Pierre Soulages: A Century - An Interview with Pierre Soulages by Philippe Ungar
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Pierre Soulages, conducted by the French writer and interviewer Philippe Ungar. You can read the full interview in our exhibition catalogue Soulages in America, published by Dominique Lévy in 2014.
PHILIPPE UNGAR Your exhibition with Samuel Kootz in 1957 was also the occasion of your first trip to New York. What was your initial impression?
PIERRE SOULAGES When we landed in New York, we were handed papers that said, “Foreigner, welcome to America. This land is your land.” America is a land of foreigners. It may not be perfect, but something happened in America that makes it much more than the mere mixing of populations.
When we got into Manhattan, what struck me most was the sound of it. The quality of sound in a space is important to me. I say space because sound is what makes a space. They go down in our memory together. In New York, we heard mainly sirens and honking. These sounds, magnificent in their variety and quality, bounced off the tall building facades and created a unique soundscape. New York’s skyscrapers made less of an impression on me than its sounds. Every time I go I notice it. For me, it’s part of the city’s identity.
PhU Where did your early explorations of New York lead to?
PS Naturally I was interested in the skyscrapers and the major buildings under construction. At the time there was a lot of talk about the Lever House. The Seagram Building was still being built and we had the chance to visit the construction site. The last floor wasn’t finished, but they were already moving people into the lower floors. I admired their efficiency. Colette and I spent a lot of time walking around the city and Central Park.
There was a steakhouse that we liked a lot. I remember ordering American wines to try. The ones we chose were generally more expensive than Château Beychevelle, a French wine that I really liked, yet they weren’t any better. Today their quality has really improved, but it wasn’t yet the case at the time.
At the tables around us, I saw people drinking very expensive wines. I wondered if it was their high price that prompted people to choose them. It’s certainly true in many fields, where price is often independent of quality.
PhU Did anyone show you and Colette around during your early days in New York?
PS No. James Sweeney and Kootz threw us parties and opened a lot of doors. Otherwise we were on our own and able to experience the city in our own way. I was really struck by how easy the contact was with people, by how genuine and kind they were. It was very different from the contact one has with people in Europe, particularly in Paris.
The exhibition with Kootz, which opened in November 1957, was well received by the press and collectors. As a result there were parties at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere. I felt warmly welcomed, like my work.
During that first trip, we went to an exhibition of American painters at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was temporarily located near the Museum of Modern Art. There was hardly anyone there. One of the few other visitors walked up and asked, “Aren’t you Soulages?” I nodded. He continued, “How great of you to come see what we’re doing.” It was the painter Milton Resnick, who stood there thanking me for taking an interest in what the Americans were up to! He added, “Let me throw you a party.” I told him I was booked every night of our stay. He replied, “Surely you have a lunch free?” I couldn’t lie any further and accepted.
Colette and I went to his studio on Tenth Street. A large table was set with lots of food and bottles of beer. Resnick had invited his artist friends. Sculptors arrived dressed in their work clothes, covered with plaster.
That’s where I met Willem de Kooning for the first time. His studio was right upstairs. He asked me up to see his recent paintings, so I went. De Kooning began showing me his work as if I was a comrade his own age, whereas he was fifteen years older than me, born in 1904. It was all easygoing and warmhearted. I was really touched. In Paris, relations between generations of painters were not that smooth. He spoke to me candidly, like a friend.
PhU What interested you about his work?
PS His freedom with regard to the codes that some people wanted to introduce at the time, like Clement Greenberg, who was trying to define technical specificities such as sizes and colors that were specific to American painting. It wasn’t the academism of Paris, but Greenberg was trying to create something along similar lines. I didn’t feel any of that with de Kooning.
The America of New York artists was a simultaneous concentration of freedom, energy, and novelty, but also, in some circles, of conformism related to the demands of a certain identity.
PhU Did you meet other French artists in New York?
PS I remember, during that first trip, being interviewed for the radio on what I thought about American and French painting. Louise Bourgeois heard the broadcast and immediately called my hotel. I’d expressed myself in poor English, but she liked what I had to say. “That’s exactly how you must speak to them!” she told me.
PhU Did you meet the other artists of the Kootz Gallery?
PS Just about all of them. The sculptor Herbert Ferber became a friend. He even held a dinner so that I could meet Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb, the two artists who had left Kootz when they learned he’d taken an interest in French painters like Georges Mathieu and me.
PhU Were they furious with you?
PS No animosity whatsoever from either Motherwell or Gottlieb. They were furious with Kootz, not with me. On the contrary, Ferber’s dinner was most friendly. It was an important moment because it cleared up my relations with them, especially with Motherwell. The MoMA curator Sam Hunter had already introduced him to my work.
A few days later, Hunter organized another get-together with twenty or so artists. It was a time when Americans thought all European artists were small, refined gentlemen. When they saw me arrive—tall, broad shoulders, a big guy— it totally contradicted their conception of the elegant, if not affected, European.
The Americans liked to think they were the virile, tough ones. I remember Norman Bluhm. He shook my hand with a vicelike grip, like he probably did with everyone. A few days later, I saw him again, and again he gave me a really hard handshake. This time, I didn’t let go. I let him tire a few seconds, and then, by provocation, I suddenly squeezed. He was the one who had to let go! It was childish behavior on both our parts, but on his it also reflected a certain mentality and affirmation of identity.
That was the night I met Mark Rothko. He was sitting there slumped on a sofa watching the small group from behind his glasses. After a while, he began to speak in a low, solemn voice. “Soulages. Ah, Europe, Europe! I went to Europe. I went to your museums. I saw men hanging on crosses, their hands and feet pierced, blood flowing, wearing crowns of thorns, their bodies pierced with arrows, blood flowing, women carrying bodiless heads on platters, blood flowing, blood flowing everywhere! Ah, Europe! Concentration camps, gas chambers, crematoriums, what a nightmare! As for me, I like birdsong!”
It hit me like a cold shower. All conversation ceased. There was a heavy silence. Everybody was waiting to see how I’d respond. I could tell it was serious. I felt cornered. The hair on my arms stood on end.
Struggling to keep cool, I replied, “For my first visit to New York, I went to see an American museum yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum. I saw men covered in blood, on crosses, their hands pierced, I saw women carrying heads on platters, the bodies of men pierced with arrows. . . . ” I’d seen nothing of the kind, but I rigorously repeated everything he’d just said. Already, people around me were starting to smile.
I could see the sparks fly in Rothko’s eyes, revealing the effect I was having on him. Then I added, “But of course I haven’t seen all American museums. And I haven’t been to any Indian museums yet.” Everybody laughed. Rothko stood up and walked over to me, “Come to my place for lunch tomorrow.” Our friendship began then and there, after his verbal attack.
PhU Aside from the rhetorical effect, what did you mean to get across?
PS Rothko was trying to mark his difference with Europe by putting all of Europe’s misfortunes on my shoulders. I needed to remind him that American culture owed a lot to its European origins. I also wanted to remind him that Europeans were not the only ones to shed blood. Americans showed great violence toward the Indians, their country and their culture.
PhU How did you discover Rothko’s work?
PS I’d been familiar with his work since 1955. He had paintings in the Modern Art in USA exhibition that the Museum of Modern Art organized at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. In fact, the Rothko style we know today dates from those years. It was about 1948–49 that he started to do the paintings that rightly made him famous.
I had a hard time discussing Rothko with Kootz. I don’t know what went on between the two, but they didn’t like each other. Sam would say, “His painting? Always the same blurred, superimposed rectangles!” When Rothko came to the gallery to see my shows, Sam could hardly contain his annoyance.
PhU The day after, you met up at Rothko’s invitation . . .
PS Yes, it was the four of us, Colette and me, Mark and his wife Mell. From that point on they were among the first friends we’d see when we went to New York.
PhU What drew you to his work?
PS What I immediately liked about Rothko’s paintings is that they reached me without the need for words, for ideas. They touched me through purely pictorial means.
Later, in 1968, I saw Rothko at his studio while he was working on the paintings for the de Menil chapel in Houston. I found these paintings particularly moving. They went beyond the simple, immediate pleasure of color. They touched on something more essential inside me. I’ve always preferred the light that emanates from darkness, rather than the intensity of light or color. Signs of interiority always move me.
PhU What was your most pertinent conversation with Rothko?
PS I recall our discussion at his studio on Sixty-ninth Street, when he showed me the paintings for the de Menil chapel. There was a model of the chapel sitting on a sculptor’s stool.
He asked, “Pierre, what color would you picture the walls of this chapel?”
“For paintings this size, with the colors you use, you must have taken into account the color of the walls here. Consequently, I’d stay with the same range of colors.”
He was really surprised. “You’d use the same color as in here?”
“Yes. When you did these paintings, you took it into account, whether or not you were aware of it.” He looked at me and thought for a while. We talked about it, and it made me think that his project was sort of programmed in his mind. Unlike me, he didn’t seem particularly interested in what happened while he worked, he was focused on planning it.
PhU During this first stay, you met a lot of people, including Leo Castelli.
PS I first met Castelli through Frederick Kiesler, who’d asked me to join them at a Mexican restaurant.
Kiesler was an architect friend. He was really inspired by Surrealism and considered himself anti–Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He lived in New York, but came often to Paris and stayed at the Hôtel Lutetia. We saw a lot of each other. I met him for the first time at the exhibition Le Surréalisme en 1947 at the Galerie Maeght. He was very short, but well-proportioned and always elegant. When we walked together the contrast was striking and passersby would turn to look at us.
PhU In 1942 Kiesler designed Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of This Century at 30 West Fiftieth Street in New York. He also designed the amazing World House Galleries at the Carlyle hotel for Herbert Mayer in 1957. Works were exhibited in highly innovative new spaces, hung halfway up the walls, with floated ceilings and flowing water . . .
PS I saw the World House Galleries. Sam Kootz asked me one day what I thought of the place. I said, “I’m very waterproof,” which he found funny.
I also saw Castelli briefly at the opening of my exhibition with Kootz. He’d just opened the Leo Castelli Gallery on Seventy-seventh Street and told me to stop by. When Colette and I went, he gave us a long speech about painting in New York.
He told me, “You belong to the generation of greats, but here, right now, all one finds are followers of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Look around the galleries, there’s nothing really new, except for what I’m about to show you. As a matter of fact, Alfred Barr just walked out and he found it really interesting.”
He showed me a work and asked what I thought. I said, “It reminds me of Kurt Schwitters.”
“Oh,” he looked surprised, “you know Schwitters?” The work recalled Schwitters’s small collages. The artist was Robert Rauschenberg. I later saw other works by him, also derived from the more or less recent past. He was a highly talented artist, though maybe not as inventive as he was made out to be.
Castelli explained, and it was true, that Rauschenberg broke with the followers of Pollock and de Kooning that were being shown in the New York galleries, but he detected my lack of enthusiasm.
Suddenly he said, “Look at this!” It was a painting by Jasper Johns on the theme of the American flag. Nobody back then had ever heard the name. He expounded on the merits of the painting. I couldn’t resist saying, “I totally agree with you, but you use those same terms when speaking about Serge Poliakoff to criticize French taste.”
I really liked that painting by Jasper Johns, whom I found to be a very good painter. The following year, Castelli organized Johns’s first show. But Castelli was disappointed by my remarks and our initial contact wasn’t that great. It didn’t prevent us from meeting up later in Paris, however.
PhU Did you eventually meet Rauschenberg?
PS I only met Rauschenberg briefly in Tokyo for the Praemium Imperiale. In Paris I saw one of his sculptures: a rooster on a column, the column on a pillow. I immediately thought of a Joan Miró sculpture with a parrot on a column on a crushed hat. Rauschenberg was a good artist, but I’m more interested in discoverers. Ingres said something I really like: “People with talent do what they want, I only do what I can.”
Rauschenberg was an important artist, with a lot of talent, and when he was awarded the Grand Prix for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, it was a major event. It put American art center stage internationally.
PhU Rauschenberg aside, what was your impression of the trends in New York at the time?
PS In 1957 Pop art hadn’t hit New York yet, but there’d been a similar movement going on in London for a few years, the source of which could be found in the daily life of the time. For me, that’s where its limits lie. A work’s importance doesn’t reside in the decoding of a period. The historical context, even if it prompts the genesis of an authentic work, shouldn’t determine it. That’s where the freedom of the painter comes in.
I watched Pop art unfold with interest, but Andy Warhol’s approach, or Roy Lichtenstein’s, for example, wasn’t my own. They are deeply marked sociologically and historically. I just don’t feel concerned with that.
PhU Did you know Chelsea Hotel artists? Claes Oldenburg, Christo, Arman?
PS Except for de Kooning, whom I met during a party, I didn’t have any contact with the artists living at the Chelsea Hotel. My encounters were always a matter of happenstance. I never did anything to elicit them, whether in Paris or New York, nor did I associate myself with any group.
PhU Kootz was a wonderful facilitator when it came to meeting people . . .
PS Often even by chance. In 1957 the Kootz Gallery was located upstairs at 1018 Madison Avenue, with its own elevator. One day I was there when a man came out of the elevator carrying a briefcase. Kootz went to shake his hand and introduce us. “Soulages! You here?” he said in French, “How extraordinary. I just gave a class. Guess what on?” He opened his briefcase and pulled out a photo of a medieval sculpture: the Christ from the Cathedral in Rodez, my hometown. He knew where I was from. It was Meyer Schapiro.
He’d just come from giving a class on the relationship between Byzantine art and Romanesque art, using this sculpture as an example. He said, “What a coincidence,” and indeed it was! We hit it off and he invited Colette and me to dinner at his place. Over dinner, he told us he’d cycled through France. He was particularly interested in the Rodez area with its menhirs, which have always impressed me too.
In the same building as the Kootz Gallery was a sign for another gallery, Grand Central Moderns. I went to see it out of curiosity. There was an exhibition of objects painted in black. Naturally, I was drawn to it! The woman who ran the gallery, Colette Roberts, quickly realized from my accent that I was the French painter showing a few floors down with Kootz. She immediately put me in contact by telephone with the artist. It was Louise Nevelson, who invited me over the next day. She wasn’t known at the time, even by other artists.
Colette and I went to her place with Colette Roberts, who asked what I thought of Nevelson’s work. I was most impressed by the studio’s atmosphere and said, “It’s an amazing place and a world all her own.” Not long after, a glowing magazine article came out quoting me as well as Georges Mathieu. We were two French artists, commenting on work that was little known, even by the American artists to whom I spoke about it. From that time on, I maintained friendly relations with Louise Nevelson.
PhU You were also able to meet collectors. Aside from actual sales it may have represented, was this important to you?
PS Of course, I’m always curious about the interest people show in my work. That said, I don’t know many collectors who bought my paintings from galleries, but Mary Callery did. I often think about her; she was one of my very first major collectors. She was also a sculptress. She married Carlo Frua de Angeli, and built their internationally renowned collection. She lived in Paris. We met through mutual friends.
Callery introduced me to Wallace Harrison, the architect of the Rockefeller Center, who bought my painting Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 1953. He even wanted me to do the stained glass for a chapel he was building in Connecticut. Given my lack of readiness, he never mentioned it again. I have to say I’m slow to decide. I almost missed doing the stained glass for the abbey-church in Conques for the same reason. Eventually, Harrison designed his own stained glass. Long before Conques, the first propositions I had for stained glass came from Nelson Rockefeller and Wallace Harrison, both American!
PhU It’s quite extraordinary how everyone comes to you.
PS I don’t know if I’m lucky or if it’s just because I’m shy, but that’s how I met a lot of my friends. Mary Callery, for example, came from New York high society. She was a beautiful woman, a tall redhead. I remember she became really emotional in front of a painting, Peinture 265 x 202 cm, 15 décembre 1962, which is now in a Norwegian museum. She said, “I don’t know why it moves me so, I don’t understand what’s going on.”
PhU You also met Elizabeth Goodspeed Chapman—“Bobsy”—around that time.
PS Yes. She lived at Sutton Place in New York. She invited us to a big dinner with museum curators, critics, etc. After dinner, she proposed we all look at the works in her collection. Everyone headed for a large, poorly lit room, the walls of which were covered with paintings.
Before entering, I noticed to the right of the door a painting that intrigued me. It was Van Gogh’s Le Café de nuit. I knew it couldn’t be the original. It was clearly a copy. I didn’t say anything. Everyone oohed and aahed at paintings by Picasso, Braque, etc. I kept quiet.
After a while our hostess, who was watching people’s reactions with a touch of irony in her eyes, calmly declared, “Of all these paintings, these and those are real. I did all the others. They’re copies.” It was a cruel trick—an embarrassed silence followed.
PhU Bobsy Chapman later came to your studio in Paris.
PS Yes, to my studio on rue Galande, which was really difficult to get to. There was a staircase like you find in Amsterdam, little more than an attic ladder. She finally made it the three floors up. She spent a while looking at paintings. She said she liked them. I don’t remember her choosing one. When she was ready to leave, the stairs were so steep she was afraid to go down. She had an attack of vertigo and I practically had to carry her.
When we got to the street, a group of vagrants walked by. They must have seen me on television at the bistro down the street, or engraving at a studio in Montmartre. In any case, they recognized me, “Hello Monsieur Soulages!” Of course Bobsy Chapman was extremely surprised. “Who are those people?” she asked. “My friends, Madame!” I answered. That day, after her vertigo on the stairs, she almost fainted for the second time.
PhU What was the rest of your 1957 trip to America like?
PS From New York we went to Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Hawaii, including Kauai. Earlier in the year I’d been awarded— at the same time as Sam Francis—a prize at the Tokyo Biennale. So Colette and I decided to continue on to Japan and then Thailand, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. We planned to be back in Paris early March 1958. We traveled as far as Hong Kong with Zao Wou-ki.
PhU Zao Wou-ki?
PS Yes. We’d found him completely desperate in New York and spent some time cheering him up. His wife had left him, and Kleeman, his dealer, was no longer representing him. He decided to go to Hong Kong where he hoped to have news of his wife, who had returned to China. When he asked what our plans were, I told him we didn’t know yet, but that we would no doubt head west, to Tokyo and India.
That’s how we ended up leaving together. What was funny with Zao Wou-ki is that practically everywhere we went he’d run into Chinese refugees who already knew about his marital spat and offered him “worthy” young widows.
PhU Which American city most impressed you?
PS After New York, Chicago was the American city that interested us most. First, because of its architecture and its remarkable Art Institute. But what also struck us was the terrible poverty. I had bought a portable Motorola radio, innovative technology at the time. It broke down and I wanted to have it fixed.
We took a taxi to look for a repair shop, and drove down utterly sinister streets. In one of them, men were lined up outside a huge empty industrial building. Many of them had cans, which they held by their open lid, still partially attached. It was a soup line. All those men were waiting for a ration of soup. That, too, was Chicago.
On the one hand there was the destitution that we encountered in some neighborhoods, and on the other phenomenal wealth. Meeting Mies van der Rohe through Sweeney was obviously a switch from the dire poverty. I remember he was already in a wheelchair. We couldn’t communicate more than a few words. I later learned he had selected one of my paintings at Kootz’s for a student of his, the architect Anderson Todd of Houston.
I got a thrill when we visited Chicago’s Art Institute. Zao Wou-ki was with us. We were speaking in hushed voices, impressed by all the masterpieces. Impressed and admiring.
We walked past a large, magnificent Matisse. Then we entered a room with the Braques and Cubist Picassos. In a corner of the room was a Brancusi and next to it another painting. I stared at it for a good thirty seconds, thinking, “Where do I know this painting from?” It was mine! It was so extraordinary for me to come across my own painting in a place like that. Plus, it was December 24.
PhU Your birthday!
PS Zao Wou-ki remembered just then and exclaimed, “Happy Birthday Pierre!”
Sweeney had given us a few addresses, including those of a couple of collectors, Samuel and Florene Marx, who owned some major works by Matisse. We stopped by to see them the day after Christmas. They asked why we hadn’t come for Christmas, which they’d spent alone. We wouldn’t have dared! These people weren’t particularly wealthy, but they’d bought some wonderful paintings at a time when they were still affordable.
Once again on Sweeney’s introduction, we saw and speechlessly admired the Leigh B. Block Collection with its Cézannes and Van Goghs. It was during a high society cocktail party, however, so it was difficult to focus. One surprise that evening was seeing a gorgeous Chardin hanging in the cloak room.
PhU What is your state of mind when you visit collectors who have acquired your work?
PS For me, paintings are like bottles in the sea, without the tragedy that implies. If they resonate with me, I hope they’ll go to people who love them and find a reason to live with them. A painting isn’t something you look at, it’s something you spend time with.
PhU Do you ever find it difficult to part with something you’ve painted?
PS No, the painting I’m most interested in is the one I’ll paint tomorrow.
PhU Yet in the 1980s, William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art wanted to buy a large painting that for a long time you refused to give up.
PS At first I did refuse, because it was the only testimony I had to a period. It represented something I couldn’t replace or redo. It bothered me to let it go. Eventually I accepted an exchange with another older painting.
PhU Can an older painting be a source of inspiration?
PS Not at all. I never look back. I wanted to keep that particular painting because it was one of my only large formats from a time when I couldn’t afford to buy canvas. It’s kind of sad to think about. That large work was painted on a bedsheet. It later had to be applied to a real canvas, because old bedsheets are always worn in the middle; only the edges are still resistant.
PhU So, during this first trip to America, you went to New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Hawaii. How do you get to know a city? Through its museums?
PS No, not immediately through museums. I don’t feel a city can be reduced to its museums. I like to see how people are happy, unhappy, rich or poor. I like to know what life is like in a city. When you pay attention, it can be surprising.
I like to walk in cities. Of course you don’t get around in America like you do in European cities, except perhaps in New York, which, by the way, is the city I’ve come to know best. Obviously, we went to visit the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia and the museums in Washington. But one trip is never enough.
PhU Why San Francisco?
PS It was on the way to Tokyo! To tell the truth, it was because of a detail. There was a cocktail I really liked in New York called a Gibson, made of vermouth and gin with a pickled onion at the bottom of the glass. I heard that the best Gibson in all of America was in San Francisco. So I said, “Let’s go find out!”
We went to the address and ordered two Gibsons. They were indeed very good. I paid my compliments to the barman and asked him his secret. “Do you really want to know my secret?” he asked. “Of course!” He handed me a bottle of Déjean vermouth made in Sète! Colette and I burst out laughing. Colette is from Sète.
We also went to a park with giant sequoias. We were in San Francisco for Chinese New Year, with the traditional festivities that are organized by the large Chinese colony. Since we were with Zao Wou-ki, our initiation to Asia actually began in San Francisco.
PhU What kind of traveler are you?
PS I’m curious. Curious about everything. In America, like elsewhere, I try to understand the people and their way of life. What I’ve always loved about traveling was the unexpected, just like in painting.
PhU In 1957, on leaving America, you headed for Asia and traveled around the world. Did that experience change you?
PS Absolutely. I realized then that I belonged to Western culture. I never considered American culture as cut off from our own. There isn’t the same gap that exists, for example, with China or Japan. America is a melting pot in progress.
When we landed in Istanbul in 1958, coming from Japan and India, I once again felt back in the West. After everything we’d discovered, Istanbul was the gateway to the world where I belonged.
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