Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet, currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, focuses on two events seminal to the introduction of art brut to an American audience. The first was a 1951 speech given by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to the Arts Club of Chicago entitled “Anticultural Positions.” Displayed in full at the museum, the speech is a kind of manifesto for the creative field Dubuffet had been constructing since 1945, arguing the superior authenticity and raw creativity of works made by children, psychiatric patients, so-called primitive artists, and other anonymous individuals who were “uncontaminated by artistic culture.” The second event was the loan of some 1,200 art brut works from Dubuffet’s collection to his friend Alfonso Ossorio in 1952, who displayed them in his East Hampton mansion, The Creeks, for the next decade. Ossorio was a wealthy artist and collector in his own right, and The Creeks was a New York art-world hotspot in the 1950s and ’60s, frequented by influential figures such as Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Harold Rosenberg, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, to name just a few. In addition to the nearly 200 works of art, most of which were part of the original loan, Dubuffet’s letters to Ossorio and photographs of the art brut works hung in Ossorio’s home are also on view in the exhibition.
Adolf Wolfli. Untitled (Saint Adolph Bitten in the Leg by the Snake), 1921; colored pencil and pencil on paper;
26-3/4 x 20-1/8 in.; Waldau Clinic, Bern, Switzerland. Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo: Marie Humair.
The importance of this documentation is hard to overestimate. In addition to providing insight into Dubuffet’s early process and philosophy in formulating art brut as a new aesthetic paradigm, it also chronicles the moment when the seeds for what would later become outsider art were first planted in the United States. Many of the artists included in Art Brut in America, like Aloise Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, and Adolf Wolfli, are now well known to American audiences through the robust and active network of outsider-art galleries, fairs, and publications. Through revisiting and partially re-creating art brut’s American debut, the exhibition also inevitably tells outsider art’s genesis story. While it is undeniable that the outsider-art genre was built from art brut’s blueprints, and inherited the slippery criteria for inclusion and false dichotomies that plagued its predecessor, it is crucial to remember the differences between the two fields, in particular the historical context that informed Dubuffet’s motives for collecting in the first place.
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