Born in December 1919, the French painter Pierre Soulages turns ninety this year and to mark this prestigious occasion, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is celebrating his life and work by hosting his largest ever retrospective opening on October 14th. A vast show which will be the artist's third major retrospective hosted by the museum, this exhibition spans the seven decades in which Soulages has consistently dedicated himself to an exploration of the material properties of paint and repeatedly pushed back the boundaries of what it is possible for this mysterious and mercurial material to express.
From the 1940s onwards, when he first began to emerge as the leading light of a new group of purely abstract painters, known as the Ecole de Paris, Soulages' painting has been dominated by the artists predilection for the colour black. Black is the colour that dominates and determines the vast majority of Soulages' paintings. In his hands it is used as a striking and forceful establisher of marks, boundaries and contrasts and as a shiny, plastic, viscous and reflective material that articulates both the nature and play of light while also appearing to trap space and time within the surface of the picture plane. Seeing light and darkness as not only two of the fundamental elements of life but also as two interdependent entities that cannot be separated, Soulages use of thick black material paint also carries an important existential significance within his work.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as this painting from 1961 illustrates, Soulages' primary interest in his painting was with a formal display of contrasts. His broad, heavy and dynamic strokes of black paint have here been used in a way that heightened the colour and radiance of the painting's ground to the point where the work takes on an almost sculptural play of space, light and material. In order to make these sweeping and dramatic planar brushstrokes so expressive of a material force interacting with empty space, Soulages frequently constructed his own brushes and painting tools. These ranged from wide stiff brushes to a range of palette knives, spatulas and even his own invention of the lame, - a flat rubber tool - all of which were aimed at producing a distinct, dynamic and opaque material mark. Through the considered interaction of the artist, the marks made with these unique tools articulate a pictorial play that Soulages has described as time captured in matter. Time he said of these works, becomes immobilized in an amalgam of signs made from raw brushstrokes. Movement was no longer depicted, but instead became tension, compressed motion, that is to say dynamism. (Pierre Soulages cited in Pierre Soulages L'Oeuvre 1947-90, P. Daix and J. Johnson Sweeney, Neuchâtel, 1991, p. 33.)