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The dominance of black in the compositions of particular artists has a history of critical controversy and emotional resonance. From Caravaggio’s darkly symbolic chiaroscuro, to Goya’s nightmarish cartoons, to the Impressionists’ much publicised (since disputed) elimination of the shade, black is rife with symbolism. An achromatic colour, black absorbs light. It is perhaps this capacity for deadening that has carried with it myriad associations with melancholy, haunting and obliteration. That it should, conversely, be perceived as an instrument of possibility, variety, even optimism is a radical notion, one which sets the work of French painter Pierre Soulages apart from that of many other artists preoccupied with notions of darkness.

Known as ‘the painter of black’, Soulages first began to eschew chromatic colour in the 1970s. The artist attributes his interest in black to its status “both as a colour and a non-colour”. “When light is reflected on black,” he writes, “it transforms and transmutes it. It opens a mental field all its own.” Yet his interest in the colour differs from that of many of his avant-garde friends and forbears. Neither a metaphor for the void (à la Malevich) nor a signifier of mortality (à la Motherwell), Soulages attributes his preference for the colour (or non-colour) to its capacity to produce and manipulate light. Striations within the thickly applied black paint reflect light, transforming the dark, impasto surface into an active producer of luminosity.

Striations within the thickly applied black paint reflect light, transforming the dark, impasto surface into an active producer of luminosity.

Soulages’ particular version of black was arrived at serendipitously, and has, over the years, undergone many processes of refinement. For the past 30 years, he has worked predominantly in outrenoir a term he invented to denote black that is more than black: black that opens rather than closes fields of visual possibility and perception. Black had always been a significant presence within his paintings, employed as an element of contrast with other colors. His earlier compositions, many created with wood stain rather than paint, featured thick, calligraphic strokes against paler backgrounds. He recalls one day in 1979 when, during a particularly intense painting session, without premeditation or intent “everything became black ... I thought it was bad,” he explains, “but I continued working on it for two or three hours ... Eventually I went to sleep, and a few hours later I looked at what I had done … I was no longer working in black but working with the light reflected by the surface of the black. The light was dynamised by the strokes of paint. It was another world.”

While painting has always been Soulages’ primary medium, his use of paint has become increasingly three-dimensional, even sculptural, lending an element of hybridity to his practice. This emphasis upon texture and relief is integral to the artist’s manipulation of light, allowing it to strike the paint at different angles, and with different degrees of intensity depending upon the reflectiveness of the surface. His tools reflect this: traditional paint brushes are replaced by chisels, rakes, combs and scrapers. Paint is thickened or thinned into undulating relief. Furrows are carved and dragged into it. Many of Soulages’ implements have an industrial or even surgical appearance, and the majority seem to fall outside a traditional painter’s toolkit.

That the artist should maintain such an interest in the materiality of paint, its tactile qualities and potential for three-dimensional manipulation is perhaps partly attributable to a lifelong interest in craftsmanship. Soulages was born in Rodez, Aveyron, in 1919. The street in which his childhood home was located was renowned for its artisans of all descriptions: tailors, cobblers, watchmakers, binders, cabinet makers, printers and saddlers were all amongst the family’s neighbours. Before embarking on his artistic career, Soulages worked as a designer of stage sets, a role within which he simultaneously drew upon his interest in craftsmanship, and also began to develop the powerful, stripped back style and palette that was subsequently to dominate his painting. It would seem a logical assumption that this early association with the stage might have left some residue of theatricality upon Soulages’ painting, yet this is far from the case. In his artistic career, Soulages has never been a storyteller. One might presume, for example, that for an artist who came of age during the Second World War, the shadows of historical violence and trauma would be visible within his painting; however, Soulages has abjured direct references to the great conflicts of his age. His is not an art that retells events, and while he draws upon numerous historical influences, none are evoked literally.

Yet curiously, for a painter whose career has been so consistently embedded in abstraction, some of Soulages’ most profound early influences were figurative. As a teenager, he was fascinated by prehistoric art, particularly the 3,000-year-old monoliths which decorate the landscape of his native Aveyron region. In the years that followed, he discovered reproductions of the cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet, where figures of animals, rendered in charcoal and dating back thousands of years, emerge out of the darkness. This sense of prehistoric peoples, working in the dark to produce dark subjects, was profoundly influential upon the young artist, who saw within this overwhelming blackness the possibility of profound and varied expression.

It is a common instinct of critics and audiences alike to seek out traces of autobiography in artists’ work. In the case of abstract art, this process is admittedly more complex, and viewers often turn to the symbolic associations of colour or the dynamism of a work’s gestural qualities to find glimpses of the artistic psyche. Soulages’ monochromatic painting, with its architectural, even industrial forms, is, upon first appearance, lacking in much of the bravura upon which personality readings depend. Yet, while the elimination of a traditional palette produces an undeniable air of uniformity, the capacity of Soulages’ outrenoir to produce varied emotions is a recurrent focus within his practice.

Soulages has described the process of making art as one of shock or crisis. His own process is at once meticulous and violent. While not characterised by the hyperactive spontaneity of many of his abstract expressionist contemporaries, his technique is nonetheless marked by physicality and strength. There is a decisiveness, both to the marks he leaves upon the canvas, and to the process by which he edits his oeuvre. Compositions that the artist perceives as unsuccessful are burned, sometimes in quantity, at the bottom of the garden. There is little time, or indeed, space, for sentiment in the work of an artist whose career spans more than 70 years, and there is something pleasingly cathartic in so irreversible an action.

Crisis is also something that art elicits in its audience, and Soulages has received many accounts of viewers weeping in front of his paintings. There exists in his work a sense of openness—even of blankness—that allows spectators to map their own emotional landscapes onto the canvas. A feature of his painting is the absence of traditional titles to accompany it, a gesture which seems in part about allowing the audience interpretive freedom. Provided only with the dates and dimensions of the painting, the process of establishing the work’s subject, (or perhaps, indeed, its lack of subject) rests solely with the viewer.

Many of his paintings are scaled approximately to human size, which lends a particular immediacy and dynamism. In Peinture 202x159 cm, 19 Octobre 2013, the canvas is marked by thirteen irregular, horizontal channels across the surface. Depending on where one stands in relation to the painting and the direction of the light, the uneven surface and the incised grooves within it progress from matte to highly reflective. As the light is reflected by particular furrows, they seem to dematerialise. Because movement is central to the process of viewing art, the art itself seems physically to transform before one’s eyes. The appearance of the painting is then determined by the viewer as well as by the artist. It is an object of constant transformation, subject not only to the perceptions, but also to the physical position of its spectators.

Soulages came of age at a pivotal moment in the rise of abstract painting, and critical acclaim for his work was swift and lasting. After a period of wartime military service, he set up a studio in Paris, holding his first exhibition at the Salon des Independents in 1947. In the 1950s, in keeping with the trajectory of the mid-century Avant Garde, Soulages relocated to New York. There, he was represented by the eminent dealer and champion of American modernist painting, Samuel M. Kootz. Soulages was to remain in New York for more than a decade, closely acquainted with the most influential names in American Abstract Expressionism, for which his work has frequently been read as a kind of European equivalent. Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell were all amongst his friends, and Soulages recalls numerous occasions when the artists came together to exchange ideas.

Yet for all his association with American abstract painting, he remains a thoroughly French painter. After the abrupt closure of Kootz’s Gallery in 1966, Soulages returned to France, where he has remained ever since. His sensibility, both intellectual and emotional, is closely, if at times abstractly, linked to the particular history and culture of his country of birth. Soulages has described painting as ‘a poetic experience’ and his works maintain a complex relationship to other art forms. Badiou has noted Soulages’ works’ synesthetic relationship to contemporary French literature, in particular that of the poet of the 1940s and 1950s, André Frénaud. Badiou perceives in Frénaud’s ‘rugged peasant force’ and ‘stubborn preoccupation with language’ an analogue for Soulages’ unremitting fascination with the materiality of the painted surface.2

The sense of multidisciplinarity is also manifested in Soulages’ relationship to architecture, both as an influence upon his painting, and as a source of creative endeavor in itself. Between 1987 and 1994, Soulages returned to the place of his birth for a major commission funded by the French Ministry of Culture. The artist was 13-years-old when he first visited the Romanesque Abbey church Sainte Foy in Conques, Aveyron, and he recalls having exclaimed to an accompanying friend, “You see, that’s the music of proportions!” The abbey was built in the 11th and 12th centuries and features one of the highest naves in Romanesque architecture, surrounded by a series of high, narrow windows. Almost destroyed by fire during religious conflicts in 1568, the church fell into disrepair over the next two centuries, before being restored under the direction of Prosper Merimée in the late 1800s. Following further damage in WWII, the windows were filled in the 1940s with neo-medievalist scenes, the colourful complexity of which dominated the quiet linearity of the medieval space.

Soulages’ approach to the commission was one of sympathetic integration rather than ostentation. In his design for the new windows, he drew not only upon his established visual language of monotone striation and repetition, but also upon the ancient forms of the area’s neolithic standing monuments or statues menhir, with which he had been fascinated since childhood. In the act of injecting new work into a much-revered historic building, Soulages entered into a form of collaboration with the original creators of the edifice. His intervention was an extraordinarily gentle one, evoking the forms and shades of both the original architecture and the surrounding landscape, subtly enhancing the building’s air of quietness and contemplation.

The commission also seemed a natural extension of the interest in luminosity expressed in Soulages’ painting. Drawing in light from the surrounding sky and tinting it with a milky opalescence, the space is delicately transformed into a pale, serene void. He explained to the medieval historian Jacques Le Goff, “It’s natural light that is transformed, transmuted; it has an inner life, in keeping with this admirable space which so lends itself to meditation or prayer ... That was what struck me the most during this adventure: creating for such a space a material that shows the flowing of time. That is something that has deep meaning.”3

In 2014, French President François Hollande described Soulages as “The world’s greatest living artist”. Such grandiose accolades are perhaps attributable in part to the consistent nature of his practice, his perfectionism and his focus on continual refinement. He is certainly, in financial terms, the most successful living artist in France and this has endowed Soulages with a creative freedom that few artists can enjoy; rather than being subject to the fickle demands of the market, he is able to focus without distraction on those subjects and techniques which continue to engage and excite him.

Since his first retrospective exhibition in Hanover, Germany in 1960, Soulages’ oeuvre has been exhibited internationally without interruption. In 2001, he became the first contemporary artist to be exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, an honour akin to artistic canonisation.

But it is to Rodez, his birthplace, that he and his wife Colette have made two donations comprising nearly 500 works, from post-war oil paintings to his ongoing outrenoir phase. The Musée Soulages is housed, fittingly, in a series of rusty black steel cubes, designed by the Catalan architects RCR. At the artist’s instruction, the museum’s café, run by the Michelin three-star chef Michel Bras, offers a menu that art students can afford, and a large gallery in the museum has been set apart to exhibit work by a diverse range of emerging artists. These decisions are all indicative of Soulages’ desire to make productive, accessible use of his own success. As a legacy project, the museum serves not only to celebrate the works of its namesake, but also to advance the talents of his successors.

In December 2015, Soulages turned 96. He continues to paint every day, in his light filled studio in the Paris Latin Quarter. Today, the artist and his wife Colette, divide their time between the city and a house overlooking the Mediterranean, in Sète, near Montpellier. They have been together for 75 years, united initially by a shared enthusiasm for prehistoric art and still, it seems, delighted by each other’s company. There is a profound sense of pleasure in Soulages’ continuing practice, which belies that loaded moniker ‘the painter of black’. He continues to find fascination in the daily rituals of creating, discovering, refining—rituals in which he has now been immersed for the better part of a century. Darkness remains in his work, a source of exploration and experimentation, both material and emotional: a site of emergence, of evolution, and of return.

Image Credits:
Image 01. Photo by Manuel Litran
Image 02. Detail of: Peinture, 57 x 81 cm, 9 mars 2014. Acrylique sur toile / Acrylic on canvas, 57 x 81 cm / 22.4 x 31.8 in.
Image 03. Photo by Manuel Litran.
Image 04. Photo by Patrick Aventurier.