‘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, in ‘Comment travaille Pierre Soulages’, in L’Oeil, no. 77, May 1961, p. 46).
‘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, 27 March 1961, quoted in R. Vailland, ‘Comment travaille Pierre Soulages’, pp. 40-47 & 72, L’Oeil, no. 77, May 1961, p. 72).
Black bars of glistening paint traverse the surface of Pierre Soulages’ Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 26 mai 1963, their viscosity creating an intense play of light. Bold and monumental, beneath the thick sweeping passages of black paint, a field of translucent, gauzy crimson radiates. This impression is reinforced by the areas where the dark, viscous bands of paint are thinner, allowing some sense of the background to glimmer through, like embers of a fire of smouldering luminosity. They seem liquid, vibrant, even, perfectly encapsulating the idiosyncratic character that lies at the heart of Soulages’ greatest canvases. The present work was included in Soulages’ solo exhibition at the acclaimed Kootz Gallery, New York, in 1964, before it was shown at the Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon in 1970, and later in the 25 Ans de Peinture en France exhibition at Galerie de France, Paris, in 1972. Since forming part of the Essl Collection, the present work has been exhibited extensively, including the artist’s solo exhibition Pierre Soulages: Painting the Light, 2006, as well as Sammlung Essl – the first view, 1999 – 2000, Vier Tage Sammlung Essl, 2009, and CORSO Werke der Sammlung Essl in Dialog, 2010.
While the contrast between light and dark, and indeed between colour and black, had long fascinated Soulages, it was only recently that he had developed what is now an almost iconic, though abstract, technique of expressing and exploiting the shades of colour. Thick rivers of dark, glistening paint course across the canvas. The heaviness of the black brushstrokes, and indeed the sheer mass of the impasto, contrast with the colourful embers of the background, creating a complex interplay that is accentuated by the careful, balanced composition of the picture as a whole. It is this subtle interplay among the black and the underlying reds, as exemplified in the present work, that captures the essence of Soulages’ painting. 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. He tempered what he felt was too much red in his orangé de mars with blue. Thus, while the final appearance of Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 26 mai 1963 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 remained incredibly conscientious about the colours he used.
In the years 1963-1965, Soulages experimented with his painting process. The large format paintings from this time were the result of Soulages depositing fluid paint onto canvas laid on the floor. Renouncing scraping, he extended the media through large flat areas, using a brush, leaving significant antecedent layers. Changes in speed, direction and depth of the stroke gives pace to the canvas, which is built in successive stages. He would reveal the layers of vivid red, creating a sublime transparent surface from the most opaque black. The expanses of black offer up chromatic possibilities for other colours, in this case by adding contrast to the red, making it appear luminously vibrant. In this work, Soulages’ majestic sweeps of black paint are softened into an imposing solid mass. By letting the opaque black paint bleed around the edges and drip by thinning it with turpentine, he fused these seemingly random marks into a powerful compositional unity that speaks of the action of painting.