If art aficionados ever wonder how the work of great Abstract Expressionists whose careers were cut short might have developed had they survived the Postmodern moment, they would do well to consider the work of Pierre Soulages. Carrying the moniker of France’s most successful living artist — whose mid 20th-century paintings can fetch seven-figure prices — Soulages, 97, is a member of a league of nonagenarian artists who have delved so deeply into the well of painting that they have emerged with a conceptual purity that elegantly defies the medium’s inherent mess.
Like the American Marcia Hafif (who is only an honorary member of the club at 88) and the Cuban-born Carmen Herrera (aged 102), who rarely depart from the minimal, Soulages has mined his project of entirely black compositions for more than 50 years.
‘He is absolutely extraordinary,’ effuses his New York dealer Dominique Levy, who hung the artist’s first US show in 10 years at her eponymous Uptown gallery, in tandem with Emmanuel Perrotin, last year. ‘He’s followed one journey all his life, which has led him more and more toward the light. Despite the fact that they are black, the paintings are all about capturing the light,’ she says.
But before Soulages reached his current investigations of what he calls ‘outrénoir’, or ‘beyond black’, he began with the gesture. As Abstract Expressionism exploded from the New York scene across the globe to spawn movements such as Gutai in Japan and Danseakhwa in Korea, Soulages, whose early work anticipated the genre, was one of a group of post-war Europeans who fully embraced the movement, enjoying 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 Kemper Museum of Art associate 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.’
Pierre Soulages (b. 1919), Brou de noix sur papier 32.5 x 24.5 cm, 1949, 1949. Walnut stain on paper. 32.5 x 24.5 cm (12 ¾ x 9⅝ in). This work and those below were offered in the Art Contemporain Evening Sale on 3 June 2015 at Christie’s Paris. This work sold for €79,500
The Art Contemporain Evening Sale at Christie’s Paris in June 2015 offered a mini overview of Soulages’s career trajectory through three pieces. Brou de noix sur papier, 1949 is exemplary of the early work. ‘The walnut stain creates a beautiful dark liquid brown that plays with light and also makes transparencies on the paper,’ says Etienne Sallon of the Post-War & Contemporary Art department of Christie’s France. ‘The date, 1949, is also very important for the artist as this is the first time he is exhibited at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. His abstract approach gave him the opportunity to be shown alongside artists such as Franz Kline, with whom he has been often compared.’ The piece came to Christie’s from the collection of the French art critic Yvon Taillandier, a friend of the artist.
Pierre Soulages (b. 1919), Peinture 73 x 60 cm, 4 septembre 1975, 1975. Oil on canvas. 73 x 60 cm (28¾ x 23⅝ in). This work was sold for €265,500
Peinture 73 x 60 cm, 4 septembre 1975 is a small oil-on-toile that continues to explore notions of transparency, but experiments with fluid motion. ‘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,’ says Levy of the artist’s development. ‘He gets rid of the classic gesture for another type of gesture.’
Pierre Soulages (b. 1919), Peinture, 237 x 81 cm, 23 février 1990, 1990. Oil on canvas. 237 x 81cm (93¼ x 31⅞ in). This work was sold for €391,500
Finally, Peinture, 237 x 81 cm., 23 février 1990 arrives at the moment of outrénoir, a luminous black composition that appears to magnify painterly action, examining the lush texture of the brushstroke, and drawing the viewer into the optical illusory depth of the picture plane. ‘They’re all about the mask, the presence, the weight of painting,’ says Levy. ‘But Soulages is also a sculptor in a way.’
Butler agrees: ‘They become almost something that you can visually enter into. A lot of these artists become masters of their early technique,’ she says of practitioners who have honed their skills for years. ‘There’s a virtuosity in the way in which they laid down their materials and a continuation of earlier concerns.’
Although Soulages’s mastery has never been doubted by his countrymen, to many others he perhaps remains the most successful artist you’ve never heard. As Butler says of his reputation in the United States, ‘He certainly deserves more critical attention.’
Main image at top: French artist Pierre Soulages visits the museum which bears his name, in Rodez, France. Photo: Patrick Aventurier/ Getty Images. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015
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