Demonstrating the unique pictorial language that Jean Dubuffet pioneered in his seminal L’Hourloupe series, Tasse de Thé I is a monumental personification of a simple daily ritual, where the humble cup of afternoon tea has been elevated to heroic proportions. Created in 1966, Tasse de Thé I belongs to an important and long-running series of painted sculptures the artist began earlier that year. Its distinctive appearance benefits from the unusual material Dubuffet employed, having created the series from polystyrene, a soft, pliable medium that particularly suited his technique, and deliberately limiting his palette to four main colors: red, blue, black and white. Tasse de Thé I is the first in a series of large-scale sculptures that depict a cup of tea and its saucer, composed of brightly-colored and interlocking puzzle-like forms, where multiple vantage points converge within a remarkable visual arrangement. Other examples are owned by major museums, such as Tasse de Thé II (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and a similar work, Le Verre D’Eau II (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.).
Looming before the viewer with its life-sized proportions, Tasse de Thé I is a bold sculpture, where multiple vantage points have been unified within a single vertical plane and rendered in a vibrant palette of vivid, primary colors. The disorienting arrangement threatens to dissolve into chaos, where no discernible objects or imagery can be found. And yet, gradually the kaleidoscopic array of cellular forms arrange themselves before the viewer’s eye, forming a large-scale cup of tea brimming to the top with the steaming, hot liquid. The cup itself rests atop a saucer, where a spoon with which to stir the tea is also present. The saucer is a stunning demonstration of the artist’s virtuosity, where striped segments act as reflected light as it bounces off the porcelain surface, and darker areas of single colors in red, dark blue and light, silvery blue recede into the background. Dubuffet delights in the shimmering surface of the liquid tea, where the play of light that’s reflected by the liquid allows the eye to bounce around, flitting from form to form, unable to find a resting place. This lively, active creation animates an otherwise inanimate object, bringing life to a quotidian daily event—canonizing the humble cup of tea as an object of “High Art.”
Tasse de Thé I furthers the developments of the Hourloupe series that Dubuffet developed four years earlier. Over the summer of 1962, these curious forms began to assert themselves in the doodles that Dubuffet absentmindedly drew during routine phone calls. Using red and blue ballpoint pen, the artist gave himself over to the automatic workings of his hand, drawing unusual shapes that recalled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or single-celled organisms as viewed through a microscope. These curious forms would be used to construct the building-blocks of the artist’s next great series—L’Hourloupe. Essentially a nonsense word invented by the artist, “L’Hourloupe” combines several different terms, including “hurler” (“to shout”), “hululer” (“to howl”) and “loup” (“wolf”). Dubuffet enjoyed the onomatopoeic appeal of “L’Hourloupe,” but also admitted its darker connotations, since the series was also inspired by a short horror story written by Guy de Maupassant in 1887 called Le Horla. The artist addressed the mystery of L’Hourloupe’s origins in 1974, saying, “In French it calls to mind some object or personage of fairy tale-like and grotesque state and… also something tragically growling and menacing” (J. Dubuffet, “Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, Vol. 25: Arbres, murs, architectures,” Lausanne, Weber, 1974, p. 16).
Constituting his largest and longest-running body of work, L’Hourloupe occupied the artist for twelve years, proving to be a fruitful language with which he could express his own personal perception of reality. His paintings of the mid-sixties are populated with the quotidian objects from which the Hourloupe series emerged. Items such as scissors, chairs, beds, wheelbarrows, cups of tea, and other ordinary objects began to emerge in large-scale paintings where the jigsaw puzzle forms coalesced to form a lively, writhing arrangement. Collectively, these paintings are known as the Ustensiles Utopiques, and they provide the precursor to the series of painted sculptures to which Tasse de Thé I belongs. In these, and similar works, Dubuffet wanted to call attention to the quiet visual poetry of ordinary things. In a statement prepared for his retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1960, the artist explained his concept: “I wanted to show them that things they consider ugly and have forgotten to see are really sublime wonders…I present my works in a posture of celebration. It is a lucid celebration, with all smokescreens and camouflage eliminated once and for all” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in M. Glimcher, Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York 1987, p. 182).
In Tasse de Thé I, Dubuffet cut and spliced the three-dimensional tea cup and its shiny surface into a series of fragmented planes, a technique pioneered in the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. The viewer peers down into the cup of tea as if from an extreme overhead angle, which has then been elongated and stretched to fit within the six-foot tall proportions of the mostly flat surface. This real-life impossibility is made possible through the artist’s innovative new visual language pioneered by L’Hourloupe. It eschews traditional methods of artmaking in favor of a more elemental, raw experience, a move that had been set into motion two decades earlier, when he began to explore a phenomenon he called art brut. In looking at the maligned art practices of mental patients, psychics, “outsider” cultures and children, Dubuffet sought to tap into a deeper, more immediate and universal experience. “It is the unreal that enchants me now,” the artist said. “I have an appetite for the non-true, a false life, an anti-world; my works are now on the path to the unreal” (J. Dubuffet, “Cité fantoche,” in Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, Vol. II, Paris, 1967, pp. 188-189). In Tasse de Thé I, he forces the viewer to see established subject matter—and even everyday objects—with new eyes, imparting a sense of childlike wonder to an otherwise ordinary cup of tea.