Pierre Soulages, “Peinture 130.2 x 162.5 cm, 27 juillet 1956” (1956) (all images courtesy Dominique Lévy and Galerie Perrotin)

On the third floor of the Pierre Soulages show currently on view at Dominique Lévy gallery, viewers will discover paintings from the 1950s and 60s. Some are small and others medium-scale.  In each case, they are typically dense in their structure, but given to a more inadvertent openness than most of his recent work. These earlier paintings contain overlapping black and umber brushwork at vertical, horizontal, and diagonal angles, holding forth shimmers of light – discreet underpinnings of ochre and yellow – peering between constructed sections. While the boldness of the artist’s strokes is present, they have little to do with action painting. They are neither expressionist nor endowed solely through the immediacy of their painterly application. Rather they appear definitive in their positioning and precise in their execution. They are the kind of paintings that made an impression on important New York curators, such as James Johnson Sweeny, and gallerists, including Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, and Samuel Kootz in the late forties and early fifties. For many, Pierre Soulages was regarded as the Parisian counterpart to the abstract expressionists in New York.  The only problem was that the French audience, in general, appeared less interested in his work than the Americans.

Soulages’s paintings were then, and still are, given to sections more than a holistic intake. The early works suggest a more symbolic aspect than those presently included on the first and second floors on the walls of Galerie Perrotin and Dominique Lévy. Whereas earlier works, such as “Peinture 146 x 97 cm, 10 janvier 1951” and “Peinture 195 x 130 cm, mai 1953,” respectively in the collections of MoMA and the Guggenheim, suggest a kind of contradiction between form and space, between the gesture and the surface, between the support and its interior. These painterly ideas were closer to Soulages than the more metaphorical interpretations of being an expression of post-World War II trauma where hope lingers in the crevices between the charred remnants (a popular interpretation that Soulages attempted to discourage).

Soulages_Peinture 157 x 222 cm, 6 avril 2013

Pierre Soulages, “Peinture 157 x 222 cm, 6 avril 2013” (2013)

The surfaces in the recent work from 2013–14 reveals more literal variations of black pigment, often utilizing an uncompromising matt underpainting as a support for glossy black on top; or, alternatively, light refracting from severe cuts into a hardened density of pigment, unequaled in works associated with subsequent modes of pastiche used in some overworked paintings associated with painters of The New York School in the turbulent late fifties.  By 1979, Soulages had shifted his emphasis by moving away from former juxtapositions toward a more formally ordered surface, yet still latent with energy through his ability to discover light emanating from various angles, reminiscent in some way to the play of light on dark found in an extraordinary brick loggia designed by Josef Albers on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology (destroyed 2001).  However, the focus on the presence of light continues in the paintings of Soulages to be borne from the blackness as made evident in the paintings of the last two years.

The most recent paintings constitute a latent subterfuge, whereby the light bounces rhythmically from one panel to another within a single painting Three of these are hung off the walls as they are suspended with thin wire to hold them in place in the open space of the galleries. Some paintings reveal a rough-edged contour over a smoothly chiseled surface. The affect reeks with a kind of abdominal essence, a respite from the normative facture found in earlier paintings. The assertion of light in Soulages’s resilient paintings is remarkable in its immediacy, given that the work not only exalts a heightened sensory elegance, but a clearly anchored youthful appearance. They are not at all the works of a retiring artist, but appear to have been made through the strength of accurate perception, thereby suggesting equivalence between the color black the truth of absence.  They are paintings that offer substance to the way we perceive light. The pigment literally emit light by refracting off the surface, a point of view closer to Eastern Taoism than to the traditions of Western painting that began in medieval times.

Pierre Soulages, “Peinture 175 x 222 cm, 23 mai 2013” (2013)

The concurrent showing of work by Soulages at Dominique Lévy and Galerie Perrotin is his first exhibition in New York since 2005, nearly a decade ago. The previous exhibitions were also concurrent, then shown at the Robert Miller Gallery and at Hain Chanin Fine Art. On that occasion, which I believed important, I did an interview with Soulages in which we discussed the emergence of his work independent of any direct influences either in Paris or New York, suggesting that he was a kind of renegade painter in spite of the efforts of a few French gallerists and writers to help him. What made him a renegade was his commitment to the color black, which I believe he understood as a color.

Before 2005, Soulages had not shown in New York since the mid-1970s, which constituted a breath of thirty years. Yet, in spite of the intervals of his relevance to New York, his presence here remains central to the history of the advance in abstract painting shared between the European continent and the United States. Stated succinctly in a talk given by critic Brooks Adams at the opening of this masterfully executed exhibition on Madison Avenue, “This show is a proposal about Post-War abstraction.” Adams’ point is that a reevaluation concerning the painting exalted in this era where silent linkages appear between the two continents is well in order. Soulages is a central figure within this revisionist history, given the highly esteemed, renegade painter that he continues to be.

Pierre Soulages continues at Dominique Lévy and Galerie Perrotin (909 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 27.

Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from...