Pierre Soulages: Beyond black

In memory of Pierre Soulages, who has died at the age of 102, we revisit a feature published in 2019, in which Deborah Wilk explores the artist’s career — and his mastery of the painterly gesture

Pierre Soulages visits the museum which bears his name, in Rodez, France

Pierre Soulages on a visit to the museum that bears his name, in Rodez, France, 2014. Photo: Patrick Aventurier / Getty Images

If art aficionados ever wonder how the work of great Abstract Expressionists whose careers were cut short might have developed had they survived the Post-modern moment, they would do well to consider the work of Pierre Soulages. Carrying the moniker of France’s most successful living artist, his mid-20th-century paintings can fetch seven-figure prices.

Like the Cuban-born Carmen Herrera (aged 104), who rarely departs from the minimal, Soulages has mined his project of almost entirely black compositions for more than 50 years. He has delved so deeply into the well of painting that he has emerged with a conceptual purity that elegantly defies the medium’s inherent mess.

‘He is absolutely extraordinary,’ effuses his New York dealer Dominique Levy, who in 2014 hung the artist’s first US show in 10 years at her eponymous Uptown gallery. ‘He’s followed one journey all his life, which has led him more and more towards the light. Despite the fact that they are black, the paintings are all about capturing the light.’ 

Of his development as an artist, Levy says, ‘He starts very gestural with, of course, the black at the core and goes through a journey, an extremely long journey during which he never ever stands still, all the time renewing himself. He gets rid of the classic gesture for another type of gesture.’

Captivated by the ancient

Born in Rodez in southern France in 1919, Soulages was captivated as a boy by the region’s menhirs: enigmatic, carved standing stones dating to the late Neolithic era. Aged 17, his name was first noted in Rodez’s Musée de Fenaille not as an artist, but as the discoverer of a cache of pottery shards and arrowheads near a prehistoric tomb.

He was indignant when a teacher derided the simplicity of the stark carvings in Sainte-Foy de Conques, a famous Romanesque abbey church close to his hometown. The experience of standing beneath this 11th-century building’s huge barrel vault was what first inspired Soulages to become a painter. In 1986, he would have the honour of designing its new windows, for which he developed a new kind of glass with variable translucency.

Pierre Soulages (1919-2022), Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959, painted on 23 December 1959. 73¼ x 56¼ in (186 x 143 cm). Sold for $10,600,000 on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. © Pierre Soulages, DACS 2022

Just as inspirational were the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940, and, later, the even older cave art found in Chauvet en Ardèche in 1994. 

Soulages’s own palette — as in the work shown above — has scarcely deviated from the rich, elemental reds, blacks and ochres used by the ancient artists who worked in the darkness of the caves. For Soulages, such rough-hewn creations are far more moving than the most elegant mimetic accomplishments of Classical art.

‘I have always revolted against this foolishly evolutionary conception of art,’ says Soulages, ‘which leads one to believe that there are at first awkward gropings, then that technique becomes more and more skilful and mastered, and that finally we arrive at the apotheosis of a perfectly imitative art. It must be said and repeated: there is no progress in art, only techniques that are perfected and which can lead you where you do not want to go. The painters of Lascaux or Chauvet brought art to a summit from the very start.’

Soulages began with the gesture

As Abstract Expressionism exploded from New York and gave rise to offshoots across the globe such as Gutai in Japan and Dansaekhwa in South Korea, Soulages, whose early work anticipated the movement, was one of a group of post-war Europeans who fully embraced it.

He also enjoyed recognition beyond his native France. ‘Post-war European art was at a height in the 1950s, and Soulages was at the centre of that moment,’ says independent curator Karen T. Butler. ‘His early works flaunt his interest in materiality and mark-making. That is also reflected in his titles, which tell you what it is: the kind of painting, dimensions, and the date. They are not symbolic.’

James Johnson Sweeney, an early champion of Soulages as director of the Guggenheim in the 1950s, wrote that ‘a painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously — struck and held’.

As black as snow

Soulages never paints ‘from his head’ with something already in mind, but rather responds to the paint in front of him, working directly with its viscosity, translucency and colour to build a ‘sign’ that can be apprehended in an instant.

‘My pictures are poetic objects capable of receiving what each person is ready to invest according to the ensemble of forms and colours that is proposed to him,’ he explains. ‘As for me, I don’t know what I am looking for when painting.’

The artist frequently recalls a childhood episode when he was spreading black ink upon white paper. A friend of his older sister asked what he was painting; she laughed when he replied ‘snow’.

He now believes that he had been trying to render the white paper more white, luminous and snow-like via its contrast with the black ink. Such intuitive sensitivity informs all of Soulages’s mature work.

Soulages and the Abstract Expressionists

The year 1957 saw Soulages garnering major international recognition, receiving the first prize at the International Exhibition in Tokyo jointly with Sam Francis, as well as the Windsor prize in Paris. Significantly, the year also marked the artist’s first trip to New York, in November, for his solo exhibition at the acclaimed Kootz Gallery.

Pierre Soulages (1919-2022), Peinture 195 x 155 cm., 7 février 1957, painted in 1957

Pierre Soulages (1919-2022), Peinture 195 x 155 cm., 7 février 1957, painted in 1957. 76¾ x 61⅛ in (195 x 155 cm). Sold for £3,666,500 on 13 February 2014 at Christie’s in London. © Pierre Soulages, DACS 2022

In New York, Soulages received major receptions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, as well as being warmly received by local artists. He was invited to visit the studios of Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline.

When Motherwell told him that Abstract Expressionism could only truly be understood by Americans, Soulages countered that, ‘An art should be understood, loved and shared by anyone, anywhere in the world... I believe that in art, there are fundamentally only personal adventures that go beyond the individual, and even beyond his culture.’

Although he was friends with Motherwell and Kline, Soulages feels little stylistic kinship with the American painters to whom he has sometimes been compared.

Major recognition in the 1960s

Hailed on both sides of the Atlantic, Soulages embarked upon a string of significant exhibitions during the 1960s. In 1966, his retrospective at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, curated by James Johnson Sweeney, opened, as did as a presentation of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Pierre Soulages (1919-2022), Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 16 octobre 1966, painted in 1966. 63¾ x 51 in (162 x 130 cm). Sold for £1,811,250 on 6 March 2019 at Christie’s in London. © Pierre Soulages, DACS 2022

The work above made its debut in 1967 and was subsequently included in the artist’s 1968 touring exhibition, which originated at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Late work — Ultra-black

In April 1979 Soulages had a revelation that would transform his work for ever. The artist was in his studio in Sète in southern France working on a painting swallowed up by black. Up until that point he had used black for its power of expression in contrast with other colours.

Pierre Soulages (1919-2022), Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 mars 2009, 2009. 227 x 306 cm (overall: 89⅜ x 120½ in). Sold for €2,407,500 on 7 June 2018 at Christie’s in Paris. © Pierre Soulages, DACS 2022

Unhappy with the painting, he went to bed. When he arose next morning, he viewed it differently. ‘I saw that it was no longer black that gave meaning to the painting but the reflection of light on dark surfaces,’ he says. ‘Where it was layered the light danced, and where it was flat it lay still. A new space had come into being.’ He eventually named this new space outre-noir  (‘ultra-black’).

‘They’re all about the mask, the presence, the weight of painting,’ says Levy of the outre-noir  paintings. ‘But Soulages is also a sculptor in a way.’

Pierre Soulages (1919-2022), Peinture 222 x 222cm, 15 mai 1987, painted in 1987. Oil on canvas in two parts. Overall: 87⅜ x 87⅜ in (222 x 222 cm). Sold for £2,771,250 on 4 October 2019 at Christie’s in London. © Pierre Soulages, DACS 2022

Soulages’s journey to a successful painting is not always easy

In the 1950s, Soulages often placed his canvases on the ground and worked above them, using a knife or spatula to scrape the layer of paint while still fresh to reveal layers of vivid hues.

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To this day, if a composition is not working Soulages incinerates the canvas. Only when he feels that there is something in there that the viewer can respond to does he persist, pausing between each stroke as he pursues a unified and dynamic whole.

In 2014, Musée Soulages opened in Rodez, France, Soulages’s birthplace. Spanning his entire oeuvre, the museum holds nearly 500 works donated by him and his wife, Colette.

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