Pierre Soulages, French painter with a palette of black, dies at 102


Like fellow Frenchman Yves Klein, who made monochrome paintings with a vivid blue hue, and American artist Robert Ryman, who worked almost exclusively with white, Pierre Soulages found a universe of possibilities in a single color. For more than four decades he painted only in black, laying his large canvases flat on the floor and brushing, raking or scraping thick pigment that shimmered in the light of his studios in Paris and the south of France.

“Black has been fundamental for me since childhood,” he told the New York Times in 2014, explaining how he liked to dip his paintbrush in black ink from the age of 6, if not earlier. He had access to other colors, he said, but ignored them altogether, once confusing an older sister who asked what he was drawing with such thick black lines. He replied simply, “Snow.”

Mr. Soulages grew to become one of the most successful French artists of the postwar period, making paintings that sold for seven figures at auction and captivated — or mystified — viewers around the world. His work was shown at museums including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (in 2001, he became the first contemporary artist to be exhibited by the Russian institution) and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which organized a 2009 retrospective that drew more than a half-million people.

It was the largest show the museum had ever devoted to a living artist, although Mr. Soulages insisted that he never lingered on such achievements. “I only think about what I am going to do tomorrow,” he told the Times. “And tomorrow, I want to paint.”

Mr. Soulages, 102, was still painting until a few weeks before he died Oct. 26 at a hospital in the port city of Sète, France. His death was confirmed by Swiss gallerist Dominique Lévy, a co-founder of the art consortium LGDR, which represents Mr. Soulages in the United States. She did not cite a cause.

“Pierre Soulages knew how to reinvent black, by bringing out the light,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tribute on Twitter. “Beyond the dark, his works are vivid metaphors from which each of us draws hope.”

A sculptor, draftsman and stained-glass artist in addition to a painter, Mr. Soulages was an elder statesman of abstract art, a literally towering figure who stood more than 6 feet tall and dressed only in black. He was perhaps the only contemporary artist who could claim to be a peer of Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler as well as a friend of Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst and Mark Rothko.

Although he remained better known in Europe than in the United States, Mr. Soulages was a significant part of the New York art scene in the 1950s and ’60s, when he was represented by the influential dealer Samuel M. Kootz and grouped with abstract expressionists such as Rothko and Franz Kline, another painter known for his love of the color black. Mr. Soulages said that while those artists were expressing their emotions through brushstrokes, he sought to do the opposite, trying to make paintings that led viewers to explore their own inner lives.

“It happens between the surface of the painting and the person who is in front of it,” he told the Times in 2019. “The reflection of light is what moves us.”

When he launched his career in the late 1940s, Mr. Soulages used walnut stain to apply thick, dark strokes to paper. In later years he painted large, calligraphic lines of white, gray, red or ocher, then applied streaks of black that he would scrape away to reveal the underlying colors. Then, in 1979, he simplified his palette, using only black and developing a style that he dubbed “outrenoir,” or “beyond black.”

The turning point came when he was working on a painting that seemed to have gone terribly wrong, devolving into a “black swamp,” as he put it. He kept at it anyway, believing that it would improve if he continued to work. “Eventually I went to sleep, and a few hours later I looked at what I had done,” he told the Times. “I was no longer working in black but working with the light reflected by the surface of the black. The light was dynamized by the strokes of paint. It was another world.”

Harry Cooper, the head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said Mr. Soulages “thrived with limitation,” restricting his range of colors so he could focus on what was left: “Light, texture, scale, shape, direction of stroke.”

He added that Mr. Soulages — like Ryman in the United States — experimented with the way his paintings were installed, hanging some in space so that you could walk around them. “They’re both pushing some limits in thinking about what the conventions are and why we have to obey them,” Cooper said.

Still, he added that Mr. Soulages was less concerned with issues of form and material than with fundamental questions of life and existence.

Mr. Soulages said as much himself. “If painting doesn’t offer a way to dream and create emotions, then it’s not worth it,” he told Interview magazine in 2014. “Painting isn’t just pretty or pleasant; it is something that helps you to stand alone and face yourself.”

Pierre Jean Louis Germain Soulages was born in Rodez, in the Aveyron region of southern France, on Dec. 24, 1919. His father made horse-drawn carriages and died the year Mr. Soulages turned 5, according to Le Monde.

Growing up, Mr. Soulages was captivated by prehistoric art, visiting a local natural history museum to examine the carvings on ancient stone monoliths. As a teenager he went on archaeological digs of his own, helping to excavate a Neolithic burial chamber and unearth artifacts that were preserved at a museum. He also became interested in ancient cave paintings, looking at reproductions that showed animals drawn with charcoal — dark figures that further stimulated his interest in the color black.

Mr. Soulages studied at the school of fine arts in Montpellier, where he met a fellow student named Colette Llaurens who shared his interest in pre-Renaissance art. After he saw her trying to persuade three young men that Pablo Picasso was “a great artist,” he invited her to a museum. “She came with me,” he recalled decades later, “and we haven’t been apart since.” They married in 1942, and she became his professional partner, helping to manage his business affairs. She is his sole immediate survivor.

During the Nazi occupation of France, Mr. Soulages went into hiding, pretending to be a winemaker to avoid being deported to Germany as a forced laborer. He and his wife moved to Paris after the war, and in 1947 he made his artistic debut at the Salon des Surindépendants. Unlike the other paintings, his was dark, not red or yellow. “Next to the other works, it looked like a fly in a glass of milk,” he told Interview. “Everyone was saying, ‘Who is this country boy making black paintings?’”

Mr. Soulages received much-needed encouragement from avant-garde painter Francis Picabia and soon caught the attention of American curator James Johnson Sweeney, who helped bring his work to museums in New York. Kootz, the dealer, organized Mr. Soulages’s first American solo show in 1954.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Mr. Soulages took a break from painting to craft more than 100 stained-glass windows for the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy in Conques, not far from where he grew up. He later donated hundreds of his works to the Musée Soulages, which opened in Rodez in 2014.

Other works never made it outside his home. When a painting didn’t capture his interest or work as he hoped, he took the canvas to his garden, rolled it up and burned it.

“I paint by crisis,” he told the Times. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If we know exactly what we are going to do before we do it we are not artists but artisans.”

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