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The many masks of modern art

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Jean Dubuffet deserves a verbal bouquet. Not so much because he's France's best living painter, or because he's one of our few living ''old masters,'' but because he's currently painting with more verve and passion than most artists fifty and sixty years his junior.

His most recent exhibition was a riot of color, and much more dynamic and alive than any exhibition I've seen by the newer neo-expressionists. But then, that should come as no surprise. Dubuffet has been kicking up his painterly heels for the past forty years, and alternately shocking and delighting us with his wildly imaginative and profoundly iconoclastic creations.

America's first encounter with his work in the late 1940s left some of us intrigued and challenged, but most of us deeply offended and enraged. It is difficult to understand after all these years just what the fuss was all about, but his paintings were reviled at that time as obscene and immoral, and as final proof of twentieth-century decadence. Dubuffet seemed to have stepped beyond the bounds of decency. Pollock and Kline could at least be dismissed as pointless doodlers, but he could not. His starkly frontal, tough, and heavily textured paintings seemed like a slap in the face to decent America and to our humanist tradition - and we reacted precisely as though we had been physically assaulted.

What offended us most was his apparent perception of man as bestial and brutal, and without any of the spiritual graces we held so dear. And the fact that these images were executed in a style that resembled nothing so much as the scribblings of the insane or the hopelessly childish was more than we could bear.

How things have changed! Those very paintings that offended us so deeply over thirty years ago now hang in many of our major museums and private collections, and are now seen by many as among the most thoroughly delightful and special works of the entire post-World War II period.

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