Outrenoir, recent paintings
Soulages in Relief by Brooks Adams
Black is before light. Before light, the world and its things were in total darkness. With light were born colors. Black is before them. Also before, for each of us, before being born, “before having seen the light of day.” These notions of origin are profoundly buried in us. Is it for these reasons that black touches us so powerfully?
There are 320 centuries since the known origins of painting, and during thousands of years, men went underground, in the absolute black of grottoes, to paint and paint with black. A fundamental color, black is also the color of origin for painting.*
At the Centre Pompidou in Paris they stop and stare at the big 1980s polyptych by Pierre Soulages in the permanent collection of the Musee national d’Art moderne. More than the works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or David Smith (or for that matter, the ‘50s work by Soulages) in the same room, it‘s the big, black 1985 work that holds viewers’ attention and elicits intense discussion. The French are visibly and audibly proud of their Soulages: the ‘50s Soulages everyone seems to know, but it’s this ‘80s painting, with its racy, scored-black shininess, that palpably towers over the other works in the gallery. (No matter that it also dates from 30 years later than the AbEx works.) Familiar from the media, from Telerama spreads to French art-history textbooks, the name Soulages, and the aura around his large black paintings, are immensely attractive to the French, who seem much less interested, for instance, in Pollock’s The Deep in the same room. Why this should be, and why this strikes an American-in-Paris as noteworthy, requires some explanation.
Soulages’s work belongs both to actuality and to art history. At the age of 85, he’s making revelatory works – light-filled, scintillating black abstractions, with the occasional flash of white or blue, that confirm the immense promise felt in his last show in Paris in 2002. This recent flurry of Soulagean activity will be news to the New York contemporary art world, since he has not had a show there since 1977. That was many, many art-worlds ago, in the heyday of High Conceptual Art, a year or two before I (among many others) had begun to reconsider the importance of Europe, and the interconnections between Europe and America in postwar contemporary art. Now the connections between Paris and New York in the post-1945 period are better known, but Soulages’s new work throws any such certainties on the subject into jeopardy.
The painter we thought we knew was born in 1919 in the provincial town of Rodez and emerged young in 1947 in Paris, in the company of artists like Hans Hartung (1904-1989) and Atlan (1913-1960), who were his best friends at the time. He first showed precocious black works that were immediately noticed by Francis Picabia at the alternative Salon des Surindependents in Oct. 1947. Amidst all the paintings with primary colors at the Salon, Soulages’s. black works struck a new chord.
As early as October 1950, in a famous group show “Young Painters in the U.S. and France” curated by Leo Castelli at Sidney Janis in New York, Soulages’s work was juxtaposed with that of Franz Kline (1910-62); in that show, Lanskoy was paired with Pollock, deStael with Rothko and Dubuffet with De Kooning. Thus began a whole series of very tiresome Paris-New York calumnies in which it was variously claimed that Soulages was a follower of Kline’s, and vice versa. (For the record, Soulages made bold, flat frontal marks with walnut stain on paper in 1947, three years before Kline arrived at similar forms.) Such controversies would do much to poison the exchanges of the two artworld capitals for many years to come.
Back at Beaubourg, in the section devoted to art from 1960 to the present, I saw a naive yet arresting black and white composition by a seemingly young artist having his first licks at ABC art, who turned out to be the very same Pierre Soulages. Four scrawny, white horizontals on a warm black slate-like surface edged by a much bolder, painterly black and white abstraction: Painting, 200 x 220 cm, 22 April 2002 stopped me dead in my tracks. “Soulages made this work?” I asked myself; (in fact it came out his last Paris show). With its nods to Cy Twombly’s blackboard painting and Brice Marden’s Thira across the way, (not to mention works by Sean Scully familiar in the Parisian context,) this 21st-century Soulages is a gauntlet dropped.
In terms of rewriting art history: It might seem contradictory to align Soulages the confirmed modernist with Picabia the shapeshifting, proto-postmodernist, whose cheesecake nudes from the 1940s have proved so essential to the recent Zeitgeist of contemporary art in both Paris and New York.. But this alignment tells us much about Soulages’s temperament and the reasons we’re still talking about him today.
On a biographical level, Picabia’s playful spirit did much to infuse and shape the striving of the serious young painter, as he told me during a studio visit at both his Rue Monge and Rue Saint-Victor ateliers last winter. Later, on the way to lunch at Le Dome, Soulages recounted how Picabia in the late 1940s procured for him the desperately needed part-time job of substitute math teacher, for which he had zero aptitude; how the older artist, best known for his kitschy nudes at the time , took him in secret to see his more serious Dada work at the house of his first wife, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia; and how Soulages was present at the opening of the elder artist’s perplexing show “Picabia Point” at the Galerie des-Deux-Iles in December 1949. Now these thickly encrusted, polka-dot paintings, rediscovered amidst the Picabia fever of the last few years, seem like important precedents for Soulages’s metaphysical, light-struck recent work.
I have been enormously satisfied with the paintings you sent me. I believe they do you great credit. In this, I find all our American painters agree, as well as the collectors and museum directors like Sweeney and Barr, both of whom like the show immensely. I feel very strongly this exhibition will entrench your reputation here in New York.²
Soulages had his first one-man show at the Kootz gallery in New York in April-May 1954, and thereafter, during the 1950s and ‘60s his work was better known in America than it was in his native France. This was largely through the aegis of James Johnson Sweeney, the MOMA curator, who sought Soulages out in Paris in his Rue Schoelcher studio in 1948; and Sam Kootz, who bought 20 to 30 paintings a year from the artist (and had 3 one-man shows) until 1966, when the gallery closed. As Pierre Encreve recounts in the catalogue raisonne, when Kootz signed on George Mathieu and Soulages in 1954, both Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb left the gallery in fits of pique, and thereafter Kootz was obliged to develop more and more a program of contemporary European art.
But when Soulages made his first trip to New York in November 1957, he was warmly received by the local artists: Sam Hunter had a party for him at which Rothko, in a now famous anecdote, ribbed him about the dead art he seen in European museums, to which Soulages cleverly replied that he’d seen the same kind of art in New York museums (the two artists later became long-distance friends, and Rothko visited Soulages in Paris.) Even Robert Motherwell was won over. Soulages finally met the arch-rival Franz Kline , who remarked that Soulages resembled his paintings. Soulages notes wryly that he heard “Kline was a very good dancer.”
What remains to be said is that Soulages disdained all nomenclatures at the time — Abstract Expressionist, Tachiste, or Informel — and he still does.
By the time Soulages had his first American retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston 1966, LBJ was in the White House, and the Vietnam War was on bigtime. The Houston retrospective must have been quite a glamorous affair. It was installed by Soulages and James Johnson Sweeney (now director of that museum) in the new open-plan, black-steel girdered wing designed by Mies Van Der Rohe – whose work presents many parallels to Soulages’s own slashing black architectonics. The paintings were hung free-floating in space, suspended only by cables attached to the ceiling, in three staggered rows with smaller works hung on the back sides of the larger ones.
Two years later in 1968, Sol LeWitt, Blinky Palermo and Daniel Buren (whose student works hang in Soulages’s house in Sete) took painting off the stretcher altogether and introduced the concept of the temporary, site-specific artwork. In his debonair way. Soulages had sounded the call.
Between 1977, the date of his last show in New York, and now, April 2005, Soulages’s work was hardly seen in America . On the contrary, in France (as well as almost everywhere else, it seems), Soulages’s public career was really taking off. In Paris, he had an important exhibition of his new all-black paintings (in which the cables were used again) at Beaubourg in 1979; and in 1996, “Noir lumiere,” a big travelling retrospective at. Le Musee d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, where the term “Black Light” was coined.. (During this period Soulages frequently used the installation technique of hanging identically sized paintings back to back on cables.) In 1992, he won the Premium Imperiale in Tokyo with Frank Gehry and Akira Kurosawa. In 1994, Isabelle Huppert initiated a long exchange between Soulages and Bob Wilson, published in Les Cahiers du Cinema (Mar. ‘94). In the same year he had a retrospective in Beijing and Taipei. At the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in 2001, he was the first Western artist to be given a full-scale survey. All these internationals honors were bolstered by the fact that at home, Soulages had achieved something really remarkable.
The major French state commission that Soulages obtained in 1987 to design 106 new stained glass windows for the great Romanesque abbey church at Conques (in his native Aveyron) was brought about by a commission headed by Dominque Bozo at the height of the Mitterand era. The project is central to the obsessive concern with light that has always infused Soulages’s abstract paintings, and it furthermore affirmed a strong architectonic urge that had always been present in his work.
What Soulages achieved at Conques, over a gruelling eight-year period ending in 1994, is nothing less than a total work of art. According to the artist, he was at first offered a few windows in the transept, but he pushed to get the whole church. With the authorities’ decision to reconceptualize all the windows, the church was purged of its World War II memories, for the windows had been filled by neo-medievalist scenes commissioned in the 1940s under Marechal Petain’s collaborationist government at Vichy. Soulages’s overall scheme effectively liberated the church’s magnificent architecture and made it his own site-specific installation. In the pure, white industrial glass he arrived at (after some 800 test samples), he found the perfect translucent vehicule — the transmogrified two-sided painting, as it were – that, as a soft, ever-changing grey-white, is equally legible from inside and outside the church.. The battery of straight and softly arcing black lines make you feel the architecture, and your movement through it, as well as the winds and mountains of the surrounding Aveyron, as I discovered on a trip there in raw, early spring.
In situ, I sensed the windows’ inevitable dialogue with the public works of younger artist such as Sol LeWitt, Daniel Buren, Richard Serra, Frank Stella and Brice Marden. In the same period as the Conques commission, LeWitt executed his colossal outdoor murals for the arcade of the Equitable Building in New York; Buren was achieving his permanent installation of columns and an underground fountain in the Palais Royal in Paris; Serra was placing his behemoth black sculptures inside and outside churches (and synagogues) all over Europe; and Stella was beginning to design neo-baroque museum wings in the former East Germany. Inside the church, I also remembered Brice Marden’s designs for the windows of Basel Cathedral, on which he worked for seven years, but which were never realized.
Soulages’s work at Conques belongs in this broader context; it is one of the great-site specific projects of the postwar period – in a line that leads from Matisse at Vence to the Rothko Chapel; to Louise Nevelson’s St. Peter Lutheran Church in New York; and to James Turrell’s Quaker Meeting House in Houston. (Both Nevelson’s black-wood installations and Turrell’s black-glazed ceramics also present fascinating affinities to Soulages’s “Black Light” paintings.).
We feel Soulages’s intense ambition and intense humility at Conques; different from the Matisee, the Rothko, the Nevelson or the Turrell buildings, the abbey church is a world-class example of Romanesque architecture that had, in fact, precipitated Soulages’s decision to become an artist , when he first stood there at the age of 14, before the great Last Judgement tympanum.. On the upper floor of the church, having been let in with keys borrowed from the tourist office next door, I followed the austere horizontal lines of the windows, which so beautifully echo the hefty, stepped window sills below them, around the entirety of the church, with its blond and pinkish grey stones.
It was Soulages’s work that had brought me here, rather than Romanesque architecture; or the cult of Sainte Foy, martyred at 12, whose bejewelled 9th -1Oth century A.D. reliquary is in the treasury; or a pilgrimage to San Juan Compostella in Spain for which Conques is an important stop. No, in order to understand the “Outrenoir,” Soulages’s “Beyondblack,” I had to see the windows’ white light — honed down, shaped, inflected and ever-changing – and it was well worth the trip. I’ll never forget, among other things, the way the “white” windows, when viewed from the outside, rhyme with the infinitely various, slate roof tiles of the village houses. Soulages’s Conques is a late 20th-cnetury triumph of site-specificity and state patronage.
These paintings were first called “Black Light,” thus designating a light that was inseparable from the black that reflected it. In order not to limit them to an optical phenomenon, I invented the word “Beyondblack” – across black — a light transmittted by black and like “Across the Channel” or “Across the Rhine” designating another country. “Beyondblack” also designates another country, another mental field than that of simply black.*
In the fall of 2004, Soulages presented one of his 1996 black triptychs in the unlikely context of the Musee d’Orsay, alongside 3 black and white photographs of the sea by the 19th-century master Gustave Le Gray, from the museum collection.. The choice of Soulages was a natural – at the age of 85, he is the pre-eminent French artist of his generation – and his choice of Le Gray was in turn a subtle and canny one. Le Gray was after all the inventor of the wet collodion-on-glass negative in 1850 and his photos of the sea, surrounded by voluminous skies, often collaged from several plates, set new standards of verisimilitude at the time.
Soulages would have a more personal filation to LeGray, since many of the photographs were taken off the coast at Sete where since 1959, Soulages has spent much of the summer and built a modernist gem of a house — with an open plan, Saarinen tables, Bertoia chairs and an austerely tonal, almost black and white, artist’s garden. Sete is where many of the paintings in the show have been started or completed, and Sete is ultimately also where Soulages burns his rejects in a black pile at the end of the garden.
Le Gray is important to Soulages, because he, too, was an innovator with light, and Soulages believes himself fevently to be an artist of light rather than darkness. (In this, the experience of Conques for him may have been decisive.) Speaking of his actual process, Soulages said to me in his Rue Saint-Victor studio last winter: “It’s always the light that leads me when painting.” By this, I take it to mean that he actually conceives of light as a tool.
Made on the floor of his studio, with the artist standing on a narrow, rolling platform, and using low-tech tools, Soulages’s new paintings may look fast – “tres speed, ”. the younger French would say – and even technologically zippy, but in fact, they are slow, distilled, boiled down to painting essences.. The acrylic they are made of is heavy and sludgy, and the drawing tool is often a wood, square-section stick or even a ripped box edge.
The marks in the new works are achieved by dragging a piece of wood or a dull blade through the paint at an angle to make a ridge. Shift the angle of the tool, and that ridge can evoke “now light, now shade,” according to the artist. Likewise Soulages can drastically alter the appearance of paint surfaces, by changing the light position. To this extent, they are also like ancient relief sculptures, for example Roman sarcophagi, that can be photographed to such notoriously different effect that you wouldn’t even think they were the same works.
In fact, the vertical quadryptychs in the show strongly evoke the ancient menhirs that Soulages has known since childhood , and that are now the focal point of the newly reinstalled collections of the Musee Fenaille in Rodez. Dating from 3000 B.C. these extraordinary standing stones, culled from the Aveyron and nearby, have elemental, chiselled lines that denote male and female attributes. Diagonal scabbards and prominent belts characterize the men, while figures with circles and banded lines are usually women. The sculptures, while in the round, have dominant front and back sides. All this points to the two-sided paintings (both on cables and at Conques) , as well as the incised lights and shadows, and above all, the obsessive linear banding to be found in the “Outrenoir.”
The quadryptychs give off a strong haptic feeling. The smaller dyptychs suggest nocturnal seascapes, with an absolute horizon between black sky and black sea, or even more strongly, black landscapes with deeply plowed fields. (Of course, the artist does not comment on such associations.).
These qualities of chiselled stone, dark landscape, and desiccated flesh align Soulages’s Outrenoir once more with the Abstract Expressionists, for DeKooning never lost touch with his Rubsenian women, Still with his stern Canadian landscape or Pollock with his Surrealist demons. There is a similar dark underbelly to Soulages’s new work, and it may have to do with memories of a hardscrabble youth during the ‘30s and ‘40s in rural, wartime France, in the harsh and beautiful country that is the Aveyron. All this is reduced to an extreme clarity in the “Outrenoir”. It’s the clarity of suffering, and of transcendence.
*Text courtesy of the artist. All translations from the French are my own. -Pierre Soulages, from a preface to Annie Mollard-Desfour, Le Dictionnnaire des Mots et Expressions de Couleur, Le Noir, Paris, forthcoming, Fall 2005
² Letter from Sam Kootz to Pierre Soulages, May 3, 1954 (quoted in Pierre Encreve, Soulages. L’Œuvre complet, peintures I, 1946-1959, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1994, p. 158.)