Jean Dubuffet, Group of Four Trees, 1967–72
Everyone calls Dubuffet’s work “art brut,” but when the artist coined the term in 1945 he actually was not referring to his own work. In L’art brut préferé aux arts culturels, a catalogue essay from 1949, Dubuffet laid out his disgust with high art and advocated “works…unscathed by artistic culture” – children’s art, folk art, art of the insane, art by prisoners, and, in the style of the times, non-Western art. Well, it’s not totally unfair to classify Dubuffet as himself an artiste brut: he aspired to outsider status, most strongly in his painting and drawing from the 1950s, though he remained a deeply anti-cultural, anti-establishment artist to the end of his career. (We had a reminder of this recently, when Pace mounted a show of Dubuffet’s last works: they’re angry, hideous provocations, a final black eye to the dominant order.)
Funny, then, that New York’s best and most visible Dubuffet doesn’t just decorate a bank building forecourt, but was commissioned and paid for by David Rockefeller himself. One Chase Manhattan Plaza, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, was finished in 1961, but the plaza remained vacant for years. (A Noguchi garden was installed below grade in 1964.) The bank put together a committee – a jaw-dropping one, featuring Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller from MoMA, Robert Hale from the Met, James Johnson Sweeney of the Guggenheim, and more besides. They asked Calder and Giacometti for proposals, then rejected them both. It wasn’t until 1969 that Bunshaft suggested that the committee call up Dubuffet; he made a model and shot down too. Only when Rockefeller stepped in, visiting Dubuffet’s Paris studio and picking out an earlier model he saw out of the corner of his eye, did the commission finally get underway.
Group of Four Trees is one of Dubuffet’s “hourloupes,” an untranslatable coinage of the artist (think “riquet à la houpe”) that he used to describe his looping, doodlish style of the 1960s. Most of the hourloupes contain red and blue regions, but this one is just black and white, like Jardin d’hiver, the room-sized installation on view at the Centre Pompidou. It somehow works better in black and white, for me: the mess of nature tamed not by culture, but by capital.
Group of Four Trees is outside One Chase Manhattan Plaza, at the corner of William and Pine. It’s currently a bit difficult to see, as the plaza is under construction.