Director of photography: Remy de la Mauvinière / AP
French abstract painter Pierre Soulages, who died at the age of 102, turned black into an obsession, transforming it from the absence of light into a color of its own. On the floor of his studio on the Left Bank in Paris, he produced large glossy canvases bathed in black – or what he described as outrenoir or “beyond black”. Using specially prepared brushes, spatulas, and household tools, Soulages created intricate textures, combining areas of smoothness and roughness and carving deep lines in the thick, layered paint.
For Soulages the tactile values in his paintings, as well as the related abstract bronze reliefs, were not as important as the ways in which surfaces absorbed or reflected light. These effects were extremely attractive to both collectors and the general public. Although Soulages has claimed to be amazed by this popularity, it is perhaps not difficult to explain. Black never goes out of fashion and no artist in history has better understood the importance of choosing the right finish, matte or glossy.
Soulages has always been an elegant figure, dressed in dark clothing like his painting, but for him noir it wasn’t just an accessory. He told the story that as a six-year-old boy he was found drawing thick lines with a brush and black ink. When asked what he was doing, he replied: “Snow”.
This fascination with black and its luminous potential led him in old age to create some stunning juxtapositions. At the turn of the 21st century he used collage to create a series of compositions composed of black and white horizontal stripes. The optical brilliance was amazing even when the bursts of black paint seemed to overwhelm the bands of white.
The normal duality of light and dark was subverted in 2012-13 when he exhibited two works, one black and one white, first at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and then at the Villa Medici in Rome. The black surface of a canvas was illuminated by white lines, while the crests of paint in the adjacent painting cast delicate shadows on the white.
Soulages also occasionally introduced primary colors, although the effect wasn’t exactly uplifting. Early in his career angry reds appeared in the otherwise black Etching No 2 (1952), found in the Tate collection, and the dark blues blend into the darkness of some of his later works. As always, their titles, such as Painting 81 x 130 cm, 26 April 2002 (in the Museum Liaunig, Neuhaus), leave free rein to the viewer’s interpretation.
The moments of color were surprising but short. Totally black canvases were the keynote of Soulages’ career. As he said in 2005: “Before the light, the world and things were in complete darkness. With light, colors were born. Black precedes them. Anterior also for each of us, before birth, ‘before having seen the day’. These notions of origin are buried deep within us ”.
Soulages was born in Rodez, in the Aveyron district, in the south of France. Although he was later associated with the coastal area of Montpellier and Sète in Languedoc-Roussillon where he had a summer studio, he was deeply impressed by his youth in Aveyron. As a child he was particularly impressed by the menhirs of the area, which he saw at the Musée Fenaille, and by the Romanesque churches, whose influence could later be seen in his austere and relief-like paintings.
Like his sister Antoinette, Pierre overcame the first setbacks, especially the death of his father, Amans, at the age of five, immediately after opening a hunting and fishing shop on the ground floor of the family home. Antoinette, who was 15 years older than her brother, became a philosophy teacher and, although her mother, Aglaé, wanted him to be a doctor, Pierre pursued an artistic career with determination.
In 1938 Soulages traveled to Paris, where he joined René Jaudon’s teaching studio. After seeing exhibitions by Cézanne and Picasso, he decided to abandon his place at the École des Beaux-Arts and return home. He mobilized in 1940, before working as a farmer near Montpellier and attending the city’s art school, 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, threw himself into the avant-garde of expressive abstraction. In 1947 he took part in an exhibition in Paris at the Salon des Surindépendants. This is a period of renewed international cooperation, and Soulages already exhibited in 1948 in Stuttgart and two years later at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London.
From the beginning he had important contacts with British artists, most notably Patrick Heron, a report that was presented in a 2016 exhibition at the Waddington Custot gallery in London.
However, it was the United States that exerted the strongest influence. In this phase Soulages created bold black brushstrokes on light backgrounds, inviting comparison with Franz Kline, although his style was actually more delicate and calligraphic. Since its first exhibition at New York’s Betty Parsons gallery in 1949, Soulages has been a hit with American collectors and major museums. This heyday lasted throughout the 1950s and 1960s until his American merchant, Samuel M Kootz, closed his gallery in 1966. With the rise of pop art and other trends, abstraction fell. in disgrace.
Outside of the United States, Soulages’ success continued unabated throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His projects ranged from a 1965-66 stained glass window for the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen, defined as an “icon of the night”, to an exhibition in Dakar (1974) praised for its African rhythms. Soulages’ abstraction lent itself to a range of interpretations.
In 1979 Soulages came up with his first outrenoir paintings, exhibited in an exhibition at the Center Pompidou, where many of the works were hung from wires in the center of the room. This twist was followed by public commissions, notably in 1986 the 104 stained glass windows for the Romanesque abbey of Sainte-Foy in Conques, 40 kilometers from his hometown. By delicately complementing the shades of the surrounding stone, they satisfied Soulages’ goal of creating a diffused light: “A living light, one could say, retained in the glass itself”.
The project was so compelling that in 1992-94 Soulages stopped painting altogether while completing the windows. By the end of the decade, however, he had returned to the monumental black canvases that would dominate the rest of his career. In 2009-10 he held 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 his 100th birthday.
Perhaps even more significant were the new permanent collections of Soulages’ work. A section dedicated to his art was added to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier for reopening in 2007, and in 2012 he had donated nearly 500 paintings to the Soulages Museum in his beloved hometown of Rodez.
He survived from Colette.
• Pierre Soulages, artist, born on 24 December 1919; died on October 25, 2022