- Jean Dubuffet
- Vache à l'herbage
- signed and dated 54; signed, titled and dated août 54 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 35 1/4 by 45 in. 89.5 by 114.3 cm.
The Colin Family Collection, New York (acquired from the above)
Christie's, New York, November 15, 2006, Lot 27 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Pittsburgh, The Carnegie Institute, The 1955 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, October - December 1955, pl. 26, no. 82, illustrated (titled Purple Cow)
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, The Colin Collection: Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, April - May 1960, n.p., no. 98, illustrated
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Jean Dubuffet: 1942-1960, December 1960 - February 1961, p. 225, no. 132 (checklist) and p. 314, pl. 60, illustrated
New York, Stephen Hahn Gallery, Vaches, October - November 1972
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective, April - December 1973, p. 109, no. 71, illustrated (New York) and p. 72, no. 80, illustrated (Paris)
Berlin, Akademie der Künste; Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts; and Cologne, Josef-Haubrich-Kunsthalle, Dubuffet: Retrospektive, September 1980 - March 1981, p. 157, no. 142, illustrated in color and p. 339, no. 142, illustrated
Lorenza Trucchi, Jean Dubuffet, Rome, 1965, p. 183, no. 159, illustrated
Max Loreau, Ed., Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, Fascicule X: Vaches - Petites statues de la vie précaire, Paris, 1969, p. 79, no. 105, illustrated
Cows entered Dubuffet’s oeuvre previously for a brief period from 1943-44. However it was not until a decade later, when Dubuffet’s wife Lili was recovering from illness in a sanatorium outside of Paris, that he was drawn back to this theme. Journeying daily through the rural outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand, Dubuffet reveled in the simplicity of nature and the candor of the creatures he encountered. As the artist recalled several year later: “I became preoccupied with country subjects - fields, grassy pastures, cattle, carts and the work of the fields - all things I had treated with enthusiasm in 1943 and 1944. As formerly, I loved spending hours watching the cows and afterwards drawing them from memory, or even, but much more rarely, from life... The sight of this animal gives me an inexhaustible sense of well-being because of the atmosphere of calm and serenity it seems to generate." (Jean Dubuffet, "Vaches, Herbe, Frondaisons," in Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York, 1962, pp. 96-103)
Crucially re-imagined from memory, the cow embodies innocence as a source of reverie and speaks back to Rousseau’s defamation of modern civilization as corrupting to the human spirit, valorizing instead a mode of existence based on intuition over rationality. Thus the cow, in its whimsical and folkloric constitution, represents a release from the rigid formalities of urban life in post-war Paris. Characteristically so, Dubuffet approaches the subject with a sense of child-like wonder, drawing from the aesthetics of outsider artists; the untrained visions of freedom and emotive energy which informed the base theory of Art Brut. Through a wildly wandering sense of irreverent delineation Dubuffet’s playful scrawl is at once analytic and mystical, projecting a highly personal and consciously naïve vision.
Through a subject that at first appears prosaic, Dubuffet tears apart the rules of painting, in favor of a sensual rendering that privileges psychological intensity in the Surrealist vein. The artist flattens the picture plane, eschewing intelligible markers of depth and fusing the cow with its pulsating surround in order to “animate the surface,” letting it “speak its own language and not an artificial language of three-dimensional space which is not proper to it...” (the artist quoted in Hubert Damisch, Ed., Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, Paris, 1976, p. 74) This modernistic flattening recalls the artist's earlier 'Landscapes of the Mind' and foreshadows the later Texturologies which take two-dimensionality to an extreme end.
Dubuffet creates a profoundly textural surface, embracing a density that mirrors the corporal nature of fertile earth. The crackling of enamels and self-made oil emulsions render painting as an almost shamanistic act, building up successive layers that activate the surface with the conflicts of creation: "An artwork is all the more enthralling the more of an adventure it has been, particularly if it bears the mark of this adventure, and if one can discern all the struggles that occurred between the artist and the intractabilities of the materials. As if he himself did not know where it would all lead." (Jean Dubuffet, "Notes for the Well-Read," in Marc Glimcher, Ed., Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York, 1987, p. 69) Creating the effect of dried mud, Dubuffet enables a perfect symbiosis of the farm creature and the earth which sustains it.
As a prevalent motif of classical mythology, Picasso had reused the symbol of the bull in the tradition of the animal as heroic metaphor, emphasizing a hyper-masculine virility. Dubuffet’s turn to its female counterpart – more readily associated with agriculture than epic legends – artfully deconstructs such bravado. As Robert Hughes commented in 1993, “The funniest and most agrestic of all his paintings were, undoubtedly, the cows – a snook cocked at Picasso’s heroic Spanish Bulls. Kippered there on the canvas in their dense yet somehow airy paint, yearning, dumb and absurdly coquettish, they are among the most memorable animals in modern art." (Robert Hughes, “An Outlaw Who Loved Laws”, Time Magazine, 26 July 1993, p. 63) Dubuffet takes an irreverently extreme focus on the creature, swelling its form to fill the entirety of the picture frame, counter to the landscape tradition in which agrarian creatures were used as mere punctuation to Arcadian vistas. As a subject for art, Dubuffet embraces the farcical character of the cow and in this disconcerting sense of comedy he finds kinship with Absurdist writers such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. Through the creation of spectacle and bizarre animal characterization we are compelled to reassess the isolation that informs the modern human condition and seek ironic solace in the comfort of a familiar creature.