French abstract painter Pierre Soulages died yesterday at the age of 102.
Best known for his obsession with black in his work – or what he called Outrenoir or “beyond black” – Londoners are most likely to know Soulages from his paintings at the Tate Modern, although the work of the he artist has been exhibited in galleries around the world, including the Center Pompidou, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio De Janiro.
In a statement yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “Beyond obscurity, his works are living metaphors from which each of us draws hope. In 2014, the then French President, François Hollande, described Soulages as “the greatest living artist in the world”.
Born in 1919, in Rodez, a small town in the south of France, Soulages went to Paris at the end of the 1930s where he learned from the artist René Jaudon. However, he never took his place at the prestigious National School of Fine Arts and instead returned home to concentrate on painting.
After the war, where Soulages had been called up for military service, Soulages returned to Paris and devoted himself to building a career as an artist. He succeeded – earning the most recognition in the United States. His first exhibition took place in Paris in 1947 at the Salon des Indépendants, two years later he showed his work at the Betty Parsons gallery in New York, and in 1953 he was part of the Younger European Painters exhibition at the Guggenheim.
His work was snapped up by American art dealers and Soulanges experienced several decades of American success – thanks in particular to art dealer Samuel M. Kootz. When Kootz’s gallery closed in 1966 and pop art became fashionable, Soulages lost some of its American momentum – although his career continued to flourish in the rest of the world.
He was involved in remarkable projects: Between 1987 and 1994, he created 104 stained glass windows for an Abbey in Conques – a town in the same region (Aveyron) where he grew up. The project consumed so much time and energy that Soulages apparently stopped working on other paintings.
His first Outrenoir canvases were exhibited at the Center Pompidou in 1979 (although black was a key component of all his work for a time. He told the New York Times in 2014, “Black has been fundamental to me ever since. childhood”). In 2001, he reportedly became the first living artist to exhibit his work at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
The artist also had retrospectives at the Center Pompidou in 2009 (and, according to The Guardian, this was the museum’s largest retrospective of a living artist at the time) and at the Louvre and Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York. York in 2019, to mark its 100th anniversary.
Arguably France’s most successful artist until his death, his paintings would each bring in several million dollars. According to the New York Times, the auction price of his paintings skyrocketed more than 500% between 2003 and 2014.
Emilio Steinberger, principal director of the Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York, explained to the New York Times in 2019: “It is both historic and contemporary.
“He was friends with Giacometti and Rothko; it started when Pollock started casting paints. You are talking to someone who has been at the center of history in Paris and New York and who is still today a very contemporary artist. There is hardly anyone else like it.
Soulages is survived by his wife, Colette, 101, whom he married in 1942.