Pierre Soulages — known by many as the “Painter of Black” — died today, October 26, at the age of 102. For 75 years, Soulages produced canvas after abstract canvas using black pigment, his oeuvre an archive of his searching journey to understand the color’s primordial origins and its paradoxical role as a portal to light. His death was confirmed by his gallery, Perrotin.
“What’s my secret?” Soulages posed to himself in a conversation published in Interview in 2014, probing how he managed to be so prolific as an artist well into his ninth decade. “I just keep thinking about the painting I’m going to do tomorrow.” Today, his works hang in over 110 museums including the Guggenheim, the Tate Gallery, and his very own Musée Soulages, located in his southern France hometown of Rodez.
Soulages’s interrogation of black was not restricted to his artistic practice but permeated his way of life. For one, he was always dressed in all-black: When the Abstract Expressionist artist Franz Kline, who would later become his good friend, first met Soulages in New York in the 1950s, Kline remarked that he looked like his paintings. Soulages’s obsession with the color began as soon as he was given a paintbrush as a child; given other colors to use, he ignored them, gravitating repeatedly to black ink. When he was found making thick black lines with a brush at the age of six and was asked what he was drawing, he responded simply, “snow.”
“I love the authority of black — its severity, its obviousness, its radicalism,” Soulages told the French newspaper Agence France-Presse in 2019.
Born in southern France, Soulages was taken from an early age with Romanesque churches, prehistoric cave paintings, and menhirs, Bronze age monolithic stones. At 16, he became mesmerized by a photo of a cave painting of a bison from the Altamira cave in Spain. Inspired, he embarked on an archaeological dig, unearthing artifacts that constituted his first entries into a museum. His contact with the prehistoric prompted his realization that “from the beginning, man went into completely dark caves to paint”: “They could have painted with white because there were white stones all over the ground, but no, they chose to paint with black in the dark.” He was astonished by this fact — one which aligned completely with his own instincts.
In the late 1930s, Soulages moved to Paris, where he was accepted at the École des Beaux-Arts but never formally enrolled, and worked briefly as a winemaker, avoiding being sent to Germany during the war. He later exhibited alongside other Abstract Expressionists, many considerably older than him, in Paris, Stuttgart, London, and soon became an object of interest in the United States among gallerists like Betty Parsons, museum curators like James Johnson Sweeney, and collectors like Duncan Phillips. In 1954, he showed at the Venice Biennale, and in 1955, he was part of the first Documenta art show in Kassel, Germany. During this period, Soulages’s paintings featured self-assured brush strokes on white canvas, some with violent flashes of color, varyingly unremitting in their permission of light.
He luxuriated in the diverse atmosphere of postwar Paris, where, he said, he communed among “Communist painters, figurative painting, traditional French painting, which was ridiculous, and the surrealists who had come back from America.”
With time, Soulages transitioned to blanketing his canvases in black, a practice he dedicated himself to between the 1960s and ’80s. Towards the end of that time, he came to develop his technique of outrenoir, translating most closely in English to “beyond black,” in which his focus shifted from the color itself to the reflection of light from black. The practice prioritized an emphasis on texture, in which he would scrape, etch, mold, and disfigure paint with different implements to effect disruptions of light. From 1987 to 1994, Soulages was commissioned to create over 100 stained-glass windows for the Sainte-Foy de Conques abbey, a Romanesque church that he mystified with simple repeating curved patterns.
In 2009, the Pompidou Centre’s retrospective of his work became the museum’s largest exhibition of a contemporary artist, claiming around half a million visitors. In December 2019, the Louvre hosted a retrospective of his work on the occasion of his centenary; Soulages became only the third living artist, after Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso, to receive that honor.
For an artist consumed with a color associated with mortality, Soulages was remarkably unfazed by it, once declaring: “I don’t care about my death, as long as my paintings live.”