In December 2019, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Pierre Soulages joined Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall in the rarified ranks of artists honored during their lifetime with an exhibition at the Louvre. Remarkably, the soon-to-be centenarian, born on Christmas Eve the year after World War I ended, was still adding to his vast oeuvre: over 500 works on paper and on canvas, lithographies, drawings, as well as 104 stained-glass windows he designed between 1987 and 1994 for the abbey church of Conques, in the Aveyron département.
The “painter of black” is famous in France, where the Pompidou Center feted his 90th birthday with a blockbuster exhibition and the Musée Soulages opened in 2014 in his southern hometown, Rodez. His recognition abroad has included a 2001 retrospective at Russia’s State Hermitage Museum – a first for a contemporary artist. Yet many Americans have never heard of him.
This was not always the case. One of Soulages’ big career breaks occurred in 1948, when former Museum of Modern Art curator (and later Guggenheim Museum director) James J. Sweeney sought him out at his Paris studio, giving him an entrée into the New York art scene. The artist would end up joining the stable of the influential Kootz Gallery, which presented his first U.S. solo exhibition in 1954. Less than a decade later, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts hosted a Soulages retrospective.
In the 1950s, the Frenchman was an increasingly successful artist, along with his friend Mark Rothko. Nelson Rockefeller even collected his paintings. But while his early paintings in the abstract expressionist vein are still pursued by connoisseurs, most Americans are not interested in the black series that Soulages has been painting since the mid-1970s. And after his New York gallery owner Sam Kootz closed the space in 1967, his name slowly fell into oblivion. His buyers, half of whom were American at the time, are now almost exclusively European.
New Yorkers had a chance to survey Soulages’ career in 2019 when the Lévy Gorvy gallery on Madison Avenue hosted an ambitious prelude to the Louvre exhibition. Appropriately for the stateside venue, the show included important paintings from the 1950s and 1960s that were first exhibited in this country or are in major collections here. Another possible reason for Soulages’ limited name recognition among Americans today is that despite his obvious associations with postwar abstraction, he resists being classified into a particular movement. “The collective is not my temperament,” he once told Le Figaro. “I avoid all groups, all leaders.” And indeed, his predilection for black has always set him apart.
This fascination began in childhood. An oft-shared anecdote has little Pierre dipping a brush in black ink to paint snow; even then, he understood the power of dark hues to illuminate through contrast. Over the course of his career, he has explored that power in various ways, experimenting with unconventional media such as tar and wielding tools ranging from palette knives and wide housepainter’s brushes to shoe soles. “I’m always creating new implements, usually in a rush,” he once told Le Point. “If I can’t make something, I just grab whatever I have at hand.” Asserting that works of art have a meaning unto themselves and shouldn’t be about anything, he titles his own simply with their dimensions and date of completion.
Early on, Soulages painted bold, often calligraphic swaths of walnut stain on a light background. Later came black forms with one or two colors, followed by black-and-white paintings. Black took over entirely in 1979, when he looked at a canvas that had frustrated him the night before and was struck by how the ambient light brought the black piece to life, glancing off the grooved areas, muted on the flat, the reflections always changing. He termed this effect outrenoir – “beyond black” – and has been probing its infinite possibilities ever since, literally guided by the light.