‘Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to go incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in P. Callow, Lost Earth: A Life of Cézanne, Chicago 1995, p. xv).
‘For Dubuffet [l’Hourloupe] is a “festival of the mind”, luminous, brilliant, sparkling, and continual. In it Dubuffet seeks an uninterrupted and uniform writing that brings everything to the frontal plane. It represents the wanderings of the thought processes, a mental and neuronal vision of the world, a vision of the real world that never stops questioning’ (V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet. Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 77).
Stretching nearly two metres in height, Jean Dubuffet’s Le lit I engulfs the viewer in its swarming puzzle of primary-coloured cells, an inscrutable jigsaw of red, white and blue that resolves to reveal the aerial outline of a bed. Emblazoned against a black background, Dubuffet’s amorphous geometric segments collide to form a teeming, interlocking mass, entwined like DNA within a writhing organism. Seen from above, Dubuffet’s life-size bed becomes an ethereal amoeba, floating within the dark abyss of time and space. Inside its wavering, foetal perimeter, a new language pulses its way into being: a chaotic, cellular maelstrom to which Dubuffet assigned the name l’Hourloupe. Internalising the raw energy of his landmark series Paris Circus, this quixotic script was to become a central ingredient in the transatlantic development of Pop Art, lavishing its attention on the unremarkable props of everyday existence. Executed on 16 August 1964, the present work is the first of only two large-scale paintings entitled Le lit, the second created less than two weeks later. In Dubuffet’s hands, the bed – the primal site of birth, procreation and death – becomes a catalytic vacuum; a fantastical fusion tank that strips the codes of visual representation down to their squirming, uncultured essence. Cut, pasted and isolated within a dense black void, Le lit I marks the start of a new trajectory within Dubuffet’s practice: where l’Hourloupe has previously sprawled its way across entire compositions, subsuming figures, objects and landscapes in its wake, in 1964 the artist began to liberate his subjects from these all-over tapestries. In the resulting works, known as the Ustensiles utopiques, everyday objects took on a life of their own, recast as alien beings that reignited a primordial sense of wonder in the viewer. Over the next twelve years, they would be lifted from the canvas altogether in three-dimensional sculptures, installations and performances that gradually consumed the artist’s entire world, populating his own private Utopia. In Le lit I, we see the origins of what would ultimately, for Dubuffet, become a way of life.
Like Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots and Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, l’Hourloupe offered an alternative visual lens through which to encounter the seismic cultural changes of the 1960s. A post-War euphoria swept the Western world, and both Europe and America rode the wave of consumerism, freedom and sexual revolution. Whereas artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol responded to this sea-change by deliberately aping the iconography and new visual languages that accompanied it, on the other side of the Atlantic Dubuffet consciously peeled back these cultural trappings, seeking a pure, uninhibited vision of reality. It was a move that had been set in motion two decades previously, when he had begun to investigate a phenomenon he termed art brut: the art practices of children, mental health patients, psychics and other ‘outsider’ cultures. By channelling these unfettered languages in his work of the 1940s and 1950s, Dubuffet had attempted to tap into the innate, visceral immediacy of sensory experience. Following self-imposed exiles to the Saharan desert and the French countryside, his return to the thriving Parisian metropolis in the early 1960s had provided him with something of a wake-up call. Entranced by the quotidian hustle and bustle of the city’s heyday, Dubuffet set about transmitting his impressions onto canvas - clamouring forms, gestures and colours came to life as people, shops, cars and houses, a surging maze of activity expressed as a kind of caustic graffiti. This was Paris Circus; yet, as the series progressed, something new began to creep into the texture of these works. From the infrastructure of streets and traffic came strange, cellular beings, striped and cross-hatched in red, white and blue, dancing wildly against his psychedelic backdrops. As their presence multiplied, Paris Circus gave way to l’Hourloupe: the city streets became abstract entrails that jostled like blood cells within the bland outlines of domestic objects. Entire universes burst forth within their confines. Imbued with the force of life, these objects became utopique: idealised beings that might, any minute, spring off the canvas and into our world.
In Le lit I, this impression is vividly enhanced through Dubuffet’s painterly technique. Executed with the same scrubbed, chalk-like gestures that had defined Paris Circus, each cell is marked by receding layers of colour that lend different degrees of depth to the composition. Observing the pictorial surface, individual segments fluctuate indefinitely before our eyes, coalescing to form an intractable compound that vibrates as if with the force of a thousand tiny electrons. This effect relates directly to the apocryphal story of l’Hourloupe’s origins. In 1962, Dubuffet made a series of telephone calls from his summer retreat of Touquet, letting his pen wander absent-mindedly as he talked. Contemplating these semi-conscious, automatic doodles, Dubuffet was captivated by the interaction between different shapes and lines. As he cut and rearranged these segments to create figures and objects, the onomatopoeia l’Hourloupe formed on his lips: an invented word that the artist later identified as a fusion of ‘hurler’ (‘to shout’), ‘hululer’ (‘to howl’), ‘loup’ (‘wolf’) and the title of Maupassant’s 1887 horror story Le Horla. This intuitive phonetic concoction was born of the same impulse as the drawings themselves, produced without deliberate appeal to training or tradition. As l’Hourloupe migrated from pen to paint, it came to embody everything Dubuffet had ever sought in his art: an unschooled visual language that forced the viewer to re-evaluate their understanding of the world around them. Under its spell, everyday objects – kitchen utensils, domestic furniture and industrial machinery – lost their banality, inviting us to encounter them afresh as miraculous, unknown entities. As Valérie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott have written, in l’Hourloupe ‘Dubuffet seeks an uninterrupted and uniform writing that brings everything to the frontal plane. It represents the wanderings of the thought processes, a mental and neuronal vision of the world, a vision of the real world that never stops questioning’ (V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet. Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 77).
Through its aerial vantage point and choice of subject matter, Le lit I invites comparison with Robert Rauschenberg’s seminal work Bed, 1955 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). With its vertical orientation, it exemplifies what Leo Steinberg has famously diagnosed as the birth of the ‘flatbed picture plane’: the rejection of the canvas space as a window onto some distant reality and its reincarnation as a site of horizontal manual labour. Speaking of Rauschenberg’s Bed, Steinberg describes this paradigmatic shift: ‘There, in the vertical posture of “art,” it continues to work in the imagination as the eternal companion of our other resource, our horizontality, the flat bedding in which we do our begetting, conceiving, and dreaming. The horizontality of the bed relates to “making” as the vertical of the Renaissance picture plane related to seeing’ (L. Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972, pp. 89-90). Elsewhere, Steinberg draws a specific comparison between Rauschenberg and Dubuffet, describing how ‘[their] pictures no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals. They no more depend on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does … [They] insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of visual experience of nature but of operational process’ (L. Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972, p. 84). In many ways, Dubuffet had already made this shift in the Paris Circus works, whose flat picture planes appeared before the viewer like chalk pavement drawings, elevated from ground to wall. In Le lit I, this transformation is consolidated: Dubuffet’s orientation reminds us that we are ultimately looking down at the space where his hands moved across the surface of the canvas. In this way, the bed is celebrated anew as a vehicle for the passage of life: old ways of seeing perish and fade, and a new pictorial language comes into being.