Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground, the least well publicized thing on at MoMA now, is a discreet, quiet show you might otherwise miss. The show is full of gorgeous work, almost entirely black and white, graphite and ink drawings and prints. A few small beautiful sculptures swagger in at the end and some canvases embellish without stealing anything from the works on paper.
Half way through this show I found Evolving Portrait, 1952 (Ink on Paper). This person, round headed and bulbous, is no more a portrait of a single person than Dubuffet’s later l’Hourloupe figures. The amoeba-like head acts as foreground for blips, sketches and scratches. Hair, ear and eye all appear. Dubuffet’s amoeba man is full of lines and blotches. He is ugly; possibly leprous. All of the marks of life and aging are laid bare until the whole head is a festering mass. Every bit of this person that we can see is blemish.
Why is this the piece that I single out among all the many wonderful things in this show (and it is an excellent show)? I have never seen a portrait that wholly embodies the life and death of a single human form. No portrait that I can think of tells this story. There is no Arcimboldo gimmick or German Expressionist angles to simulate aging or psychological pain. For me, and this is as much a Rorschach moment as I can imagine, this disgusting face of one person hurtling towards their demise is complete.
Next to the Evolving Portrait is a Table Laden with Objects, 1951 (Ink on Paper). There is very little different about the overall composition between the two works. The table is static containing more patterns and composition hinting at objects. What isn’t there is the sense of movement through time. Accumulation, rather than aging, is what the Table represents. In the face of a person, the Evolving Portrait is not death but rather all that happens in life.
– Jeff Bergman November 2014