Pierre Soulages is a century old. In anticipation of his retrospective to be held at the Salon Carré at the Louvre later this year, the current exhibition at Lévy Gorvy, Pierre Soulages: A Century, presents a generously full survey.
On the first floor, we see the paintings with wide black horizontals or verticals, which made his name in France and America in the 1950s. Sometimes, as in the work dated 30 octobre 1958 (Soulages’s titles indicate the date of painting), we see extended areas of the golden background field. And in the painting from 30 octobre 1957, we have an interlocked structure of broad verticals and horizontals, composing a grid. In some of these works, faint blues peak out from underneath the blacks. And in another, from 13 octobre 1958, pale reds are visible underneath the heavy slanting black lines descending from the top.
On the second floor are Soulages’s works from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s when by stages he filled in the entire canvas with black. Finally, the top floor shows paintings from the past three years, one in oil, the others in acrylic pigment, which makes different textures possible.
Experimenting with the support, one of these recent works, “12 octobre 2018,” is hung on wires near the center of the gallery. Heavy pigments run horizontally in broad lines on the painting from 29 décembre 2018. And yet another, from 25 juillet 2017, has short parallel lines drawn into the black surface.
These paintings are very varied, which means that a quick viewing of the show is most unrewarding. Allow yourself the luxury of ample time — the longer you look, the more you find to see. Soulage’s blacks are not usually delicate, but they are not brutal either. Sometimes he uses black to fill in the space, but often he also draws with it.
Early on, Soulages’s paintings were related to Franz Kline’s. In The Story of Art, comparing a 1954 Soulages with a Kline, E. H. Gombrich finds “the quality of the paint (in the Soulages) looks more pleasant to me.”
That is a limited comparison, for Soulages was never an Abstract Expressionist. Like many old master Chinese artists, he makes gestural black pictures. But he is not a calligrapher. Like Ad Reinhardt, Soulages has come to work almost entirely in black. But he is not interested in making art documenting the end of art history. Many American and French artists use only a single color.
But Soulages is not, I think, a monochrome painter. Some modernists made grisaille works. But Soulages is not interested in that reductive procedure. And of course countless artists have created figurative or abstract works by drawing in black on white paper. But Soulages is not making drawings. He paints in black.
Sometimes the best way to understand extreme painting like Soulages’s is to look for its seeming opposite. When recently Robert Ryman passed away, there was in some obituaries an almost audible skepticism about the ultimate value of his pure art. A generation ago, some critics greatly admired him because they thought (mistakenly) that his work marked the end of the history of painting.
Now, at a moment when painting, most especially figurative painting, is enlisted in the service of so many (good!) political and social causes, the significance of his work has come up for grabs. Ryman often said that white was just the color he used to make paintings. And he believed that his work extended the entire modernist tradition, which he thought would be ongoing long after him.
The same, I would suggest, might be said of Soulages. Just as white for Ryman is not one of many colors, but the color of painting for him; so for Soulages black is what white was for Ryman, the means for making good paintings. That you can make challenging works, art that inspires close attention, simply with white (or black) is an important visual discovery. It doesn’t mean that artists have to be involved in an endgame.
To properly understand Pierre Soulages: A Century, a historical perspective is essential. In the mid-18th century, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin demonstrated that paintings depicting only still life objects could have all the resonance of grand historical subjects. And then in the early 20th century, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian showed that purely abstract works, with no identifiable subjects, could be as serious and significant as traditional figurative paintings. Now, to continue the story, Soulages and Ryman demonstrate that paintings essentially employing a single color can have all of the expressive power and intensity of works using a full palette.
At the same time, like his precursors, by extending the tradition, Soulages also displaces it. Just as Chardin got viewers to focus attention of the still life objects already present in the background of history paintings, and Kandinsky and Mondrian taught us to scrutinize the essentially abstract elements that make up figurative works, so Soulages’ paintings in black also has the capacity to change the way we view prior art.
In the little handout provided by the gallery, there is a quote from Soulages that refers to his range of sources, “from ancient menhirs (upright stones from the European Bronze age) to Romanesque architecture.” Initially I was puzzled by this statement. What has his painting to do with these historically distant art forms?
But on reflection, the significance and import of this claim became clear. In the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, it was often said that this painting extended old master tradition, thus revealing art’s essence. This exhibition proposes a radically different aesthetic.
Soulages does not eliminate the dispensable qualities of painting, but changes how we understand its basic nature. He is not a reductive painter, but an artist who enlarges our sense of tradition by demonstrating the infinite potential of a single pigment, collapsing the distinctions between painting and drawing, or gesture and surface. That he has been able to develop an entire oeuvre out of painting’s essence, and to keep it going through his 100th year, is astonishing.
Note: This review draws upon my “Robert Ryman on the Origins of His Art,” Burlington Magazine, 1134, vol. CXXXIX (September 1997): 631-3, which is based upon two extensive unpublished interviews.
Pierre Soulages: A Century continues at Lévy Gorvy (909 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 26.