Pierre Soulages, famous post-war French abstract artist who strove to go “beyond black” – obituary

Soulages at 90 in front of one of his paintings - Johannes EISELE/AFP

Soulages at 90 in front of one of his paintings – Johannes EISELE/AFP

Pierre Soulages, who died at the age of 102, was a French painter described by President François Hollande as “the greatest living artist in the world”.

The last of the post-war radical abstractionists and a national treasure in his native country, Soulages forged a career spanning three quarters of a century, becoming famous for his monumental monochrome canvases which earned him the nickname “painter of black”. .

Soulages understood the mercurial nature of color. Where others saw gloom, he saw potential. “When light reflects off black, it transforms and transmutes it,” he said. “It opens up a mental field of its own.” And while the dark, dense geometry of his compositions might seem urban or architectural, Soulages’ inspiration came, obliquely, from the cultural history of southern France, where he grew up in the years after World War I. world.

A prominent figure in the Art Informel movement of the 1940s and 1950s, a European variation of American Abstract Expressionism, Soulages gained international recognition after his inclusion in two landmark New York exhibitions of the time: Younger European Painters (Guggenheim, 1953 ) and The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors (MoMA, 1955).

In his mid-twentieth-century works, he hinted at other hues, such as a Mediterranean blue, a saffron red, or simply the bare canvas, beneath blocks and bars of darkness. As he grew older, however, his canvases gradually dissolved into vast walls of thick, textured matte black paint, an effect he called Outrenoir – loosely translated as “beyond black”.

Soulages was often seen as a European counterpart to revered American painters Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. All three developed their signature styles in the late 1940s and became darlings of the art world in the 1950s. However, unlike Kline and Rothko, who both died in middle age, Soulages has enjoyed one of the longest careers in the history of art.

Pierre Soulages was born on Christmas Eve 1919 in the town of Rodez in Aveyron to Amans Soulages, coachbuilder, and Aglaé Zoé Julie Corp. One of his earliest memories is of a rooster-shaped tar stain on a wall across from his house. bedroom window. “I saw in it the viscosity of the tar but also the power of projection”, he recalls.

Work by Soulages at the Center Pompidou, Paris - AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere

Work by Soulages at the Center Pompidou, Paris – AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere

Archeology was another spur. As a teenager, he discovered Neolithic artefacts during the excavation of a burial chamber and he was fascinated by the prehistoric menhirs of the region, sculpted menhirs. “Their presence, the force that comes straight from the past, carries them away too and we forget their origin,” he observed. The roughly transmitted power would become a defining quality of his work.

In his youth, he painted abstract studies of local trees and studied rock paintings. “From the beginning, man entered completely dark caves to paint. They also painted black,” he noted. He moved briefly to Paris in 1938 but returned to the south galvanized by his love for Cézanne and Van Gogh.

During World War II, Soulages was drafted into the French army and served for a year in an anti-aircraft unit. Demobilized in 1941, he attended the School of Fine Arts in Montpellier where he met his future wife Colette Llaurens (he fell in love with her when he heard her explain the genius of Picasso). They married the following year.

To avoid deportation to Germany under Vichy labor laws, Soulages obtained false papers and moved to a nearby vineyard. One of his neighbors was the poet Joseph Delteil, where Soulages met the contemporary artist Sonia Delauney. After the war, he moved to Courbevoie at the gates of Paris and devoted himself to painting.

Romanesque Abbey of Sainte Foy with stained glass window by Pierre Soulages - alamy

Romanesque Abbey of Sainte Foy with stained glass window by Pierre Soulages – alamy

His early work had an artisanal character: he experimented with walnut dye and workmen’s brushes and scrapers, even creating his own makeshift tools out of wood and rubber (he believed that painting was as much an act of reduction as a application). He quickly settled on a form of abstraction that used broad brushstrokes in dynamic signs that, he explained, “could be read at a glance”. His works were all titled simply by their dimensions and date.

At the end of the 1940s, Soulages set up a workshop in Montparnasse. “We had everything in Paris,” he recalls. “There were the communist painters, the figurative painting, the traditional French painting, which was ridiculous, and the surrealists who had come back from America.”

After his first personal exhibition in Paris, at the Galerie Lydia Conti in 1949, he exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Legendary Manhattan art dealer Leo Castelli later associated Soulages’ work with paintings by Franz Kline for Young Painters in the United States and France (Sidney Janis Gallery, 1950). Between exhibitions at the Guggenheim and the MoMA, Soulages enrolled at the Samuel Kootz Gallery, which also represented Marc Rothko.

He first visited New York in 1957 where he was introduced to Rothko. It was a hectic meeting. In a “slow and solemn voice”, the American dismissed Europe as a place of concentration camps and bloodthirsty art. Soulages reminds him of the legacy of violence inflicted on American Indians. The couple later became friends. Soulages also developed connections with Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline (who told Soulages it looked like one of his own paintings).

Soulages Museum in Rodez, Aveyron - Roland Bouvier/Alamy

Soulages Museum in Rodez, Aveyron – Roland Bouvier/Alamy

From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, Soulages’ work created a sensation. His paintings were acquired by Alfred Hitchcock and Nelson Rockefeller and made the cover of Time. In 1955, he participated in the first documentary showcase of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany, alongside Matisse, Chagall, Hepworth and Moore. He then exhibited in Tokyo, Vienna, Dakar, Washington and Houston as well as in major institutions in France.

Success earned him a summer residence in Séte and he and Colette divided their time between Languedoc and Paris, where Soulages kept a studio. In the 1970s, he experimented with sculpture and engraving before returning to painting at the end of the decade with his Outrenoir series.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, he worked on a late passion project, the creation of 104 stained glass windows for the Romanesque Sainte-Foy abbey church in Conques in Aveyron. The artist “set aside the emotions linked to childhood” to orchestrate a modulated light in the church through a succession of opaque panes. He continued to produce works until the end of his life, constantly exploring the possibilities of black.

In 2018, one of his paintings sold for $10.6 million at Christie’s. The following year, its centenary was marked by retrospectives at the Lévy Gorvy gallery in New York and at the Louvre in Paris; his work is in the collections of the Tate Modern, MoMA and the Center George Pompidou. In 2005, the artist donated 250 works, spanning his entire professional life, to his home town of Rodez to form the Soulages Museum. He also donated a collection of his paintings to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, where he had taken Colette on their first date.

His wife Colette survives him. They had no children.

Pierre Soulages, born December 24, 1919, died October 25, 2022

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