form" that Georges Bataille had detailed, by privileging crouching over standing.47 The critics were outraged by Dubuffet’s avowed "nostalgia and fascination with animality",48 and they heatedly reminded him that "man finds it more convenient to stand on his feet than to crawl on his hands".49

[18] Dubuffet modeled his new working method for the public in two sets of photographs taken several years later in New York: those by Kaye Bell, in which he wears a white workman’s jumpsuit and bends down over his canvas laid flat on the ground, and those by Rudolph Burckhardt for the May 1952 Art News "X Paints a Picture" column, where he is shown on all fours, "pounding and manipulating the material, called Spot Putty, with his hands" (Fig. 3).50 Manifestly in dialogue with Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock, which had appeared in Art News a year to the day earlier, Dubuffet’s self-presentation differs in one significant way. Although his canvas is spread out on the floor, Pollock does not deign to get down and dirty on his hands and knees.51 In the accompanying Art News article, Hess specified that Dubuffet’s painting "starts on the floor".52

3 Jean Dubuffet preparing a relief base in his studio with Spot Putty, from: "Dubuffet Paints a Picture", in: Art News, May 1952, 32; photograph by Rudolph Burckhardt (photograph © Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris)

[19] In practical terms, to work on all fours focuses one’s attention on the ground. Dubuffet often praised "those who are turned toward the ground; I love the ground".53 Limbour even wondered whether Dubuffet hated the sky, noting, correctly, that in his paintings the ground is all encompassing, engulfing the entire pictorial field save a few centimeters.54 Dense and packed with matter, Dubuffet’s Paysages féeriques (Enchanted landscapes) of 1946 are not aerated. In Paysage charbonneux (Sooty landscape) of May or June, the horizon line drops out save for the narrowest sliver of sky on the upper left, as the thickly textured ground completely takes over (Fig. 4).

4 Jean Dubuffet, Paysage charbonneux (Sooty landscape), May–June 1946, Haute pâte on canvas or board, 97 x 162 cm. Private collection (photograph © Fondation Dubuffet, Paris; © VG Bild-Kunst 2019)

[20] The word macadam, so centrally placed in the exhibition’s title, not only asked the public to focus its attention on the overlooked base materials discarded on and embedded in the city’s pavement, it also emphatically pointed to both the horizontality of Dubuffet’s mode of construction and his larger project of "bringing things down in the world".55 By deploying horizontality in the hautes pâtes,Dubuffet signaled that painting would be demoted from its elevated pedestal and brought down to earth—reminded of its materiality. Heated up and weighted down with heavy, unstable materials, the hautes pâtes yielded to the force of gravity.

[21] Over two decades later, in his article "Anti-Form", artist Robert Morris argued that works that betray a "sympathy with matter" and "the inherent tendencies and properties of that material" will attend to "considerations of gravity".56 And this "focus on matter and gravity as means", Morris goes on to write, "results in forms that were not projected in advance".57 This is certainly borne out in Dubuffet’s hautes pâtes. Flirting with theoretical interests that would be taken up two decades later (notably by Robert Morris, Lynda Benglis, and Robert Smithson), Dubuffet created precariously unstable works open to the naturally corrosive effects of time, temperature, and gravity. If, as Dubuffet later noted, "The two bases of culture are first the notion of value and second that of conservation",58 he would make works that were difficult to hang, move, and preserve, posing real challenges for installation and transportation but also for conservation.

Presentist, Ephemerist, Actualist

[22] Years later, in his autobiography, Dubuffet claimed that the meltdowns of his weighty hautes pâtes were neither signs of technical failure nor the unexpected by-products of his experimentation with heterodox materials and untested techniques. They were, he argued, the result of a deliberate decision to abandon all concerns of preservation and conservation: "I took the side of ephemeral works, rejecting all concerns for their conservation. Curiously, they were nevertheless barely altered subsequently."59 The revisionist spin notwithstanding (as we know, many works in the series suffered significant alterations), Dubuffet’s statement posits a poetics of ephemerality as the impetus for the hautes pâtes.60

[23] In his writings, Dubuffet tirelessly declared himself "[I am] a present-ist, an ephemer-ist. […] What is the lifetime of an art production? Ten years. Twenty, thirty? No more in any case."61 Dubuffet wanted to create objects that were, as he puts it, "of a very precarious nature".62 Hermetically sealed glass encasements and artificially engineered climate control measures to preserve the work of art should be abolished and artists should embrace the work’s eventual decay. In his introduction to the exhibition, Dubuffet’s trusted sidekick Tapié argued that Dubuffet welcomed the inherent dynamism and changeability of the work of art and its slow deterioration by gravity, time, and exposure. It was, of course, no accident that Dubuffet’s dirty little secret had been leaked to the press. Tapié had published what was transpiring behind the scenes with the artist’s blessing, if not his active solicitation. Critics declared that "These outbreaks delight the artist".63 Limbour, for one, noted that Dubuffet "enjoyed it a great deal when some of his paintings from the period of the Hautes Pâtes started to melt in his clients’ homes, placed on top of radiators".64 The decision to go public had been fully and strategically sanctioned in order to broadcast Dubuffet’s disregard for the traditional values of easel painting; in addition to originality, uniqueness and genius, he would call into question the mandate of conservation.

[24] According to Limbour, Dubuffet was a "joker who made fun of time, of the long lasting duration of art, and ridiculed the traditional artist’s defiance against time and death", pointing to his "certain taste for impurity and ephemerality".65 Critic Léon Degand alerted his readers that "What pleases Dubuffet above all is the humility, vulgarity, and even the precariousness of the material".66 Michel Ragon noted that "It pleased him that the finished painting continues to act like a living being that softens in the heat and contracts in the cold".67 Referring to the paintings’ heat-induced meltdowns, Limbour called Dubuffet’s work an "art mobile": his paintings moved, he wrote; they "continued to live in front of us through unforeseen interactions between the materials—some were really sensitive to heat".68 Hess likewise described Dubuffet’s paintings as composed of "mobile, 'living' materials".69

[25] As early as June 1944, while he was working on the Messages, Dubuffet professed his allegiance to the "The law of ephemerality, of permanent deformation and reformation. Nothing is static".70 Writing to Jacques Berne from El Goléa in 1948, Dubuffet reflected:

One shouldn’t keep things for a long time. One lives here, one constantly tramples on and shuffles over footprints. Footprints are delightful, molded in the fine sand as if in plaster. Men’s feet, women’s feet, children’s feet [....] They don’t preserve very well, they are effaced by other prints as ravishing, by other feet.71

[26] Provisional and impermanent, a footprint in the sand is continuously effaced and erased by weather and time. Long before Robert Smithson used a sandbox to illustrate the irreversibility of the entropic process, Dubuffet extolled the material properties of sand and its variability (Fig. 5).72 In his drawings from North Africa, footprints cover the page, interlaced in an allover pattern.

5 Jean Dubuffet, Footprints in the Sand, 1948, page from sketchbook "El Golea, II", ink on paper, 20 x 15.9 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York (photograph © Museum of Modern Art, New York; © VG Bild-Kunst 2019)

[27] Sometime after that first meltdown in Paulhan’s apartment, Dubuffet pressed Paulhan, "Let’s talk about our hippopotamus again […]. In short, everything human is mortal. One shouldn’t try to go against it. It’s better this way […]. Man writes on the sand. This suits me well; effacement doesn’t bother me."73 He signed the letter "Jean Dubuffet actualist", admitting that he was delighted with the modifications befalling his paintings. In another letter, he referred to a painting provisionally titled L’homme à crevasses (The man with cracks):

I will give you back the joker with crevasses. I also really like these crevasses and I would really like if moss and mushrooms grew on it and spiders made their webs in it and hornets their nests, between the teeth, or in the ears, and I really like that a painting could modify itself from one week to the next, that little things would grow on it and other things fall off and that little by little the painting would perish.74

Dubuffet was calling for a painting that would gradually transform itself, remain vulnerable to temperatures hot and cold and the vagaries of time, morphing gradually and even supporting plant life, mold, and insects. For Dubuffet, the work of art is a living, breathing organism; it expands, hardens, withers, sheds, cracks. And it has a limited lifespan. Here today, gone tomorrow, it dies. He admitted: "Yes, I accept death, yes, for people and for things. I think that works of art die like people and one shouldn’t try to resist it."75 This was, as Limbour noted, "[a] completely pragmatic opinion by the artist on the mortality of the work of art":76 one born of necessity, perhaps, but embraced wholeheartedly. Of a painting that had "melted horizontally" all over his office, Paulhan exclaimed with delight, "Oh! Now [Dubuffet’s work] is smiling!"77

Risky Business

[28] There is, of course, another side to this story, one that is considerably more nuanced. Although Dubuffet appreciated the unexpected cracks and crevices that materialized in the eponymous L’homme à crevasses, going so far as to fantasize about the plant and insect life it might support, he lobbied Paulhan to be discreet:

But it’s a lot to ask these sorts of tastes from the visitors of the N.R.F. and seeing as we are not agitators let’s keep these tastes to ourselves. I made my asphalt poorly, it isn’t hard enough, I put too much bitumen in it, and so it stayed soft, hence the slippage of the eye and tooth. But when an eye and a tooth start to wander one doesn’t know where they’ll stop and so it’s asking too much of visitors to the office, but I’ll bring it to you for you to keep at your place.78

Several years later, Dubuffet would take Paulhan to task for playing to the public.79 Yet, here he is, in hush-hush tones, suggesting (or strongly requesting) that this remain between them, a secret to be guarded that the public is neither ready nor willing to understand. Noticing that several pebbles had become dislodged, he quickly and preemptively sent Paulhan an official letter, in a business language, informing him that he had replaced "our 'haute pâte' product" by "another, equivalent product and more suitable to convince our visitors of the good solidity of our products".80 Couching his concern in terms of customer satisfaction, he insures product reliability, even offering his clients an extended warranty coupled with an after-sales service to repair future such mishaps (wayward eyes and slippery teeth).

[29] In fact, even at the first manifestation of the sudations, Dubuffet had responded with alarm. If we go back and reread those first letters and disregard the yarn Dubuffet spun for the public, it is clear that he was concerned. Time and again he wrote Paulhan giving him assurances that this painting (Profil genre aztèque, Fig. 6), "won’t run again".81 Featuring a man smiling broadly, waving his hand in welcome, Profil genre aztèque (Aztec type profile) is dedicated on the back "to Germaine and Jean, 1 January 1946. Happy New Year, J. D.". Dubuffet’s varnish was the culprit; it wasn’t holding the heavy black pastes adequately.

6 Jean Dubuffet, Profil genre aztèque (Aztec type profile), November 1945, oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm. Private collection (photograph © Fondation Dubuffet, Paris; © VG Bild-Kunst 2019)

[30] Of another painting, he wrote anxiously that

I am very upset by this phenomenon of hematidrosis concerning Homme des murailles. … Nothing is more frightening than these flows that stain everything placed under the painting in the dirtiest way. I’m alarmed. And I worry a great deal about what the other paintings will do (the ones that are not sound). I ask Germaine for forgiveness. Maybe it’s the heat of the Mirus [an old-fashioned brand of wood stove] that might have affected some ingredient in the composition of the pastes? I think that we can nevertheless put the painting back in the vertical position without it provoking these runs, for example, by heating it with a blowtorch so that whatever wants to run runs for once and for all.82

Profoundly apologetic, Dubuffet was eager to assuage Paulhan’s fears, rectify the situation, and rehang the painting vertically. But he was also concerned "about what the other paintings will do", those that had not been bought by friends and supporters, but by patrons for a lot of money. And what if this secret got out? Without a guarantee of the work’s long-term conservation (its solidity and stability), the hautes pâtes wouldn’t sell; this was risky business, and there was a great deal at stake.

[31] The critics fixated on the fact that Dubuffet’s paintings might self-destruct at any moment. Noting that "the bitumen, pebbles, trash, mud that he mixes with an indescribable refinement are threatened by deterioration and destruction in no time", Frank Elgar wondered, "What remains of a painting which negates itself to this extent?”83 Dubuffet’s "masonry panels bloated and blistered, full of cracks and already decomposed in materials that break down, are not paintings that time will strengthen, but rather ruined pieces, announcing their decrepitude in advance".84 Such precarious, unstable, and erratic materials were to be avoided, Jean Schlumberger cautioned, because "Art only begins with the goldsmith, which is to say with what lasts".85 Citing the fact that "Placed near a stove, a Dubuffet starts to run. After several hours, one finds it completely melted down", one critic flagged the "friability of [Dubuffet’s] materials" that "have the disadvantage of being fragile".86 Critic and curator René Huyghe searched for a silver lining, suggesting that Dubuffet’s paintings ironically made for a good investment, a two-for-one deal: "as good today as sculpture [in other words, on the ground in pieces] as they were yesterday as painting".87Haute pâte offered built-in comic entertainment, another critic snickered: "the cement, a jubilant substance, explodes as soon as spring comes, and provides an endless source of hilarity".88 For Georges Ravon, "'haute pâte' painting has a huge advantage over the other procedures" for it offers a quick and easy (albeit dirty) disposal once one has tired of the work:

All you need to do is to place it over a strong radiator for it to run in small viscous streams. You are thus not forced to keep it a long time after it no longer pleases you, as you have to with so many paintings.89

[32] Quality assurance was, in fact, a frequent topic in Dubuffet’s correspondence with his American dealer, Pierre Matisse. Matisse was altogether panicked and unnerved by the spontaneous "modifications" occurring.90 Worried about the works’ excessive weight, he warned Dubuffet to take his clients’ needs into consideration. Of one particularly heavy painting on Masonite board, ironically titled Extase au ciel (Ecstasy in the sky), he wrote: "Ultimately the painting entitled Ecstasy in the Sky is so heavy that I doubt even the most fervent of your admirers will have the courage to hang it on their walls" (Fig. 7).91 Laden with encrustations, the rough surface of the painting is wrinkled and creased, like the hard, craggy skin of a large animal.

7 Jean Dubuffet, Extase au ciel (Ecstasy in the sky), July 1952, oil on Isorel/Masonite board, 115 x 88 cm. Private collection (photograph © Fondation Dubuffet, Paris; © VG Bild-Kunst 2019)

[33] In another instance, Matisse alerted Dubuffet to a painting that "is peeling off in a horrifying way":

[...] the more thinly painted areas are cracking, falling off in slabs and plates, exposing a virgin, immaculate canvas underneath. It’s a bit worrisome and I am starting to shudder at the thought of these small pieces of painting that your American amateurs could find one day at the foot of their canvases. […] The curve of existence has shortened considerably but still not to this point.92

The picture Matisse paints—of little pieces of paintings strewn around, littering the floors of all those classy Fifth Avenue apartments—is a vivid one. Dubuffet responded dutifully by attending to his dealer’s concerns: "I know how much cracks horrify people used to ordinary oil paintings […] and so I work hard to avoid them and modify the composition of my materials toward this end."93 When a canvas did not submit to these new measures and Matisse’s sense of alarm rose, Dubuffet invariably responded with offers to replace these ruined paintings with comparable, new, undamaged ones: "I will replace the two ruined paintings with others of comparable size."94 Even years later, Matisse was still anxiously "working to restore and save [Dubuffet’s paintings] permanently from the slow death that threatens them".95

Painting in Danger

[34] Not only were Dubuffet’s paintings accidentally self-destructing, they were under attack by the public. The headlines read "Painting in Danger".96 With materials so fragile, large chucks of the hautes pâtes could be easily removed and, according to the critics, more than a few visitors took advantage of this unintentional giveaway: "The brittleness of his materials means that you can easily detach entire pieces of the canvas. Not many of the visitors to Dubuffet’s exhibition pass this up."97 But, more disconcerting still, canvases were being deliberately slashed, ripped, and defaced: "At the Dubuffet exhibition, place Vendôme, malicious visitors damaged the paintings."98 One article ran under the title "A painter who paints like they did 3,000 years ago … but his canvases are slashed".99 Identifying these as iconoclastic acts, motivated by shock and outrage, it elaborated: "Scandalized by the aesthetic ideas of this painter-child, two students demonstrated their displeasure in a too raucous manner. They slashed through two paintings."100 Describing the scene in the gallery as "an uproar", Michel Tapié counted not two but "six damaged paintings".101 Critic Renaud wrote of contagion, spreading and gaining in momentum: "visitors overtaken by contagion strip the paintings and add unethical inscriptions on them".102

[35] Here too, as he had with the sudations, Dubuffet decided to publicize these depredations and defacements. Signs were posted. Guards were installed. Georges Ravon announced that "the mush" (la bouillie) of Dubuffet’s painting Dame au Pompon "has, it seems, changed its appearance, after an attack that no one would have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out on labels" (Fig. 8).103 Today, the painting hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.: a crudely drawn figure of a nude woman incised into a thick, impastoed muddy-brown ground composed of cement and gravel, with small shards of opaque green stones for eyes. Her so-called pompom of pubic hair is a jumbled knot of black string.