Obituary of Pierre Soulages (1919-2022): pioneer of abstraction

Pioneering French painter, printmaker and sculptor Pierre Soulages died in Paris at the age of 102. He was a key proponent of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism and, above all, a master of the color black.

Known as “the painter of black and light”, Soulages was born in Rodez, a small town in the south of France, in 1919. His enthusiasm for painting dates back to his childhood. during which he was inspired by prehistoric standing stones found near his hometown and painted black winter trees against a dark background, the latter forming the premise of his painting practice for decades to come.

After a short stay in Paris in 1938, the artist spent the occupation working as a winegrower in central France. He settled permanently in the French capital in 1946, settled in a small studio and devoted himself to painting. His early work was dynamic and abstract, designed by applying dark colors in broad, bar-like brushstrokes on pristine white canvases. Although his paintings are closely related to abstract expressionism, Soulages always rejected the limits of lyrical abstraction: “Painting is not the equivalent of a sensation, an emotion or a feeling; it is the organization of the colored forms, on which is made and undone a meaning that one imposes on it”, he will say later.

Portrait of the artist Pierre Soulages in 1974

(Image credit: Photo by Jacques Haillot/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

The post-war years are important in the career of Soulages. After exhibiting his work at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1947, he was shown at the Grosse Ausstellung Französische Abstrakte Malerei, a major traveling exhibition of abstract art held in Stuttgart, and caught the attention of James Johnson Sweeney, the future director of the Museum. Guggenheim. At New York. This meeting leads shortly after to his first personal exhibition at the Galerie Lydia Conti. At the time, the work of Soulages was often perceived as the French counterpart of the school of New York artists, in particular the work of Franz Kline. During the 1960s, Soulages gained visibility and fame across Europe and America, and was celebrated in a number of major retrospectives.

In 1979, Soulages began a work entitled Outrenoir (“beyond black”) that would define his career. In this monochrome series, he applied black acrylic in thick layers on the canvas, before engraving stripes and streaks on it. This technique created a surface in which smooth, glassy blocks of black met the roughness of raw canvas – his paintings were landscapes of light, form, reflection and perception. Soulages’ experimental approach used tools of his own production as well as domestic utensils; he was driven by the desire to think outside the box, constantly looking for innovation.

#2_Painting, 165 x 130 cm, December 12, 2015, 2015 Acrylic on canvas / Acrylic on canvas 165 x 130 cm |  64 15/16 x 51 3/16 in © Soulages

Pierre Soulage, #1_Painting, 165 x 296 cm, February 5, 20142014. Acrylic on canvas

(Image credit: Claire Dorn. © Soulages / ADAGP, Paris 2017. Courtesy Perrotin)

In 2019, on the occasion of the artist’s 100th birthday, the Louvre Museum, the Pompidou Center, the Fabre Museum in Montpellier and the headquarters of the Perrotin Gallery in Shanghai organized exhibitions to honor his work. The gallery has also published a monograph on the artist’s work Outrenoir series.

As Emmanuel Perrotin, who began collaborating with the artist in 2017, said in a press release: “I will always remember our first meeting in 2012 in the house in Sète, with Colette: I met a couple there extraordinarily dynamic. They immediately fascinated me with their memory and their energy. Perrotin describes Soulages as “a great artist of course, but also a great soul, generous and sympathetic, a great figure of both the 20th and 21st centuries and a great friend, who will remain in my heart and in that of the teams of the gallery. My thoughts are with Colette and their team in Sète. He will be greatly missed by all of us.

#3_Painting, 222 x 137 cm, September 22, 2013, 2013 Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulage, #3_Painting, 222 x 137 cm, September 22, 20132013. Acrylic on canvas.

(Image credit: © Soulages / ADAGP, Paris 2017. Courtesy Perrotin. Photography: Claire Dorn)

Soulages received the Grand Prix National de Peinture in 1986. The following year, he received an ambitious commission from the French state to design 104 stained glass windows for the abbey church of Sainte-Foy, located near his hometown of Rodez, a project it would take eight years.

Known for his sensational ability to subtly represent the invisible, Pierre Soulages has gained worldwide recognition as a key figure in Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. By transforming black into an incandescent color, the artist highlights the origins of humanity in its darkness and its light.

Portrait of Pierre Soulages

Portrait of Pierre Soulages

(Image credit: © Vincent Cunillère)

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