March 4, 2012 8:50 pm

Jean Dubuffet: Late Paintings, Waddington Custot Galleries, London

There’s a vital, spontaneous, painterly freedom in this exhibition of works by Dubuffet

Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) set out to smash the beauty and intellectual elegance of the Ecole de Paris and ended up making the brightly coloured, madly scrawled, goofy paintings that somehow embodied the last moments of French modernism. The works here retain that inescapably French refinement but are also vital, spontaneous, yet looser than his early style. They confirm Dubuffet as a bridge between Surrealism – Miró, as well as graffiti art, was a key influence – and the post-1960s sensibility; in their interest in affirming yet making the human figure vanish, they resonate with the existentialists Bacon and Giacometti.

This show, organised with the Fondation Dubuffet and marking the impact of dealer Stéphane Custot, who became a Waddington partner last year, focuses on three series. The “Lieux abrégés” (“abbreviated places”), begun in 1975, depict generalised cartoon-like figures with expressive gestures and features, painted on thick paper sealed with white paint and laid on canvas, recalling the 1950s raised, textured haute pâte (matter paintings), but with a lighter touch and a delicate grey-rose tonality. The papers not laid on canvas piled up on the studio floor; Dubuffet cut and arranged them in various jigsaw juxtapositions, resulting in a group of works called “Théâtres de Mémoire”, with no focal point, lacking perspective or depth, such as the 37-piece collage “Site aux disjonctions” here. “I do all I can to maintain the disparity and incoherence, but my previous experiments lead me to compose . . .  in a more deliberate and controlled way . . .  modifying painting styles and discovering new simpler and freer ones,” Dubuffet wrote to his New York dealer Arne Glimcher.

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That painterly freedom – though compositional rigour and harmonious, subtle colour is still there, as in late Picasso and Matisse – is apparent in the wonderful, exuberant “Psycho-sites” series that followed in 1981, where abbreviated individual figures are isolated within cellular shapes, and then in the “Sites aléatoires” (1982-83), where landscape dominates, beginning to overwhelm the human form.

From Wednesday to April 14

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