Julia Robinson on Jean Dupuy

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AS A YOUNG PAINTER in postwar Paris, Jean Dupuy witnessed the rise of musique concrète and electronic music while showing regularly and frequenting new galleries such as Denise René, Iris Clert, etc. By 1960, his close friendships were less with painters than with sound poets and performance-oriented artists—some from Nouveau Réalisme, others, then unclassifiable, soon to join Fluxus—including François Dufrêne, Brion Gysin, Bernard Heidsieck, and Robert Filliou. Dupuy persevered ambivalently with painting into the 1960s before creating a breakout series of ironic abstractions verging on Pop. Based on projected enlargements of elongated drips seemingly arrested in midair and transposed in acrylic onto canvas, these painterly quips questioned the fetishization of the expressive mark in the then-dominant abstrait lyrique. The travesty was not lost on the guardians of that increasingly compromised “style,” including Dupuy’s erstwhile mentor Jean Degottex, who never got over it. In 1967, Dupuy tossed all his paintings into the Seine and departed for New York.

As fate would have it, Dupuy, like his compatriot Marcel Duchamp, entered the New York art-world spotlight on the strength of one work singled out in a major public showing. Submitted to a competition held by Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), Heart Beats Dust, 1968 (later retitled Cone Pyramid [Heart Beats Dust]), again featured airborne pigment—this time without painting. Inside a windowed chamber, bloodred particles rested atop a membrane stretched over a hidden speaker. Outside, a stethoscope offered to visitors amplified their pulses, catapulting the “dust” into a mesmerizing, ephemeral sculpture, lit to emphasize the eponymous shape. The work, built with help from engineer Ralph Martel, appeared in two 1968 exhibitions in New York—“The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” at the Museum of Modern Art and “Some More Beginnings” at the Brooklyn Museum. Winning the E.A.T. contest for the “most inventive use of new technology,” a bemused Dupuy was sought out for print and TV interviews and recruited by Ileana Sonnabend to join her gallery. Sonnabend would provide support for Dupuy’s future “technology” works, such as the great “Paris-Bordeaux” installations, 1970–80, whose powerful, room-scale sound Dupuy captured by dropping a microphone down the toilet of a train hurtling between the two cities. Fewafuel, 1970, resonates today for its politicization of an opportunity offered by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Art and Technology” initiative (1966–71), which yoked art to the military-industrial complex at the height of the Vietnam War. Paired with Indiana-based manufacturing behemoth Cummins, whose diesel engines had dominated the military market for decades, Dupuy had the company make him a functioning but useless engine. Seeing the motor running at full tilt but not going anywhere or doing anything, viewers grasped the subversive intention. A Pyrex viewing chamber exposed the pollution—toxic black diesel particles—that Cummins engines were spewing into the atmosphere. Embarrassing the company and the museum, Fewafuel was removed from the show shortly after the opening.

Artists remember Dupuy’s New York years for the many group exhibitions and performance programs he organized between 1973 and 1983 at the Kitchen, Judson Church, 112 Greene Street, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among other venues. Each event was structured by a given formal constraint, which became a signature premise both of the collective activity and of Dupuy’s own art. The “About 405 East 13th Street” exhibitions took the architecture of his loft as the prompt, generating smart, spare interventions. Gordon Matta-Clark focused on the space’s numerous windows—opaque under decades of grime—and cleaned just one pane. Another dispositif, Dupuy’s infamous lazy-Susan-style “revolving stage,” which limited artists’ actions to its nearly three-foot diameter, prompted Simone Forti to show her first hologram, Angel, 1976. The choice was brilliant, the stage’s revolutions echoing both the in-the-round filming that caught her movements on the Plexiglas cylinder and the circumambulation required to see the image on the hologram as sculpture. The breadth of participants in Dupuy’s events—Laurie Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Smith, Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas, Hannah Wilke, Alison Knowles, Guy de Cointet, George Maciunas, Philip Glass, and Richard Serra—remains remarkable. Clearly, Dupuy’s events were not Fluxus, yet they were the only programs Maciunas contributed to outside of the collective. Notable, on this score, is a 1976 performance Dupuy staged in TriBeCa with his life partner, Olga Adorno (who had starred in Robert Whitman’s and Claes Oldenburg’s early Happenings and in Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Beautiful Women, 1964): The two approached each other on the street, stripped, and put on each other’s clothes. Maciunas chose this piece, Clothesexchange, for his 1978 wedding, relishing the opportunity to become the bride.

In the final analysis, of course, an artist’s place in history rarely rests on collaborations; it is determined, rather, by the significance, quality, and coherence of the independent oeuvre. By this measure, the body of work that establishes Dupuy’s legacy awaits a broader acknowledgment that will certainly come; here, I refer to his extensive series of anagrammatic paintings based on the linguistic-chromatic system he invented and elaborated over four decades. Taking paper or canvas, Dupuy bisected his field, Large Glass–style—the upper part containing a palette of words for colors he would distribute poetically, without remainder, in the lower part. Post-Duchampian and post-Conceptual, Dupuy’s anagrammatic paintings transport the reader along multisensory passages, conveying tastes, scents, and events, disclosing his ever-renewable elemental code in the process of its kaleidoscopic illumination.

Julia Robinson is a curator and art historian who teaches in the Department of Art History at New York University.

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