In February of 1991 I had my first show at Holly Solomon Gallery on 57th Street. The following June I made an art trip to both Paris and London. In Paris, I saw the opening exhibition of the renovated Jeu de Paume dedicated to the late works of Jean Dubuffet, called Les Dernières Années (The Last Years).
I remember most vividly the collaged paintings from the series, “Theaters of Memory.” A favorite was the large, mostly green painting ‘La Riante Contrée’ pictured above, which is an impressive 82.5 x 121 inches in size. Here, the artist has layered 54 cutouts from possibly pre-existing drawings and parts of acrylic paintings on paper. The position of the tree-like forms anchors the edges, particularly the one in the bottom center with light green branches. Dubuffet combines both flat and gesturally painted shapes and includes four solitary, possibly male, figures walking through this invented country landscape. This painting immediately struck me as significant, with its exciting and memorable size, color, and mark-making.
Looking at it longer, I noticed other features. There are no public or private architectural references. The mark-making felt consistent, and yet quite varied. The figures are pasted on top of the collaged surface, which you do not realize at first, and one wonders, what would happen if you took the figures out? Would the painting still have the same impact? Or would it be predictive of the last works that Dubuffet made in the 1980s, which are composed of marks, swirls, and scribbles? In “La Riante Contrée,” the image is his personal vision of nature, both as a landscape and a human condition.
In “Vacances Pâques,” a larger work (98 x 125.5 inches) made a year earlier, his process and the pictorial organization in the series is more clearly revealed through the straight-edged cuts of the 45 collage elements he used, creating a very obvious grid of rectangles of various sizes. One wonders (and we’ll never know) if he made a conscious effort to obscure the grid’s structure in later works. In “La Riante Contrée,” the rounder edges of the pasted images make the structure less obvious and more magical—you don’t really know how he made it work.
I am interested in “Vacances Pâques” because of what it reveals about Dubuffet’s visual thinking in the beginning state of a larger body of work. Although the marks may appear casual and the painting spontaneous, Dubuffet rigorously planned the composition of each “Theater of Memory.” For all of these works, Dubuffet made a set of notes, as well as a portfolio of schematic sketches, laying out the positions, shapes and colors for all of the elements to be collaged.
In these “Theaters of Memory,” collage is the perfect activity for Dubuffet. In reassembling cutout shapes and linear passages from his drawings into finished works, he also assembled his own visual memories. He is collecting and staging his own histories.
“Dancing is the last word in life. In dancing, one draws nearer to oneself.”
Melissa Meyer is an artist who lives and works in New York City. www.melissameyerstudio.com