With its gleaming expanse of black and blue paint raked into rhythmic, reflective splendour, Peinture 222 x 222 cm, 15 mai 1987 is a spectacular outrenoir painting by Pierre Soulages. Soulages coined the term outrenoir – which translates roughly as ‘beyond black’ – in January 1979, after a watershed moment in which he realised that something far more than colour was happening in his new, all-black canvases. Through a diverse, masterfully deployed range of texture and density, Soulages created interactive surfaces that are full of life, constantly changing with ambient light and the position of the viewer. The present work, over four metres square, is formed of two joined canvases of different size, emphasising its near-sculptural objecthood. A torrent of broad, diagonal strokes, pulled across the thick pigment using a homemade spatula, covers much of the surface: in the left-hand panel they are entirely black, while in the larger right-hand section Soulages’s scraping action reveals flashes of a brilliant blue undercoat. This scintillating field has the inky lustre of a dark birdwing. Behind it, and revealed in a bare lower corner, a deep black ground is striated with a fine, dense horizontal grain. From 1986, Soulages’s gradual introduction of blue – the colour of natural daylight – into his outrenoir works went hand in hand with an amplification of their scale, luminosity and textural force: Peinture 222 x 222 cm, 15 mai 1987 sees this late idiom at its majestic best.
Peinture 222 x 222 cm, 15 mai 1987’s interplay of glossy, matt, rough, smooth, diagonal and horizontal textures shows Soulages exploiting his material’s reflective properties to ever greater variety and contrast. While he is often hailed as the master of black, Soulages is perhaps more importantly a master of light. Ever since his first monochrome compositions of the 1940s, his paintings have shown a complex understanding of colour and form. 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 later surmised that he had been trying to render the white paper more white, luminous and snow-like via its contrast with the black ink. ‘Black … has always remained the base of my palette’, he has explained. ‘It is the most intense, most violent absence of colour, which gives an intense and violent presence to colours, even to white: just as a tree makes the sky seem more blue’ (P. Soulages, quoted in J. Johnson Sweeney, Pierre Soulages, Neuchâtel 1972, p. 13). Soulages works on the premise that our perception of colour is dependent on its shape, density and consistency: as such, it lies beyond the limits of language. ‘Gauguin already expressed it perfectly, when he said that a kilo of green is more green than a hundred grams of the same green. Quantity modifies quality. Then, when one says black, one also does not say whether it is round or square, angular or soft. Form modifies colour. Try cutting out of yellow paper, for example, a soft, rather rounded shape and an angular shape. Put them side by side. They will not look the same colour. There is an interaction between form and colour. So much for quantity and shape. But there is still density and texture. Black can be shiny or matte, smooth or grainy, and that changes everything’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Peindre la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, pp. 12-13). Each stroke of Peinture 222 x 222 cm, 15 mai 1987 is thus conceived as a unique entity, cast in a play of endless variation with its neighbouring elements. By using the same descriptive format for his titles – painting, dimensions, date – Soulages allows the viewer’s experience of the artwork to be guided solely by the dynamics of its abstract surface, ever-changing in the light.
In the catalogue for a 1989 show of Soulages’ recent works in Valencia, the artist and writer Antonio Saura wrote a sensitive appreciation of their power. Where his previous canvases had often gained their impact through a contrast between blacks and paler tones – with strokes arranged in calligraphic bars, or layered in shadowy translucency – Saura saw dark, commanding works like Peinture 222 x 222 cm, 15 mai 1987 as arriving at a Zen-like new dimension of grandeur and poise. ‘Gone’, he wrote, ‘is the fixity of the movement of the earlier work; another movement appears in the recent paintings of Pierre Soulages, this time subtle and interior, present in the streaks that articulate the painted surface in their own dark matter. Gone is the “image”, consequence of the assembled forms in his non-representative painting; the serene emotion is reached without it, in the almost-nothing of these expanses of black … This is a minimal perversity that contradicts monochromatic minimalism: the surfaces are painted, and not only painted with traces of brush and spatula, but rather striped by an essence, as if demonstrating their belonging to the pictorial universe. The painting needs light in order to appear – not only for us to be able to contemplate it, but for it to exist ... The painting becomes something like the Buddhist garden of Ryoan-ji, a cosmic surface of combed sand, streaked with systematised, rectilinear traces that capture light’ (A. Saura, Pierre Soulages, pinturas, exh. cat. Galería Fandos, Valencia 1989, unpaged).