Born on Christmas Eve in Rodez, a small town in the South of France, the French abstract painter Pierre Soulages has turned out to be a very special gift to the world. Indeed, The Musée du Louvre has announced that it will open an exhibition this December celebrating this gift, tracing the entire oeuvre of Soulages, to mark the occasion of his 100th birthday.
Soulages has devoted his career to an exploration of a single color—the color black—with a special emphasis on examining how it interacts with light. His extraordinary oeuvre somehow never gets old despite its relatively simple parameters. He keeps it fresh by mining the seemingly endless depths of texture, tonality and compositional structure, proving again and again that the possibilities of painting, even today, are endless.
The year Soulages was born—1919—was itself a year of both darkness and light. It was the year the allies assembled for the Paris Peace Conference, to set the terms of peace after the end of World War I. Yet it was strangely also the year the predecessor to the Nazi Party—known as the German Workers' Party—was formed. Soulages personally witnessed the ravages of war while serving in the French military during World War II.
After the war, he took the entrance exam at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the most important art academy in Paris. Despite passing the exam, he rejected what the school was teaching, opting instead to pursue his own style. After also being rejected by the formal salon, he exhibited his paintings for the first time at the 1947 Salon des Indépendants, which had no jury. Ever since that first exhibition, Soulages has remained committed to his own vision, continually re-inventing his practice.
Even now, as he approaches age 100, he has not slowed down—a fact demonstrated by the presence of several brand new large scale paintings in his upcoming Louvre retrospective.
In the early years of his career, Pierre Soulages was known as much for using the color black as he was for his gestural painting style. Employing everyday house painting brushes and palette knives, he created large, abstract, gestural compositions that today evoke comparisons to the works of the American painters Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline.
Yet Soulages was a pioneer of this distinctive style, not a follower of anyone else. He was creating what critics would later call action painting, and was one of the earliest artists to be associated with the movements known as Tachisme and Art Informel. All of these associations were related to his gestural marks, and yet, while those are clearly the most dramatic elements of these early paintings, Soulages did not consider them to be the focus of the work. Nor did he even want his work to be associated with any type of Lyrical Abstraction. Rather, he was always interested in the dynamic relationship between black paint and the white support—between the darkness and the light.
It was in 1979 that he found the proper language with which to express his ideas. The phrase he coined for his paintings that year was Outrenoir—beyond black. In one sense, the term refers to the idea that his paintings require viewers to look beyond the color of the paint. They require us to use black as the starting point, not the endpoint.
In some of his Outrenoir paintings, light bounces off the deep ridges in the paint, creating gleaming, seemingly white edges. That white, though, is not really there at all; it is an illusion. In other Outrenoir paintings, the lights of the gallery help us see that what at first appears to be a monochromatic surface is actually a tapestry composed of subtle variations in blacks and grays.
But there is also another way that Soulages wants us to think about the phrase beyond black. He wants us to go completely beyond the notion of color, into a place where we realize what is truly important: our state of mind. If we open ourselves up to the full meaning of beyond black, we might achieve the proper mental state to realize that perception is everything.
Although his work could perhaps fill the entire museum, the upcoming Pierre Soulages retrospective at The Louvre will not be large. It will be held in the intimate setting of the Salon Carré, or Square Salon, the first gallery to ever open to the public. Yet, every juncture of his career will nonetheless be explored, through a carefully curated selection of works taken almost entirely from the permanent collection of other museums.
The painting Walnut Stain from 1946 demonstrates the lyrical, almost calligraphic style Soulages developed early on. Ignoring the lyricism of the work, we can see how within each brushstroke the varying intensity of pressure put on the brush creates limitless variations in darkness and light. Similarly, in Painting (1968), which is almost entirely black, it is the variation our eyes are drawn to—the tiny places where the white support peeks through, or where a light touch of the hand created mysterious, ghostly shadows.
Next, we see the birth of Outrenoir with a painting from 1979. Impasto brush marks create a jungle of ridges for light to play off of, as one solid black rectangle in the upper quadrant of the canvas reminds us of the depth of true darkness. Later, in a series of polyptychs, we see Soulages exploring the nuances and extremes of the hue we call black. Deploying line, shape and pattern to mesmerizing effect, these paintings brilliantly confuse the line between content and method. Despite its small size, or perhaps in a funny way because of it, the real elegance of what Soulages has accomplished is being celebrated by this retrospective: by limiting what we see, our understanding of what is possible can be enhanced.
Pierre Soulages at The Louvre will be on view through 9 March, 2020.
Written by Phillip Barcio.
Featured image: Pierre Soulages, Portrait of the artist, October 2, 2017. Raphaël Gaillarde Collection © Collection Raphaël Gaillarde © RMN-Grand Palais © ADAGP, Paris 2019. All images courtesy The Louvre.