Artist Spotlight: Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages is one of the greatest artists to come out of France in the 20th Century, and the Louvre agrees with me: although the prestigious institution rarely mounts monographic shows of living artists, they are making an exception to honor Soulages with a career retrospective on the occasion of his 100th birthday (coming up December 24). The almost-centenarian has been an active member of the Parisian avant-garde since the late 1940s, working in a gestural abstract style that was trending at the time. But he is perhaps best known nowadays for his outrenoir series, a body of work that he began in the late 1970s, at the ripe age of sixty. Soulages says that the genesis of the outrenoirwhich roughly translates to “beyond black”–paintings began from a foiled session in the studio, in which he kept slathering black paint on a canvas but could not arrive at a resolved composition. Frustrated, he gave up and went to bed. The next morning he saw the canvas with fresh eyes, and was struck by how sensitively the black paint responded to the light:

I saw that it was no longer black that gave meaning to the painting but the reflection of light on dark surfaces. Where it was layered the light danced, and where it was flat it lay still. A new space had come into being: the painting was no longer on the wall (as in Byzantine Art) or behind the wall (as in perspectival art) but physically in front of the canvas. The light was coming from the painting towards me, I was in the painting. [1]

Soulages Outrenoir 4
The different matte and gloss surfaces of this outrenoir painting respond to the light in different ways.

Thereafter Soulages completely changed his artistic practice to explore the complementary relationship of darkness and light. He uses a wide range of tools to achieve various strokes and marks on the canvas, and experiments with different mattes and glosses of the pigment, all of which reflect or absorb light in different ways. As a result, this monochromatic body of work is, in fact, remarkably diverse. The artist gives the paintings direct titles that describe exactly what they are and when they were painted (for example, Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 mars 2009to emphasize their objecthood; with no referents to outside imagery or objects, these artworks stand on their own and share your space and time, forcing the viewer to be present with them.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris between December 11, 2019 and March 9, 2020, be sure to check out what should be an amazing show.

Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!

Soulages - Musee Fabre
Pierre Soulages, Peinture 181 x 405 cm, 12 avril 2012, acrylic on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier.
Soulages - Outrenoir
Peinture 18 novembre 2014, at the Musée Soulages in the artist’s hometown of Rodez.
Soulages 2
Pierre Soulages, Peinture 324 x 362 cm (Polyptyque J), 1987 © Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne
Soulages - install shot
Installation shot from a 2014 exhibition of Soulages’ work.

[1] Pierre Soulages, quoted in the lot essay for Pierre Soulages, Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 mars 2009, Christie’s Postwar & Contemporary Art evening sale, Paris, June 7, 2018, Lot 33.

 

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