Originally owned by the celebrated American publisher and art collector Harry N. Abrams, Cafetière II is a beguiling still-life from Jean Dubuffet’s most important cycle of works: l’Hourloupe. Defined by its puzzle-like configuration of cross-hatched red, white and blue cells, this ground-breaking series proposed a parallel view of reality that consumed the artist between 1962 and 1974. Executed on 15 December 1965, the present work takes its place within a sub-group of paintings entitled Ustensiles Utopiques (Utopian Utensils). In these works, Dubuffet moved away from the all-over surfaces of his previous l’Hourloupe works, focusing instead on banal household items situated against black voids. Tapping into the international currents of Pop Art, which similarly focused on quotidian objects, he trained his lyrical, looping script on chairs, hand tools, typewriters, wheelbarrows, beds, washbasins, taps, scissors, teapots and bottles. The cafetière – once a favoured subject of Picasso’s Cubist still lifes – featured in seven large-scale paintings, as well as a number of drawings and group compositions. Abrams acquired the work in 1966 from Robert Fraser Gallery on Duke Street, where the Ustensiles Utopiques were shown that April. Fraser was an important early champion of l’Hourloupe, and an instrumental figure in establishing Dubuffet’s global reputation during this period. For Lawrence Alloway, writing in his exhibition catalogue, these works marked a fundamental shift in Dubuffet’s practice: ‘a turning away from the world, and the construction of a fantastic alternative to where we are, a parallel world, the product of systematic elaboration’ (L. Alloway, ‘Ustensiles utopiques’, in Jean Dubuffet: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Robert Fraser Gallery, London, 1966, unpaged).
In many ways, l’Hourloupe was a natural extension of Dubuffet’s Paris Circus series. Having spent the previous two decades studying the raw textures of art brut and the natural landscape, the artist turned his attention to the beauty of the manmade world, rejoicing in the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan post-war life. The swarming, tessellated surfaces of these works would gradually morph into the stylised language of l’Hourloupe, consolidated during the summer of 1962 when Dubuffet and his wife summered in their newly-built house in Le Touquet. Whilst talking on the telephone, the artist let his pen wander aimlessly in a series of semi-automatic doodles. He filled in the shapes with parallel red and blue lines, cut them out and was amazed at the effect achieved when stuck onto a black background. For the first time, he felt he had arrived at a mode of representation that was purely neuronal – a way of seeing unfettered by the physical world. ‘For Dubuffet [l’Hourloupe] is a “festival of the mind”, luminous, brilliant, sparkling, and continual’, write Fabrice Hergott and Valerie da Costa. ‘In it Dubuffet seeks an uninterrupted and uniform writing that brings everything to the frontal plane … His approach takes the form of hundreds of squiggly motifs that give the impression of being in communication with each other, creating clusters of material in fusion reminiscent of cells in the process of multiplying. L’Hourloupe is both painting and writing’ (F. Hergott and V. da Costa, Jean Dubuffet. Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona 2006, p. 77).
Described by Guggenheim director Thomas M. Messer as ‘the most radical structural reinterpretation since Cubism’, l’Hourloupe transformed everyday reality into a writhing abstract mass, as if magnified under a microscope lens (T. M. Messer, ‘Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985): A Summary’, in Jean Dubuffet and Art Brut, exh. cat., Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1986, p. 24). In keeping with its aesthetic, the word itself was not a real one, but rather a made-up concoction infused with evocative ties to common parlance. As the artist explained, ‘I associate it, by assonance, with “hurler” [to howl], “hululer” [to hoot], “loup” [wolf], “Riquet à la houppe” [a French folk tale] and to the title of Maupassant’s book Le Horla, that is inspired by psychological distraction’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted at http://www.dubuffetfondation.com/focus.php?menu=38=en [accessed 9 January 2017]). In French, its closest counterpart is entourlouper, meaning ‘to make a fool of’. Dubuffet gave the title to a small book composed of his original doodles, accompanied by similarly invented phrases of colloquial French. Over the years, the series would evolve into a self-contained universe, populated by characters who eventually assumed three-dimensional form: initially as sculptures, and ultimately as performance art in the seminal 1973 work Coucou bazar. Quivering against its background as if on the verge of springing to life, Cafetière II captures the early principles of l’Hourloupe: that even the most everyday objects could become sites of fantasy, wonder and mystery.