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

Like fellow Frenchman Yves Klein, who made monochrome paintings with a bright 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 ground and brushing, raking or scraping thick pigments that shimmered in the light from his workshops in Paris and the south of France.

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

Mr. Soulages became one of France’s most successful post-war artists, producing paintings that sold for seven figures at auction and captivated – or mystified – viewers around the world. His work has been shown in museums including the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (in 2001 he became the first contemporary artist to be exhibited by the Russian institution) and the Center Pompidou in Paris, which organized a retrospective in 2009 which attracted more than half a million people.

It was the largest exhibition the museum had ever devoted to a living artist, although Mr Soulages insisted he never dwelled on such achievements. “All I can think about is what I’m going to do tomorrow,” he told The Times. “And tomorrow I want to paint.”

Mr. Soulages, 102, was still painting for a few weeks before he died on October 26 in a hospital in the port city of Sète, France. His death was confirmed by the Swiss gallery owner Dominique Lévy, co-founder of LGDR artistic consortium, who represents Mr. Soulages in the United States. She did not cite a cause.

“Pierre Soulages was able to reinvent black, bringing out the light”, Emmanuel Macron said in a tribute on Twitter. “Beyond the darkness, his works are living metaphors from which each of us draws hope.”

A sculptor, draftsman and stained glass artist in addition to being a painter, Mr. Soulages was a former statesman of abstract art, a literally imposing figure who stood over 6 feet tall and was 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 an important part of the New York art scene in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was represented by the influential art dealer Samuel M Kootz and grouped with Abstract Expressionists. like Rothko and Franz Kline, another painter known for his love of the color black. Mr. Soulages said that while these artists expressed 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 board and the person in front of it,” he said. 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. Later, he paints in broad calligraphic lines of white, grey, red or ochre, then applies streaks of black which he scratches to reveal the underlying colors. Then, in 1979, he simplified his palette, using only black and developing a style he called “outrenoir”, or “beyond black”.

The turning point came while he was working on a painting that seemed to have gone horribly wrong, turning into a “black swamp,” as he put it. He continued regardless, believing it would get better if he kept working. “Eventually I fell asleep and a few hours later watched what I had done,” he told The Times. “I no longer worked in black but with the light reflected by the surface of the black. The light has been energized by touches of paint. It was another world. »

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

He added that Mr Soulages – like Ryman in the US – experimented with the way his paintings were installed, suspending some in space for you to walk around them. “They’re both pushing certain boundaries thinking about what conventions are and why we have to obey them,” Cooper said.

Yet he added that Mr. Soulages was less concerned with questions of form and matter than with the fundamental questions of life and existence.

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

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

Growing up, Mr. Soulages was captivated by prehistoric art, visiting a local natural history museum to examine carvings on ancient stone monoliths. As a teenager, he took part in archaeological digs himself, helping to dig a Neolithic burial chamber and digging up artifacts held in a museum. He also became interested in ancient cave paintings, looking at reproductions that showed animals drawn in charcoal – dark figures which 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 seeing 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 business partner, helping him manage his business affairs. She is his only immediate survivor.

During the Nazi occupation of France, Mr. Soulages went into hiding, posing as 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, hers was dark, not red or yellow. “Next to the other works, it looked like a fly in a glass of milk,” he told Interview. “Everybody was like, ‘Who’s that country boy doing 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 showcase his work in New York museums. Kootz, the dealer, organized the first American personal exhibition of Mr. Soulages in 1954.

From the end of the 1980s, Mr. Soulages moved away from painting to create more than 100 stained glass windows for the Sainte-Foy abbey church in Conques, not far from his place of youth. He then donated hundreds of his works to the Soulages Museum, which opened in Rodez in 2014.

Other works never left his home. When a painting did not capture his interest or work as he hoped, he would take the canvas to his garden, roll it up, and burn it.

“I paint out of 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.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds