‘You will no longer find any object or figure in these paintings – nothing can be named. However, they are not “non-figurative”. Their aim is to represent (or should we rather say “to evoke”) in an abridged and synoptic way, the world that surrounds us of which we are a part’
‘He is playing on the dual meaning of the verb “mirer”, which means to mirror or reflect (an element) but also to gaze or look attentively (at something) … evoking at the same time the loss of the gaze in the meandering of the lines, but also the reflection, as in a mirror, of the painter’s thought on the canvas’
—V. DA COSTA AND F. HERGOTT
A hypnotic red and blue scrawl interspersed with patches of dazzling yellow pigment, Mire G85 (Kowloon) stems from the series of Mires (Test Patterns) that announced the birth of a new obsession in Jean Dubuffet’s oeuvre: the total erasure of the figure. Executed between February 1983 and February 1984, and shown to great acclaim at the 1984 Venice Biennale, these works inaugurated a startling new trajectory in a practice hitherto dominated by various forms of landscape, portraiture and still-life. Whilst Dubuffet’s Hourloupe works of the 1960s had grown from a similar kind of subconscious, semi-automatic graphic impulse, their wandering linear patterns had almost always coalesced into recognizable objects. By the time of the Mires, however, the artist had severed all ties with conscious forms of representation, adopting instead a liberated, graffiti-like scrawl. Gone were the calculated structures of Hourloupe: in their place came lavish, uninhibited brushstrokes, looped and splattered in a manner prophetic of Cy Twombly’s late Bacchus works. Having spent nearly four decades attempting to strip away the conventions of pictorial representation in order to capture the raw essence of his subjects, Dubuffet now sought a visual language that could evoke the physical world through the primal power of abstract painterly gesture. ‘You will no longer find any object or figure in these paintings – nothing can be named’, he explained. ‘However, they are not “non-figurative”. Their aim is to represent (or should we rather say “to evoke”) in an abridged and synoptic way, the world that surrounds us of which we are a part. But in these works this world is seen from an unaccustomed point of view: a point of view in which we no longer see things (that which has a name) but rather acts, or more precisely, movements, tumultuous transits in the heart of a continuum without voids’ (J. Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous ecrits suivants, volume 3, Paris 1995, pp. 444-45).
In the introduction to volume XXXVI of his catalogue raisonné, Dubuffet distinguishes between the white backgrounds of the Mires designated ‘Boléro’, and the yellow backgrounds of those entitled ‘Kowloon’. The bright canary hue, he explains, ‘made me think of Chinese decors. So much so that I got it into my head that these paintings could have served as signs for boutiques in popular shopping streets in China. Or even (I was reading ancient Chinese chronicles at the time) they would have done for the banners that went in front of Mandarin processions’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, Vol. XXXVI, Lausanne 1988, p. 8). Indeed, in line with this thinking, Dubuffet originally entitled the series Oriflammes (Banners). In replacing it with Mires, as Valérie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott explain, ‘he is playing on the dual meaning of the verb “mirer”, which means to mirror or reflect (an element) but also to gaze or look attentively (at something) … evoking at the same time the loss of the gaze in the meandering of the lines, but also the reflection, as in a mirror, of the painter’s thought on the canvas’ (V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 93). Painting the yellow sections last, Dubuffet causes foreground and background to pulsate chaotically within our vision, working in counterpoint with the geometric divisions of the paper. By obliviating individual focal points, Dubuffet forces us to view the work as a set of simultaneous collisions: an isolated fragment of a larger, overarching structure. As the artist turned away from figurative subject matter once and for all, his paintings became psychological fantasies: expressions of his own neuronal impulses in the final years of his life.