'While he is applying [preparatory gel] in large brush strokes to the canvas, we talk about what has just happened. The first subject is the choice of canvas, a canvas of a slightly unusual format, almost square, which inhibits any effects of false elegance. This choice not only relates to Soulages' height and weight, but also to his mood today, to the colour of the sky, and perhaps to the fact that we are together, two old friends. However, his usual habit is to work in solitude... Soulages never plans ahead when he begins a painting. He creates a situation with a canvas and some colours, always a very small number of colours. Or it could be said that he allows himself opportunities; he opens a door to chance. Then he manages to make the most of the situation, to play his hand. This works or does not work. The painting is created or is not created' (R. Vailland discussing the present work, in 'Comment travaille Pierre Soulages', in L'Oeil, no. 77, May 1961, p. 46).
'He surrenders himself to a kind of dance. Between each application of paint (black), he takes four steps back, four steps forward, which puts the whole body in play, even the arm that draws in advance the movement of the brush (or even the sole of a shoe) on the canvas, and even his torso which leans, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left' (R. Vailland discussing the present work, in 'Comment travaille Pierre Soulages', in L'Oeil, no. 77, May 1961, p. 46).
Black bars of glistening paint traverse the surface of Peinture 202 x 156 cm, 27 mars 1961, their viscosity creating an intense play of light. They seem liquid, vibrant, even, perfectly encapsulating the idiosyncratic character that lies at the heart of the paintings of the great French veteran of abstraction, Pierre Soulages, who was recognised in 2009- 10 with an extensive, acclaimed retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Peinture 202 x 156 cm, 27 mars 1961 is unique amongst Soulages' works in that the artist created it with a witness, Roger Vailland - the first owner of the picture - who then published an insightful article in L'Oeil later in the same year discussing the process.
Peinture 202 x 156 cm, 27 mars 1961 dates from the period at the beginning of the 1960s when Soulages was gaining increasing critical acclaim. It was during this period that his work was being exhibited on a more prominent international footing, while his pictures had also begun to be acquired for national collections in his native France. Although he worked apart from many of his contemporaries in France: while many of them focussed on the use of colour, Soulages concentrated and distilled his rigorous palette and in particular his use of the black which would later come to absorb the entirety of the surfaces of his pictures. This results in the epic quality of the marks that articulate the surface of Peinture 202 x 156 cm, 27 mars 1961 and which are thrust all the more into relief by their contrast with the almost white surface at the lower left.
Vailland's article, 'Comment travaille Pierre Soulages' (pp. 40-47 and 72, in L'Oeil, no. 77, May 1961), explained the genesis of Peinture 202 x 156 cm, 27 mars 1961 step by step. On arriving in the afternoon of the 27 March that year, Vailland found the artist working on another picture with which he was unhappy. He then brought out a relatively small canvas, contemplated it, and then saying, 'This afternoon I feel on good form. This format is too small' he replaced it and brought out a blank canvas over two metres tall (the artist himself is roughly 190 cm. tall; ibid., p. 43). He then began to scrub the canvas, which he explained was too greasy and also allowed him to get to know the surface more intimately. Subsequently, the artist took up a position between an array of wooden and glass tables, on several of which he mixed paint and also kept the various utensils, including baton-like implements of various sizes made of hardened rubber. Thus he had an arena within which to work.
Soulages mixed the various paints with incredible care, often using the glass surface of one of the tables in order to better judge the effect. For instance, he felt that the ochre-white had too much of a pink hue while he tempered what he felt was too much red in his 'Mars Orange' with blue. Thus, while the final appearance of Peinture 202 x 156 cm, 27 mars 1961 can be seen to consist mainly of black and white, with the occasional oil-like areas of orangé de mars glimpsing through the thick dark strokes as though they had emanated from them, Soulages was incredibly conscientious about the colours he used. This recalls the practice of his American contemporary, Franz Kline, who claimed that despite having a full range of colours on his palette while he worked, having them available, it was still black and white that suggested themselves to him (when the two artists met at the Whitney in 1957, Kline is reported to have approached the French painter and asked, 'Are you Soulages?' On receiving confirmation, he turned to his friends and exclaimed of his far taller contemporary, 'He's lucky - he resembles his painting!' (S. Kuthy (ed.), Pierre Soulages: Celébration de la lumière, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Berne, 1999, p. 26).
The similarity with Kline, the diminutive Abstract Expressionist, is striking yet is ultimately only superficial, as the concerns and processes of both painters remain strides apart, as indeed does the finished effect of their works. While Kline's black and white ciphers have a mysterious authority, a rhythmic sense of significance, in Soulages' work there is a play with light, especially in the gleaming surface of his black paint which reveals other concerns. His painting is an accumulation of actions, yet he was not concerned with recording his own movements or expressing his state of mind in the manner of the Action Painters: 'My painting does not tell the story of my dance,' he explained to Vailland, who had commented on his fleet movements before the canvas. 'I cover and discover the surfaces. I do not draw lines where the people looking at my picture will once more find the movements of my hand... I am telling nothing' (P. Soulages, quoted in Vailland, op. cit., 1961, p. 72). As Vailland himself concluded, 'At 20:03, he had created an object made of canvas, of word and of oil paint, and destined to be looked at. This object says nothing. It bears no 'title.' Thankfully it delivers no 'message': let us leave messages to prophets and postmen. It only engages the artist in terms of himself and his art, but does so absolutely, and that is crucial' (ibid., p. 72).