Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901–1985) dedicated years to exploring and recording the natural textures he encountered in his daily life, from the mountainous, rocky landscapes of Vence and the sandy hills of El Goléa to dewy, foggy Parisian mornings or the stars far beyond our skies. Yet his most subtle and intricate depictions of surfaces may be a group of black-and-white ink-on-paper drawings created between 1958 and 1960. Stone Transcription (Transcription aux pierres) (1958), Textural Transcription I (Transcription texturologique I) (1958), and Epidermis (Épiderme) (1960)—all currently on view in the exhibition Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground—require close investigation and display Dubuffet’s profound attention to line and drawing.From afar they appear as a mass of tangled, intertwined lines, one connected to the other, expanding outward beyond the boundaries of the paper. Up close, however, the detail and precision of Dubuffet’s delicate lines creates irregular, sinuously connected negative spaces that contrast the pools of inky black forms. The result is a cell-like surface that seems to shift and change with each subsequent look.
As with many of Dubuffet’s works, the audience leaves with more questions than answers. Are we seeing something microscopic, an area or cross-section of the skin crowded with minuscule cells, as the title Epidermis suggests? Or perhaps, is Dubuffet permitting us a view of an earthly, maze-like terrain that extends infinitely beyond the edges of the paper? Dubuffet’s ability to challenge and confuse these two notions of scale remained a source of fascination even for the artist. He made reference to “the ambiguity of dimension—the same breath of huge spaces exhaled by such a tiny site that becomes as immense as the starry sky on a summer night. The very concept of dimension is overthrown and abolished.”
Stone Transcription and Textural Transcription I are part of a series of six ink drawings titled “Drawings made with a fine point,” and together this group exists within Dubuffet’s larger Texturologies series, a collection of paintings and drawings that examine the ground, rejecting any directional or horizon line. Developed using a fine ink pen, the entangled lines in Stone Transcription are a graphic response to his painted works of the same subject. Dubuffet wrote, “Perhaps I’m not alone in loving the ground.”
Whereas Dubuffet often employed nontraditional techniques, including imprinting vegetal elements, writing messages on newspapers, and cutting up and re-collaging his lithographs and paintings—see Landscape with Foliage (Paysage aux frondaisons) (1953) and Soil Ornamented with Vegetation, Dead Leaves, Pebbles, Diverse Debris (Sol historié de végétation, feuilles mortes, cailloux, débris divers) (1956), also on view nearby—this group of ink drawings is unusually direct and introspective. One becomes aware of the artist’s hand—something he rarely permits the viewer to see—as it once moved, slowly and deliberately, through the vastness of the linear forms.Although experimentation was at the forefront of Dubuffet’s practice, manifesting into some of his greatest artistic triumphs—the strata-like, crumpled-aluminum-foil and oil painting Soul of the Underground (L’Ame de sous-sol) (1959) and the majestic slag and grapevines sculpture The Magician (Le Magicien) (1954)—drawing was at its heart. In 1960 the gallery owner Daniel Cordier organized an exhibition and catalogue raisonné featuring some of the approximately 500 drawings Dubuffet created between 1942 and 1960.
Many of Dubuffet’s drawings from this period, including Stone Transcription and Textural Transcription I, influenced his work across different mediums. For example, his explorations in textural representations and expanding forms, seen in these ink drawings, extended to a subject he began in 1959: paintings, drawings, and prints he executed of bearded men (also on view in the exhibition). Look closely at these works, and the network of lines, so encompassing in the three ink drawings, now threatens to overtake the man. Little of his other facial features and hands are evident. Rather, the patterned lines and cell-like forms compose a “bearded landscape.” In his catalogue, Cordier explains, “In Dubuffet’s work, the human being loses his importance and can hardly be distinguished from his surroundings…. [N]ature or chance, rather than man, takes first place.”