His "Group of Four Trees," 43 feet high, billows over New York's Chase Manhattan Plaza, enveloping visitors in its warmth, wit and exuberance. Other massive public sculptures -- craggy figurative forms molded from acrylic resin, and painted white with black outlines -- all built since the 1970s, serve as joyful exclamation points in cityscapes across the country -- Chicago, Houston, Louisville, San Francisco, Los Angeles -- as well as Paris.
Once seen, these works by French artist Jean Dubuffet -- who died Sunday in Paris at age 83 -- are never forgotten.
Nor are the squat, fat, mangled figures, deformed by nervous black outlines, that fill his earlier, angrier paintings, prints and posters. These works typify Dubuffet's distinctive style, known as "Art Brut," or "raw art," a term he coined, and a goal he has pursued since the early '40s. He even formed a great collection of Art Brut by the insane, the imprisoned or artists otherwise outside of mainstream culture, and it is now housed in an extraordinary little museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
And since the end of World War II, he has commanded worldwide attention -- and controversy -- for the raw power and passion of such works.
Yet the late public sculptures probably constitute his most important legacy, and it is a legacy Washington will not share, though it had the chance.
Dubuffet worked for more than a year before the East Building's opening in 1978 on a model for a major sculpture to stand at the gallery's entrance, where the giant Henry Moore bronze now stands.
It is the closest thing to a sculptor's dream site, and that Dubuffet not only hoped for it but counted upon it is recorded forever in some unforgettable film, part of a documentary the gallery produced on the creation of the East Building. In it, Dubuffet's face slowly dissolves from high-voltage excitement into baffled disbelief, as he is told by gallery officials that his multifigured "Welcome Parade" would not be built.
The reasons have never been made clear, and yesterday National Gallery director J. Carter Brown, speaking through 20th-century art curator Jack Cowart, passed the message that it was a subject "better left untalked about."
Dubuffet's consolation prize, which he accepted with grace, was a temporary showing of the half-scale version of the figures (they were meant to be 20 feet high) in a pool on the Constitution Avenue side of the building.
The consolation prize for the National Gallery?
None. To this day, it does not own a major work by Dubuffet, according to Cowart. To which he said yesterday, "Alas."
Those figures were offered for sale to the National Gallery, and turned down, according to one source. They were, however, quickly snapped up by a foreign government then in the process of building a large museum, which the source identified as the since-fallen government of the late shah of Iran. At present, they remain in storage somewhere in Europe.
"Dubuffet was a major philosopher, and he took these things in stride," says Arnold Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery and a longtime friend and his New York dealer. But the original group of 12 figures made as models for the East Building have served as the basis for major public sculptures elsewhere, including a pair of figures in front of the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville.
This was not Dubuffet's only disappointment -- or battle. He fought many, including a much publicized one over a sculpture built for the Renault car factory outside Paris, which now stands triumphant after a lawsuit.
Today, his works may seem tame, though they continue to inspire originality in others, including the Neo-Expressionists and graffiti artists.
"For me, he is the single, and surely the most important artist to have emerged from France after the end of World War II," said Guggenheim Deputy Director Diane Waldman. "I would rank him on a par with the major figures of the New York School, like De Kooning."
In describing his own art, Dubuffet said: "Personally, I am not interested in what is exceptional, and this extends to all domains. I feed on the banal . . . What is picturesque disturbs me."
Born in 1901 in Le Havre, France, Dubuffet attended art classes from the age of 15, and studied briefly at the Academie Julien in Paris before quitting art to study linguistics, philosophy, literature and music. After military service in 1923, he stopped painting again for 10 years, returning to Le Havre to enter the family wine business. In 1942, he began devoting himself wholly to art.
There were notable exhibitions from then on, mostly of paintings, shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1947, at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s, and at the Guggenheim in 1973. His works are in museums all over the world, including the Hirshhorn, which now has 16 on view in an advance salute to the large Dubuffet show due to open at the Maeght Foundation in St. Paul de Vence, France, in July.
An innovator, both in terms of his imagery and his techniques, which included painting with sand and sponges, and working in gold and silver leaf, he was the only artist to come to worldwide prominence out of postwar France, where most artists failed to throw off the pervasive influence of Picasso.
"He was absolutely out-of-touch with Picasso," says Pierre Matisse, who had been his first American dealer, "and developed his own theory of painting, trying to recover not the sophistication of the Paris School, but the freshness of how children would express themselves.
"When I bought my first paintings by him in 1947," recalled Matisse, son of the painter Henri Matisse, "I showed them to my father in Paris as a discovery. He said 'I like his color very much: he is a great colorist, better than Soutine. But as far as his figures are concerned, his idea of representation of human beings -- drawing them as children would -- that is totally out of my reach.' He could not understand it."
"He was larger than life," said Glimcher. "I though he'd go on forever. It seems impossible that this brilliance and energy are no longer there. He realized most of his aims in life: made beautiful what was banal and awkward, and made beauty banal. It's been an influential life."