Pierre Soulages, Painter of Black and Light, in Paris

  Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, devotes a retrospective to Pierre Soulages. The 90 years old artist is the icon of French 'informel' painting.   Already in his early work Pierre Soulages reduced his palette mainly to black as single color:   'Black interested me first of all in terms of its relationship to the other colors, it’s a contrast. Alongside it, even a dark color lights up. In the same way, it intensifies white

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. But absolute black doesn’t exist, or it exists only in caves. I find it fascinating, what’s more, that people went down into the darkest of places, into the complete darkness of the caves, to paint with black! The color black is the color of origins. Of our own origins too. Before we’re born, before 'seeing the light of day,' we are all in the black dark. And the first person to produce a black square was Robert Fludd (not Malevich!) in 1617. It was a Rosy Cross. The Rosicrucians believed, I think, that the whole world began in black and would end in black.'   'L' art informel' or 'tachisme' was the French version of abstract expressionism.  This was the dominant style of Western art in the 1950s. During the cold war especially the US government promoted abstract expressionist painting against the Eastern socialist realism style. This dominance lasted until the invention of pop art in the 1960s.   Pierre Soulages' career also reflects this fact:   1948 Group show on French abstract painting in post-war Germany 1949 First solo show at Galerie Lydia Conti, Paris 1952 Participation in the Venice Biennial 1954 First solo show in the USA at Samuel Kootz Gallery 1955 Participation in the first legendary Documenta in Kassel   The exhibition is divided into two parts:
  • His most-popular abstract expressionist paintings until 1979
  • His 'outrenoir' (ultra-black) series from 1979 until today

The first half of his work is certainly the most popular phase of his art: There are often powerful single brush strokes on white canvasses.


The 'outrenoir' paintings since 1979 are also black only. Yet, they focus more on texture of black color areas, rather than single brush strokes. In these paintings, he is more interested in the reflection of light by different types of (black) color.


Pierre Soulages: 'Peinture 324 x 181 cm, 19 février 2009', Polyptique (4 éléments de 81 x 81 cm, superposés) - Acrylique/toile, Collection particulière, Archives Pierre Soulages, Paris, (photo Georges Poncet), © Adagp, Paris 2009 / courtesy Centre Pompidou

Pierre Soulages says about these paintings in an interview with Bernard Ceysson, 'Some mornings, it is a silvery grey. Sometimes, capturing the light reflected from the sea, it is blue. At other times, it can be tinged a coppery brown. In fact, it always corresponds to the light that falls on it. One day, I even saw it green: there had been a storm, and there was a blaze of sun on the trees not far away.'


This is one aspect I love so much about living with good works of art: They keep your attention. They really 'live' with you - everyday is different.


Exactly 30 years before this exhibition, there was also a Pierre Soulages show at the Centre Pompidou. There you could see this general shift in his painting for the first time.


How did it happen?


Mr. Soulages told Hans-Ulrich Obrist in an interview, 'I was painting, or rather making a mess of a painting. A big black daub. I was miserable, and thinking that it was pure masochism to go on so long, I went to bed. On waking up I went to look at the painting, and I saw that it wasn’t the black that made the picture come alive but the light reflected on the black surfaces. On the striated surfaces the light vibrated, and on the smooth areas all was calm. A new space: the space of painting was no longer on the wall, as in the Byzantine pictorial tradition, nor was it behind the wall, as in perspective painting, it was now physically in front of the painting. The light was coming to me from the painting, I was in the painting. And what is more, the light was coming from the color that is the greatest absence of light. I went on from there. It’s the light reflected by the black paint. I invented a word for the phenomenon: Outrenoir'.


I like this show. It is very aesthetic. Yet, sometimes it appears all to 'design': I can understand why the art world in the 1960s went on and focused on a different kind of art.


I may suggest you put on your black turtlenecks and go to Paris to see this show!


by Chris Neuschler



Pierre Soulages at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

Through 8 March 2010



 Watch a video by Centre Pompidou about this show




(C) Courtesy of Christopher Wool and Luhring Augustine, New York
David Hockney: 'Bigger Trees at Warter III' of 2008 (c) courtesy by Kunsthalle Würth


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