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Property from the Stralem Collection
Post Lot Text
“There is always something quite sensual about the meeting of a black and a blue, one indulges in it with a certain pleasure”
“I’m really working with the light more than with the paint”
“What matters to me is what happens on the canvas. No two brushstrokes are ever the same”
“Soulages makes the blue color shine—because the blue is intensified by black, or because a bright ground shines through the blue”
Andrea Rygg Karberg
“Black … has always remained the base of my palette. It is the most intense, most violent absence of color, which gives an intense and violent presence to colors, even to white: just as a tree makes the sky seem more blue”
“Any particular brushstroke establishes relationships with other forms on the canvas, with the background and with the surface as a whole. It is these attributes and relationships that concern me and by which I am guided”
“I’m always preoccupied by the painting that I want to do tomorrow or today. For me, it’s always different. I always discover new things”
“I always say his paintings are 51 percent light and 49 percent black. You see different colors in them at different points of the day: reds, blues, whites. They are constantly changing”
“A painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously—struck and held”
James Johnson Sweeney
A thrilling rediscovery unseen in public for over five decades, Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 is a painting of monumental clarity and beauty by Pierre Soulages. It was acquired in 1961 from New York’s Samuel Kootz Gallery by the visionary collectors Donald and Jean Stralem, joining major works by Matisse, Cézanne, Giacometti, van Gogh and others in their collection. Most famously, it kept company for many years with the “Stralem Picasso”: the iconic Blue Period Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto (1903) whose sale in 1995 caused a market sensation. As befits such illustrious history, the present work is a masterpiece from Soulages’ greatest era. Against a bone-white ground, broad strokes of black and Prussian blue build a right-angled structure of bold, rhythmic power. Horizontal beams span the canvas with bird-wing iridescence. Pitch-dark bars of black hang to the left, bringing the work into imposing asymmetric tension. In a brilliant instance of his scraped raclage technique, Soulages has pulled back the still-wet blue and black pigment with drags of a homemade spatula, revealing bright gleams and haloes of light. The drama of the painting, which stands as tall as a person, is inescapable. Its stamp of sapphire on white has the primal, theatrical presence of the “body prints” by Yves Klein, that great master of blue; its dark, flashing nuances create a chiaroscuro worthy of the Old Masters; its marbled calligraphy brings to mind the dragged veils of color achieved by Gerhard Richter in the 1980s. From the opaque, fine-grained gloss of the black to the pale, fresco-like ground and pellucid, almost glassy slashes of peacock hue, Soulages exploits the full potential of oil paint’s pure physical qualities, celebrating what he has called its “physiognomic” character. Making every decision based on the painting in front of him, he paints not as a philosopher, narrator or ideologue, but as a painter. Nor, despite winning early acclaim in America during the art world’s focal shift from Paris to New York in the 1950s, is he an Abstract Expressionist. He does not record gesture or emotion in his brushstrokes, but arranges contrasts into a single, forceful surface that is to be apprehended in its totality. As the artist himself says: “I do not depict, I paint. I do not represent, I present” (P. Soulages, quoted in F. Jaunin, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne, 2014, p. 16).
This work dates from the peak of Soulages’ use of the raclage technique, a high point in a career of remarkable, single-minded consistency. He had first made unified, linear compositions in 1947, realizing in them the guiding principle of his art: if a line did not record the duration of its making, time was brought to a standstill, and movement transformed into dynamic tension. He experimented with chiaroscuro effects and dark, interlocking beams of paint throughout the 1950s, eventually arriving at paintings of complex, diaphanous color created by a staccato layering and scraping-away of pigment. “The years 1957-1963”, writes Pierre Encrevé, “particularly illustrate one of Soulages’ characteristic techniques in the double treatment of the surface: that of scraping, or, if one prefers, transparency through uncovering. On the prepared canvas (primed in white), he applies a layer of paint covering part or all of the surface, upon which he superimposes, while the paint is fresh, one or more layers of different color. He then uncovers a part of the background using the same soft-bladed spatulas that he more often loads with black paint: according to the power and the shape of the movement, this scraping will remove paint all the way down to the canvas, or only as far as one of the intermediate layers. A subtle mixture of the different layers’ colors is created, each time surprising for the painter himself; infinite variations of color are discovered on the canvas; new luminosities, and unexpected color intensities through transparencies of black … Even if white still often appears in the background, red, blue, and yellow ocher seem Soulages’ colors of choice for neighboring with large surfaces of black, at the same time as he uses them to create these mixtures, these disappearances-reappearances under the blade-scraped veils of black where the ‘transfigured’ color acquires a presence of a very particular emotional intensity” (P. Encrevé, “Le noir et l’outrenoir”, in Soulages: Noir Lumière, exh. cat. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1996, p. 30).
In Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961, the translucent timbres Encrevé describes reach a joyful radiance. Painted in the airy rue Galande studio that Soulages moved to in 1957 and would occupy for almost two decades, the work witnesses an artist at the height of his powers. Although he was yet to receive major acclaim in France, Soulages was enjoying huge success in New York. He had visited the city in 1957 and became close friends with Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. In 1959, the prices paid for his works by his dealer Samuel Kootz had doubled for the second time in four years; in July that same year Rothko visited Soulages and his wife in Paris, where they threw him a party at the studio. While his American friend was never a direct influence on Soulages’ work, Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 bears some of the imposing vertical impact of Rothko’s floating bars of color, and Soulages was certainly animated by the lively exchanges they shared. This work displays Soulages at his most energized and daring, pushing his technique into muscular chromatic cadences: its rhythms recall the structure of his favorite painting in the Louvre, Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, which he admired for what he called “these repetitions, this vertical perpetually broken by diagonals, the space created by this repeated beating … This inextricable blend of coherency and incoherency” (P. Soulages, quoted in P. Schneider, “Au Louvre avec Soulages”, Preuves, no. 143, June 1963, pp. 46-53). Beyond its dynamic relationship between blue, black and chalky white, the work’s interplay of rough, smooth, diagonal and horizontal textures shows Soulages exploiting his material’s myriad interactions with light to ever greater power and contrast, filling the surface with life and anticipating the ultimate, breakthrough dynamism of the all-black Outrenoir canvases commenced in 1979.
Born in Rodez in southern France in 1919, the young Soulages was hypnotized by the menhirs on display in the city’s Musée de Fenaille. “La Dame de Saint Sernin”—the most famous of these carved, anthropomorphic standing stones, which date to the late Neolithic era—had been discovered in 1888 in the nearby mountains of Lacaune. Aged seventeen, Soulages became something of an archaeologist himself: long before his artistic fame, the museum recorded his name as the discoverer of a cache of potsherds 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 beautiful Romanesque abbey-church close to his hometown. Standing beneath this 11th-century building’s vast barrel vault, Soulages saw light and shadow come to life. It was this experience that first inspired him to become a painter. “Even today in Soulages’ handling of paint”, wrote James Johnson Sweeney in 1972, “there is something which recalls the warm darkness of that Romanesque interior of Sainte-Foy. For, there, it was no dead blackness, but a live and gently palpitating dark suffused with a subtle illumination which reached its fullness in slashes of light from the high narrow windows and the soft glow where it struck the floors and walls” (J. Johnson Sweeney, Pierre Soulages, New York, 1972, pp. 10-11). In 1986 Soulages would have the honor of designing windows for Sainte-Foy, for which he developed a new kind of glass with variable translucency.
Another profound inspiration for Soulages was the 17,000-year-old cave art of Lascaux, found in the Dordogne in 1940 by local teenagers; he was thrilled by the discovery of even older paintings in the Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, in 1994. To this day, his own palette has scarcely deviated from the rich, elemental blue-blacks, ochers and reds used by the ancient artists who worked in the shadows of prehistory. For Soulages, such rough-hewn creations are far more moving than the most elegant mimetic accomplishments of Classical art. He is impressed by their fervor and intensity, their desire to escape the fleeting. As he puts it, “I have always revolted against this foolishly evolutionary conception of art, which leads one to believe that there are at first awkward gropings, then that technique becomes more and more skillful 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” (P. Soulages, quoted in F. Jaunin, ibid., pp. 45-46).
Sweeney, an early champion of Soulages as director of the Guggenheim in the 1950s, wrote memorably that “A painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously—struck and held” (J. Johnson Sweeney, ibid., p. 5). This apt simile captures the sustained, singular impact of Soulages’ work. It is important to distinguish chord from melody: unlike the gestural sequences of many Abstract Expressionist paintings, a work like Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 offers no itinerary to follow, no temporal anecdote of the artist’s feelings poured or splashed onto the canvas. Neither lyrical, personal or sentimental, it is instead a contained, resonant surface of overall structural and chromatic energy. 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 color to build a “sign” that can be apprehended in an instant. To apply the paint, he uses blunt house-painters’ brushes or wide, flat scraping tools that he constructs himself from scraps of leather and rubber, purposely eliding the expressive dimension of the gestural trace. “Rather than movement, I prefer to talk of tension”, he says. “And rhythm, yes. We can also say form: a shaping of matter and light” (P. Soulages, quoted in F. Jaunin, ibid., p. 92).
The force of Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 is born of a deep, complex understanding of color and form. Soulages 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 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’ mature work. He recognizes that color is not absolute: our perception of any given hue is modified by its shape, its consistency, its interaction with the colors that surround it, and its quantity. “Gauguin already expressed it perfectly,” says Soulages, “when he said that a kilo of green is more green than a hundred grams of the same green” (P. Soulages, quoted in F. Jaunin, ibid., pp. 12-13). It is thus that each stroke of Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 is a unique element, and the painting as a whole such a rich experience: all of these variables are brought into simultaneous action. Each peeled-back flash of midnight blue, each glint of light caught by the combed grain of the black, takes on its own personality in a play of endless, irreducible variety.
Although he was friends with both artists, Soulages feels little stylistic kinship with the American painters Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, to whom he has sometimes been compared. While Kline’s strident monochrome compositions of 1950-51 are superficially comparable to his own early works, Soulages’ predate them by several years, and he does not share Kline’s overarching concern with physical movement. When Soulages first visited New York in 1957, Motherwell told him that Abstract Expressionism could only truly be understood by Americans. Soulages countered that “An art should be able to be understood, loved and shared by anyone, anywhere in the world. That we are marked by the culture in which we have grown up and lived, that’s part of us, very obviously. But I believe that in art, there are fundamentally only personal adventures that go beyond the individual, and even beyond his culture” (P. Soulages, quoted in F. Jaunin, ibid., p. 31). Like his late friend Zao Wou-Ki, whose Chinese-French influences flowered into a painterly aesthetic with universal appeal, he believes that dividing art into groups or movements is as reductive as using a word to describe a color. Art, for Soulages, begins precisely where words end. It is for this reason, too, that he always uses the same neutral format for his titles—painting, dimensions, date. Keeping any extrapictorial meaning firmly at bay, he lets the experience of the picture be governed solely by the unique, unfixed dynamic of its abstract painted forms.
Where Klein sought an immaterial void through his blues, in Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 Soulages finds the eternal through materiality itself. For him, a successful painting is inherently transcendent: it exists not as an artefact of its time, but in the ever-new, ever-changing present that is created with the viewer’s involvement. Concentrated, timeless and serene, Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 invites as profound and engaged a response as a beast on a prehistoric wall, the graceful darkness of Conques, Titian’s aching blue daylight, or the rough seas of Turner. As with any art of true power and mystery, its life is perpetual. “It happens between the surface of the painting and the person who is in front of it,” says Soulages. “The reflection of light is what moves us” (P. Soulages, quoted in N. Siegal, “Black Is Still the Only Color for Pierre Soulages”, New York Times, November 29, 2019).