About Pierre Soulages - Lévy Gorvy
Pierre Soulages in his studio, Sète, France, 1987

French abstract painter Pierre Soulages at home in Sete. (Photo by Pierre Perrin/Sygma via Getty Images)

About Pierre Soulages

Born in 1919 in Rodez, France

Known as “the painter of black and light,” Pierre Soulages has forged a career remarkable not only for its rigorous invention, but for its longevity. Since the postwar period, the artist has evaded participation in such movements as Abstract Expressionism, tachism, and informel—rather contextualizing his paintings in terms of vitalism, classicism, and prehistoric forms. Already in 1948, he refused the terms of lyrical abstraction: “Painting is not the equivalent of a sensation, an emotion, or a feeling; it is the organization of colored forms, on which is made and unmade a meaning that we impose on it.” Soulages has explored such contingency predominantly with the color black, arriving at tactile canvases which might recall nocturnal landscapes or charred earth. Since 1979, he has pursued his series Outrenoir, whose title is a portmanteau Soulages defines as “beyond black.” With these variously gouged, scraped, and slicked tar-like surfaces, he transforms the spatial and temporal dimensions of painting. Critic Donald Kuspit once described the abstractions as “negatively sublime”—they inflect obdurate materiality with the mercurial aspects of light, achieving the effect of the immeasurable.

As a child, Soulages was drawn to the prehistoric menhirs found in his hometown of Rodez and the Romanesque architecture of the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy in nearby Conques, and he would paint winter trees in black on a brown background, rendering branches in such a way to suggest movement in space. These early influences and endeavors would go on to shape his work for seven decades. In 1938, he moved to Paris to train as a drawing teacher and take the entrance exam for the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Though he was accepted, he declined the offer, dissatisfied with the school’s mediocre standards. He returned to Rodez newly inspired after visiting exhibitions of work by Cézanne and Picasso. He was soon conscripted into French military service, but he forged papers to avoid mandatory labor for the Nazi party and spent the occupation in central France working as a wine producer.

In 1946, Soulages returned to Paris to devote himself to painting, and he eventually settled into a studio on Rue Schoelcher near Montparnasse. He first exhibited his paintings—bold, flat marks of walnut stain on paper—in the Salon des Surindependents of October 1947, where he caught the attention of Francis Picabia. The following year would prove significant to Soulages’s exposure throughout Europe and the United States: He was the youngest artist to be included in Grosse Ausstellung Französische Abstrakte Malerei (Grand Exhibition of French Abstract Painting), the major traveling exhibition of abstract art organized by the Württembergische Kunstverein in Stuttgart; and James Johnson Sweeney, the future director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, made a visit to Soulages’s studio after hearing talk in Paris of a painter who worked in black with broad brushstrokes.

In 1949, the artist mounted his first solo exhibition at Galerie Lydia Conti in Paris, and his paintings were included in a group exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, where his work was received as a French analog to that of the New York School artists. In 1950, his paintings were juxtaposed with those of Franz Kline in the acclaimed exhibition Young Painters in the US and France, curated by Leo Castelli at Sidney Janis in New York. Three years later, Sweeney included the artist in Younger European Painters at the Guggenheim, alongside Karel Appel, Alberto Burri, Hans Hartung, and Victor Vasarely, among others. Before the exhibition closed, Soulages had signed with the legendary Samuel Kootz Gallery, where he had his first solo exhibition in New York just two months later. Soulages’s first retrospective was presented in 1960 at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, followed by iterations at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, and Kunsthaus Zürich. His first American retrospective was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1966. There, he suspended his paintings, back to back, from cables attached to the ceiling so that they appeared to float freely in space. The following year, the first retrospective dedicated to Soulages in France was presented at the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

In 1979, Soulages debuted his “mono-pigmented” black paintings at the Centre Pompidou, inaugurating Outrenoir, the body of work which would dominate his practice for the decades to come.  “These paintings were first called ‘Black Light,’ thus designating a light that was inseparable from the black that reflected it,” Soulages has said. “In order not to limit them to an optical phenomenon, I invented the word ‘Outrenoir’ beyond black or—across black—a light transmitted by black.” Soulages received the Grand Prix National de Peinture in 1986, and the following year he was granted a major commission from the French state to design 104 stained-glass windows for the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy. Over eight years, he expanded his engagement with light and architectonics to produce one of the great site-specific projects of the postwar period. In 1992, he received the Praemium Imperiale for Painting from the Japan Art Association.

Soulages has been honored with two additional retrospectives in France, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1996, and at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 2009. In 2001, he was the first living artist to be given a full-scale survey at the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, and in 2014, the Musée Soulages opened in the artist’s hometown of Rodez, housing five hundred paintings spanning Soulages’s career. More than 150 of his paintings are in public collections around the world, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tate Modern, London; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Lévy Gorvy has had the privilege of working with Pierre Soulages since 2014. That year, at 909 Madison Avenue, Dominique Lévy and Galerie Perrotin opened the first exhibition devoted to the artist in the US in ten years. Dominique Lévy Gallery published two books: Pierre Soulages, a catalogue featuring an interview with the artist and Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as essays by John Yau and Alain Badiou; and Soulages in America, in which an essay by Harry Cooper and an extensive interview with Philippe Ungar explore the artist’s work in the 1950s and ’60s.

On the occasion of Soulages’s centennial birthday in December 2019, the Musée du Louvre paid homage to the artist—who continues to paint today—with a survey of his seven-decade career, concurrent with an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. Before Soulages, the Louvre has honored only two other artists with an exhibition during their respective lifetimes: Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. To shed greater light on the French artist’s presence in the United States, Lévy Gorvy presented the major survey Pierre Soulages: A Century in New York from September to October 2019. This exhibition was accompanied by a publication, featuring essays by Brooks Adams and Alfred Pacquement as well as poems by Sy Hoahwah and Virginie Poitrasson.

Soulages lives and works in Paris and Sète, France.

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