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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



"Jean Dubuffet & Larry Poons: Material Topographies" at Loretta Howard. Photo by John Small, courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery.
Two great exponents of what the French call “matter painting” are currently holding forth in Chelsea. The show is “Jean Dubuffet & Larry Poons: Material Topographies” and it’s at Loretta Howard (through February 18). This show is great fun.

The text block introducing it suggests that “more than a generation” separates the Frenchman from the American. This is true philosophically and chronologically—at least, the way I see it. But the similarities between the two are also fascinating.

Both artists are known for many paintings characterized by roughened, elevated abstract or semi-abstract surfaces. These surfaces have been created by mixing sand, gravel, fabric, plastic and other textural “matter” with their pigments. And these similarities help to make this “topographical” show as rich and meaningful as it is.

Dubuffet (1901-1985) belonged to the same generation and culture as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and the existentialism that they stood for – fashionably committed to “nihilism” and disillusioned with the “absurdity” of Western civilization.

Poons (b. 1937) has never articulated his philosophy for me, but given his enthusiasm for motorcycles and popular music, I get more upbeat and socially responsive (though hardly unthinking) emanations from him.

The result is that, although both artists create these strangely raised surfaces in somber colors that remind me distantly of the papier-mâché maps that I helped to make in elementary school, the surfaces of the French artist tend to strike me as somewhat scabrous, while those of the American are more luxurious.

Chronologically, a couple of links are also missing in the great chain of being that stretches from war-scarred France of the 1940s and 50s to the fun-loving 80s & 90s in America.

Although Dubuffet was in the eyes of Clement Greenberg clearly the “most original” painter to emerge in Paris in the years after V-E Day, he didn’t invent “matter painting.”

Rather, his imagination had been fired by seeing a show of such work by Jean Fautrier in Paris in 1945.

And the artist more responsible than any other for bringing the “matter painting” that he’d learned in France in the 50s to the attention of Poons in the 70s in America is, of course, Jules Olitski (1922-2007).

Yet the suave elegance that Olitski brought to this enterprise would hardly be appropriate in this show, as both Poons and Dubuffet incline to a tougher, more rough-and-tumble approach.

And we don’t require art galleries to give us comprehensive lessons in art history. All we really ask is that they give us visually arresting exhibitions, and this show succeeds memorably in that respect.

The way it is hung is particularly effective, with (whenever possible) paintings by Poons alternating with those of Dubuffet and specific parallels set up between individual canvases.

Enhancing these parallels and further uniting the presentation is the fresh coat of mellow tan paint on the walls surrounding them.

The most striking pair of pictures combines Dubuffet’s “Tapis Tabac” (1959), a delicately incised-looking and predominantly brown tobacco leaf collage measuring about 17 x 20 inches with Poons’s “To Speak” (1987), a marvelous hefty acrylic of about 50 x 72 inches with creamy greens and golds covering a tapestry-like panoply of wrinkled plastic sheets.

Another provocative duo begins with Poons’s “Cry Le June” (1990). This massive canvas measures about 73 x 78 inches; its pinkish-brown acrylic coating embeds portions of many NERF balls (a popular toy developed by Parker Brothers) and various pieces of grid-like patterned plastic.

The Dubuffet with which it has most in common is “Soleil sans Vertu” (1952), a 36 x 32-inch oil on Masonite which hangs to the right of it. This painting juxtaposes a muddy brown landscape image in its lower parts with a tormented brown skyline against a whitish sky – and a little round NERF-like yellow ball of a sun, made entirely of paint, plus several smaller rounded circlets of brown further down.

On the other side of “Cry Le June” is another and even more delectable Dubuffet “landscape” called “La galante poursuite” [The gallant pursuit] (1953).

This 38 x 51-inch oil on Masonite has a crusty white field down below, another hectic skyline, a brown sky, and two tiny figures of the sides of the whitish field– the (presumably male) pursuer on the left, and the (presumably female) pursued on the right. Even in existential France, vive l’amour!
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