Obituary of Pierre Soulages

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French abstract painter Pierre Soulages, who died at the age of 102, made black an obsession, transforming it from the absence of light into a color in its own right. On the floor of his Rive Gauche studio in Paris, he makes large glossy canvases awash in black – or what he describes as ultrablack or “beyond black”. With specially prepared brushes, palette knives and household utensils, Soulages created intricate textures, combining areas of softness and roughness and carving deep lines into the thick layer of paint.

For Soulages, the tactile values ​​of his paintings, as well as his abstract bronze reliefs, were not as important as how the surfaces absorbed or reflected light. These effects were extremely attractive to collectors and the general public. Although Soulages says he is surprised by this popularity, it is perhaps not difficult to explain it. Black never goes out of style – and no artist in history has better understood the importance of choosing the right finish, matte or glossy.

Soulages was always an elegant figure, dressed in clothes as dark as his painting, but for him black was not just an accessory. He said that as a six-year-old child he was found drawing thick lines with a brush and black ink. When asked what he was making, he replied, “Snow.”

This fascination with black and its luminous potential led him later in life to create remarkable juxtapositions. At the turn of the 21st century, he used collage to create a series of compositions made up of black and white horizontal bands. The optical brilliance was striking even when the explosions of black paint seemed to overwhelm the swathes of white.

Visitors to an exhibition of the work of Pierre Soulages at the Center Pompidou in Paris, 2009.

Visitors to an exhibition of the work of Pierre Soulages at the Center Pompidou in Paris, 2009. Photography: Remy de la Mauvinière/AP

The normal duality of light and dark was turned upside down in 2012-13 when he exhibited two works, one in black and one in white, first at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon and then at the Villa Medici in Rome. . The black surface of a canvas was illuminated by white lines, while the paint edges of the neighboring painting cast delicate shadows on the whiteness.

Soulages also occasionally introduced primary colors, although the effect was not exactly uplifting. Early in his career, angry reds appeared in the otherwise black Etching No 2 (1952), which is part of the Tate collection, and dark blues blend into the blackness of some of his later works. As always, their titles, such as Painting 81 x 130 cm, April 26, 2002 (at the Liaunig Museum, Neuhaus), give free rein to the viewer’s interpretation.

The moments of color were striking but brief. Totally black canvases were the guiding thread of Soulages’ career. As he said in 2005: “Before the light, the world and things were in complete darkness. With light, colors are born. Black predates them. Anterior also for each of us, before birth, “before having seen the light of day”. These notions of origin are buried deep within us.

Soulages was born in Rodez in the Aveyron in the south of France. If he was later associated with the coast of Montpellier and Sète in Languedoc-Roussillon where he had a summer studio, he was deeply marked by his youth in Aveyron. As a child, he was particularly impressed by the menhirs of the region, which he saw at the Fenaille museum, and the Romanesque churches, the influence of which would later be seen in his austere and relief paintings.

Painting 324x362 (1985) exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2019, in a retrospective on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Pierre Soulages.

Painting 324×362 (1985) exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2019, in a retrospective on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Pierre Soulages. Photography: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Like his sister Antoinette, Pierre overcame the first setbacks, especially the death at the age of five of his father, Amans, just after opening a hunting and fishing store on the ground floor of the family home. Antoinette, who is 15 years older than her brother, becomes a professor of philosophy and although her mother, Aglaé, wants him to be a doctor, Pierre resolutely pursues an artistic career.

In 1938, Soulages went to Paris, where he joined René Jaudon’s teaching studio. After seeing exhibitions by Cézanne and Picasso, he decided to give up his place at the École des Beaux-Arts and return home. He was mobilized in 1940, before working as a farmer near Montpellier and attending the city’s school of fine arts, where he met Colette Llaurens, whom he married in 1942.

Soulages quickly resumed his career at the end of the war and, returning to Paris in 1946, launched himself into the vanguard of expressive abstraction. In 1947, he took part in an exhibition in Paris at the Salon des Surindépendants. It was a period of renewed international cooperation, and Soulages exhibited in 1948 in Stuttgart and two years later at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London.

From the start, he had significant contacts with British artists, notably Patrick Heron – a relationship which was the subject of a 2016 exhibition at the Waddington Custot gallery in London.

However, it was the United States that exerted the strongest influence. At this point, Soulages creates bold black strokes on light backgrounds, inviting comparison with Franz Kline, although his style is actually more delicate and calligraphic. From his first exhibition at the Betty Parsons gallery in New York in 1949, Soulages met with success with American collectors and major museums. This golden period lasted throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s until his American dealer, Samuel M Kootz, closed his gallery in 1966. With the rise of pop art and other trends, the abstraction has fallen out of favor.

Outside the United States, Soulages’ success continued unabated through the 1960s and 1970s. His projects ranged from a 1965-66 stained glass window for the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen, described as “icon of the night”, at an exhibition in Dakar (1974) hailed for its African rhythms. Soulages’ abstraction lends itself to various interpretations.

In 1979, Soulages designed his first ultrablack paintings, exhibited in an exhibition at the Center Pompidou, where many works hung on wires in the center of the room. This spectacular turn of events followed by public commissions, in particular in 1986 the 104 stained glass windows of the Romanesque abbey of Sainte-Foy de Conques, 40 kilometers from his birthplace. Delicately complementing the hues of the surrounding stone, they responded to Soulages’ goal of creating diffused light: “A living light, one might say, contained within the glass itself”.

The project was so captivating that in 1992-94 Soulages stopped painting altogether as he was finishing the windows. By the end of the decade, however, he had returned to the black monumental canvases that were to dominate the rest of his career. In 2009-10 he had a second retrospective at the Center Pompidou, which was the museum’s largest exhibition by a living artist, attracting half a million visitors. The Soulages retrospective at the Louvre marked its 100th anniversary.

Perhaps even more significant were the new permanent collections of Soulages’ work. A section devoted to his art was added to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier for its reopening in 2007, and by 2012 he had donated nearly 500 paintings to the Soulages Museum in his beloved hometown of Rodez.

He is survived by Colette.

• Pierre Soulages, artist, born December 24, 1919; died on October 25, 2022

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