Born in 1919 in Rodez, France
Lived and worked between Sète and Paris, France
Died in 2022 in Nîmes, France


Pierre Soulages has gained international recognition as a prominent figure of both art informel, which arose in France during World War II, and abstract expressionism, its American counterpart. From the 1940s to the 1970s, black progressively conquered the surface of Soulages’s calligraphic abstract paintings, which also incorporated subtle hints of color (mainly ocher and blue). His aesthetics radically shifted toward monochrome in 1979, when he initiated his lifelong series Outrenoir. He has been known as “the painter of black and light” ever since. Literally translating as “beyond black,” Outrenoir opens onto a new realm that transcends purely gestural and monochromatic abstraction. Systematically applied in thick layers on canvas, black paint is meticulously scraped, striated, and overall sculpted to create smooth or rough areas that reflect light in various ways. By masterfully turning black into a luminous color, Soulages powerfully evokes the genesis of the world, which came out of darkness.

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solo shows

- Soulages. Malerei 1946-2019, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Chemnitz, Germany
- Une expérience au présent – Pierre Soulages, Opera Gallery, Paris
- Pierre Soulages: Twenty Twenty-One, Lévy Gorvy, Palm Beach
- Soulages. Malerei 1946-2019, Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Allemagne
- Pierre Soulages 皮耶·蘇拉吉| Outrenoir 黑出晦冥Exhibition, Lévy Gorvy, Hong Kong
- Pierre Soulages – Beyond Black, Opera Gallery, Paris

- Pierre Soulages, Musée du Louvre, Paris
- Pierre Soulages, Perrotin, Shanghai
- Pierre Soulages: A Century, Lévy Gorvy, New York
- Pierre Soulages, un musée imaginaire, Musée Fenaille, Rodez, France
- Pierre Soulages: Beyond Black, Alisan Fine Arts Central, Central, Hong Kong

- Pierre Soulages, œuvres sur papier. Une présentation, Musée Soulages, Rodez, France
- Pierre Soulages, ARC et Pavillon de l'Industrie, Le Creusot, France
- Soulages: A Retrospective, Fondation Pierre Gianadda (in collaboration with le Centre Pompidou Paris), Martigny
- Pierre Soulages - Noir / Lumière, Ludwig Museum, Koblenz, Germany
- Peinture, Karsten Greve, Cologne

- Soulages in Japan, Perrotin, Tokyo
- Les Soulages du Centre Pompidou, Musée Soulages, Rodez, France
- Leidenschaft. Passion. Im Fokus : Pierre Soulages, Museum Art.Plus, Donaueschingen, Germany

- Soulages. Papiers – Soulages. Works on Paper, Musée Picasso, Antibes, France
- Pierre Soulages: Le noir, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany
- Noir, c’est noir ? Les Outrenoirs de Pierre Soulages, Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne EPFL, Switzerland

Inauguration of Musée Soulages, Rodez, France
- Pierre Soulages: Les Outrenoir(s), Musée Soulages, Rodez
- Pierre Soulages, Galerie Perrotin with Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York

- Soulages XXIe siècle, Villa Médicis, Rome, Italy

- Soulages XXIe siècle, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, France

2011 - 2010
- Pierre Soulages, Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany
- Pierre Soulages. New paintings, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, UK
- Pierre Soulages, Museo de la Ciudad de México, Mexico
- Soulages, verre, cartons des vitraux de Conques, Musée Fabre de Montpellier, France

2010 - 2009
- Pierre Soulages en son musée. L'expérience RCR arquitectes, Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine, Paris, France
- Pierre Soulages. Einzelausstellung zum 90. Geburtstag, Galerie Boisserée, Köln, Germany
- Soulages. Le temps du papier, Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de la Ville de Strasbourg, France
- Soulages, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

- Rétrospective Pierre Soulages, Galerie Pascal Lansberg, Paris, France
- Pierre Soulages. Hommage Zum 90. Gerburstag, Galerie Rieder, Munich, Germany

- Pierre Soulages, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia, Spain

- Pierre Soulages, Painting the Light, Sammlung Essl, Vienna, Austria
- Estampes de Pierre Soulages, Le Carmel, Tarbes, France

- Outrenoir, recent paintings, Robert Miller Gallery, New York, USA
- Works on paper, Haim Chanin Fine Arts, New York, USA
- Pierre Soulages, American Selections, Trumbull Museum, Howland, Ohio, USA
- Pierre Soulages, Musée Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen, Danemark

- Pierre Soulages, peintures 1999-2002, Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris, France
- Soulages. L'oeuvre imprimé, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, France

- Eaux-fortes et bronzes Musée Rignault, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, France

- Lumière du noir, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
- Lumière du noir, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

- Peintures 1999-2000, Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne, Switzerland
- Soulages : 82 peintures, Les Abattoirs, Toulouse, France

- Pierre Soulages, Kunstmuseum, Berne, Switzerland
- Galerie Rieder, Munich, Germany
- Soulages, œuvres récentes, 1994-99, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France

- Pierre Soulages, Centro Cultural, Logrono, Spain
- Galerie Frahm, Copenhagen, Denmark

- Pierre Soulages, Malerei als Farbe und Licht, Retrospective 1946- 1997, Deichtorhallen, Hambourg, Germany
- Galerie Hans Strelow, Düsseldorf, Germany
- Centro de Exposiciones y Congresos, Saragossa, Spain
- Pierre Soulages, l'œuvre gravé, Galerie d'Art, Espace 13, Aix-en-Provence, France

- Soulages - Noir-lumière, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France
- Soulages - Noir-lumière, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal, Canada
- Soulages - Noir-lumière, Museu de Arte, Sao-Paulo, Brazil
- Soulages - 8 oeuvres majeures, Galerie Applicat, Paris, France
- Matière lumière - Pierre Soulages, Centre d'Art Contemporain, Embrun, France

- Soulages, Fondation Veranneman, Kruishoutem, Belgium

- Pierre Soulages, une rétrospective, Fine Arts Museum, Beijng, China
- Pierre Soulages, une rétrospective, Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taïwan
- Pierre Soulages : Lebendiges Licht, Malerei und die Fenster von Conques, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster, Germany

- Pierre Soulages, une rétrospective, National Contemporary Art Museum, Seoul, Korea

- Polyptyques 1979-1991, Maison des Arts Georges Pompidou, Cajarc, France
- Peintures et cartons des vitraux de Conques, Galerie de France, Paris, France

- Galerie Jade, International Art Exhibition, Chicago, USA
- Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, Austria

- Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne, Switzerland

- Soulages, 40 Jahre Malerei, Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany
- Soulages, 40 anos de Pintura, IVAM-Centro Julio Gonzalez, Valencia, Spain
- Soulages, 40 ans de peinture, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France
- Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Australia
- Galerie Fandos, Valencia, Spain

- Galerie Jade, Colmar

- Musée Saint Pierre Art Contemporain, Lyon, France
- Hans-Thoma Gesellschaft, Reutlingen, Germany
- Galerie Rieder, Munich, Germany

- Pierre Soulages, peintreet graveur, Galerie Art & Essai, Université de Rennes 2, Rennes, France
- Peintures 1984-1986 Galerie de France, Paris, France

- Pierre Soulages,Pulchri Studio, The Hague, Netherlands

- Soulages, Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan

- Soulages, peintures, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France

- Galerie Ostertag, Francfort, Germany
- Oberhessisches Museum, Glessen, Germany
- Galerie Ponce, Mexico
- Soulages, Kunstbygning, Aarhus, Denmark
- Soulages, Kunstpavillon, Esbjerg, Denmark
- Soulages, Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

- Peintures récentes, Musée du Parc de la Boverie, Liège, France
- Soulages, Kunstlerhaus, Salzburg, Austria
Gimpel Gallery, New York, USA

- Galerie Birch, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Soulages, Fondation Veranneman, Kruishoutem, Belgium
- Soulages, Peintures récentes, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

- Galerie Ulysses, Vienna, Austria

- Maison de la Culture, Mulhouse, France
- Pierre Soulages,Gimpel and Weitzenhoffer Gallery, New York, USA
- Bronzes et peintures sur papier, Galerie de France, Paris, France

- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Venezuela
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Museo, Maracaïbo, Venezuela
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Fundaçao Cultural, Brasilia, Brazil
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Museu da Universidad, Sao Paulo, Brazil
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Pierre Soulages, Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, Saint-Etienne, France

- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian , Lisboa, Portugal
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Salas del Patrimonio Artistico y Cultural, Madrid, Spain
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Museu de Arte Moderno, Mexico

- Atelier des Halles, Paris, France
- Maison des Arts, Montbéliard, France
- Soulages, peinture et gravures, Musée dynamique, Dakar, Senegal

- Peintures 1964-1972, S.Henie-N.Onstad Artsenter, Hovikodden, Norway
- Peintures 1964-1972, Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Aalborg, Denmark
- Peintures 1964-1972, Rädhus Gentofte-Copenhagen, Denmark
- Peintures 1964-1972, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Charleroi, France
- Pierre Soulages, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Neuchâtel, France
- Gimpel und Hanover Galerie, Zurich, Switzerland

- Pierre Soulages, College Park Gallery, University of Maryland, USA
- Galerie Protée, Toulouse, France
- Galerie de France, Paris, France
- Gimpel Fils Gallery, London, UK

- Soulages, Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montréal, Canada
- Soulages, Musée du Québec, Québec, Canada
- Comité d'établissement du Crédit Lyonnais, Paris, France
- Paintings since 1963, Knoedler Gallery, New York, USA
- Paintings since 1963, Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (paintings since 1963)
- Paintings since 1963, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (paintings since 1963)

- Gimpel und Hanover Galerie, Zurich, Switzerland
- Gimpel Fils Gallery, London, UK
- Soulages, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, France
- Galerie de France, Paris, France

- Pierre Soulages, Retrospective Exhibition, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA

- Kootz Gallery, New York, USA

- Kootz Gallery, New York, USA

- Soulages, peintures sur papier 1946-1963, Galerie de France, Paris, France
- Soulages malerier og raderinger, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark

- Soulages, Massachussets Institute of Technology, Boston, USA

- Pierre Soulages, Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany
- Pierre Soulages, Gemeente Museum, The Hague, Netherlands
- Pierre Soulages, Kunsthaus, Zürich, Switzerland
- Kootz Gallery, New York, USA

- Soulages, Galerie de France, Paris, France
- Pierre Soulages, Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, Germany

- Soulages, Kootz Gallery, New York, USA

- Pierre Soulages, Galerie Berggruen, Paris, France
- Soulages, Kootz Gallery, New York, USA

- Soulages, Galerie de France, Paris, France
- Pierre Soulages, Kootz Gallery, New York, USA

- Pierre Soulages Paintings,Gimpel Fils Gallery, London, UK
- Soulages, Kootz Gallery, New York, USA
- Rodgers University, New Brunswick, Canada

- Soulages, Kootz Gallery, New York, USA
- Mathieu - Soulages, Arts Club, Chicago, USA

- Soulages, Galerie Stangl, Munich, Germany

- Soulages, Galerie Birch, Copenhagen, Denmark

- Soulages, Galerie Lydia Conti, Paris, France

group shows

Selected group exhibitions:
2019 - The New World of Charlotte Perriand, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
1988 - Rendezvous: Masterpieces from the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Guggenheim Museums, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
1977 - Paris-New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
1953 - Younger European Painters, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
1948 - Französische abstrakte Malerei, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart
1947 - Salon des Surindépendants, Paris

public collections

- Australian National Gallery, Canberra, Australia
- National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
- Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg, Austria
- Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, Austria
- Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidad, Sao Paulo, Brazil
- Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montréal, Canada
- Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal, Canada
- Museum Salvador Allende, Santiago, Chile
- Musikhus, Arhus, Denmark
- Nordjyllands, Kunstmuseum, Aalborg, Denmark
- Statens Museum fort Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Sara Hildén Art Museum, Tampere, Finland
- Centre régional des Télécomunications, Dijon, France
- FDAC du Val de Marne, Créteil, France
- Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France
- FRAC Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand, France
- FRAC Bretagne, Rennes, France
- FRAC Languedoc-Roussillon, Montpellier, France
- Les Abattoirs, Toulouse, France
- Ministère de l'Economie et des Finances, Paris, France
- Musée Cantini, Marseille, France
- Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France
- Musée d'Art Moderne, Saint-Etienne, France
- Musée d'Art Moderne, Villeneuve d'Ascq, France
- Musée d'Evreux, Evreux, France
- Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France
- Musée de Brou, Bourg en Bresse, France
- Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble, France
- Musée de la Ville de Rouen, Rouen, France
- Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen, France
- Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dunkerque, France
- Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France
- Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Valencia
- Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France
- Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
- Musée Picasso, Antibes, France
- Musées de la Cour d'Or, Metz, France
- Palais de l'Elysée, Paris, France
- Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hambourg, Germany
- Kunsthalle, Bielefeld, Germany
- Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany
- Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany
- Ludwig Museum im Deutschherrenhaus, Coblence, Germany
- MAC-VAL, Vitry sur Seine, FranceNationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany
- Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany
- Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
- Sprengel Museum, Hanovre, Germany
- Staatliche Museen, Kassel, Germany
- Staatsgalerie (Sammlung Domnick), Stuttgart, Germany
- Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich, Germany
- Stadtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim, Germany
- Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster, Germany
- Israël Museum, Jerusalem, Israel
- Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turino, Italy
- Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan
- Museum of Modern Art, Toyama, Japan
- Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan
- Open-air Museum, Hakone, Japan
- Sezon Museum of Modern Art, Karuizawa, Japan
- National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea
- Musée National d'Art, Luxembourg
- Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland
- Tate Gallery, London, UK
- Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA
- Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, USA
- Art Institute, Chicago, USA
- Arts Club, Chicago, USA
- Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, USA
- Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, USA
- Cornell University, Museum of Art, New York, USA
- County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA
- Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA
- Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA
- Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
- Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, USA
- Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, USA
- Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, USA
- Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, USA
- Museum of Art, Cleveland, USA
- Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
- National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA
- National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tarrytown, USA
- Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA
- Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, USA
- Principia College, Elsah (Illinois), USA
- Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, USA
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA
- The Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, USA
- The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, USA
- The Phillips Collection, Washington, USA
- University Art Museum, Berkeley, USA
- University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
- Vassar College, New York, USA
- Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA
- Washington University Museum, Saint-Louis, USA
- Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, USA
- Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA
- Museum of Contemporary Art of Macedonia, Skopje
- Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City
- Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands
- Sonja Henie - Niels Onstad Kunstsenter, Hovikodden, Norway
- Centro de Arte Moderna, Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa, Portugal
- Musée de l'Ermitage, Saint-Petersbourg, Russia
- Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
- Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Geneva, Switzerland
- Kunsthaus, Zürich, Switzerland
- Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, Switzerland


- La Légion d’honneur (the Grand Cross decoration), Paris

- Austrian Decoration for Science and Art, Vienna
- Prix Julio González, Valencia

- Praemium Imperiale Prize  for Painting, Japan Art Association, Tokyo

- Grand Prix National for Painting, Paris

- Foreign Honorary Member for Art, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York

- Rembrandt Award, Amsterdam

- Grand Prix for Painting, Paris

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Darkness and Splendor

by John Yau

For the past thirty-five years, Pierre Soulages, who turned ninety-four on December 24, 2013, has made unclassifiable hybrid works. With their thick black, tar-like surfaces (which can be either acrylic or oil paint), they are and are not paintings. Evocative of stone carving and prehistoric menhirs, their gouged and scored surfaces are relief-like, but they are not reliefs. Furthering this paradox is their ability to embrace their inert materiality while registering the slightest fluctuation of ambient light. Their dense black surfaces offer no vantage point from which to see them. We do not see these works so much as experience them visually and physically.

While many contemporary artists are currently exploring hybrid forms, the resistance of Soulages’ work to categorization is singular. They resemble no one else’s, which is no small feat, and one that proceeds from a fundamental change in Soulages’ painting practice initiated in January 1979, shortly after he turned sixty. This was a deliberate departure for the artist, who coined the portmaneau outrenoir, which literally means “beyond black,” to describe what he was after. On another level, Soulages’ portmanteau reveals something about the breadth of his ambition – he wanted to go beyond what he knew, to enter a new territory.

It is important to remember that when Soulages elected to completely redefine his practice, he was an internationally known artist whose work had been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions. Instead of repeating himself or refining his achievements, as many artists who attain such recognition have often done, Soulages opened himself up to change, even though it meant abandoning his practice and starting fresh. The changes he made in his work at that point underscore his lifelong interest in light.

While it is not the everyday light of the Impressionists, the optical light of the Post-Impressionists, the metaphysical light of Giorgio de Chirico, or the ethereal light of Agnes Martin, the light of Soulages does share something with all of these approaches. The crucial difference is that this artist’s materially dense surfaces register the ambient light as a palpable and constantly changing phenomenon. He wants the viewer to become acutely conscious of the interaction between the work’s surface and the surrounding atmosphere. As he told the writer Brooks Adams, “It is always the light that leads me when I paint.”

At the same time, the changes Soulages sought at a rather late age shares something with Mark Rothko’s desire to strip painting down to its essentials. According to Soulages, the revelation occurred when a canvas he was working on had become so heavy with paint that – no matter how much he scraped it – it seemed to remain an unsalvageable disaster. A few days later, however, he began to recognize the different ways that the grooves and ruts of black paint were interacting with the surrounding light. In order to further explore the potential he had glimpsed within this calamity, he decided to invert his practice. Instead of using paint to make marks and build up surfaces, he treated it as a responsive thing to mark with a variety of personally altered instruments, gouging, scraping and scoring the medium’s obdurate materiality (fig. x).

Leaving behind the largely black, abstract paintings that he had built his reputation upon, Soulages turned his attention to these vulnerable, unclassifiable hybrids whose light-sensitive, tarry black surfaces are irrevocably marked with gashes, grooves, cuts, and furrows. At the heart of this work is the coexistence of light and dark, their constant interaction. As Soulages sees it, everyday light, which is always new, is suffused with history:

Black is before light. Before light, the world and its things were in total darkness. With light were born colors. Black is before them. Also, before each of us, before being born, ‘before having seen the light of day.’ These notions of origin are profoundly buried in us. Is it for these reasons that black touches us so powerfully?

There are 320 centuries since the known origins of painting, and during thousands of years, men went underground, in the absolute black of grottoes, to paint with black. A fundamental color, black is also the color of origin for painting.

Soulages’ description harkens back to that timeless period just before the beginning of Genesis, when God separates the light from the darkness. He seems to want to recover that primordial moment when indifferent matter and light’s immateriality are bonded together, just before they split apart. For Soulages, the dance between impassive materiality and constantly changing light has been a touchstone. Using acrylic and a variety of tools, including a stiff bristle brush that he drags through the thick tarry surface, he reconstructs his vision of light being born out of the blackness (fig. x). The marks run the gamut from harsh and violent to soft and tender, often embracing both possibilities simultaneously. It is their contradictory nature, further complicated by the constant changes wrought by their interaction with light that gives us much to ponder. Of varying widths and depths, the relatively straight gashes and hollows are the decisive results of the artist’s actions, but there is something anonymous about them, and in that regard they build upon that early moment in Cubism when Picasso and Braque suppressed traces of the personal in favor of something far larger than themselves.

Here it is worth noting that Soulages, who is roughly contemporary with the Abstract Expressionists, was never interested in making work that reflected his inner being or changing self. Rather, by using tools that are akin to floor scrapers, many of which he devised, he makes work brimming with a deep silence and mystery that evokes a collective history rather than a personal one.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Soulages’ works call to mind T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which contains oft-quoted lines such as: “In my end is my beginning” and “Time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future.” I think Eliot’s attempt to define something as abstract as time gets to the heart of Soulages’ project: he seems to want to connect timelessness (or deep time) to a viewer’s unrepeatable experience of a physically conspicuous thing interacting with light’s changing, immaterial presence.

Deliberately refusing to locate his work in the realm of discursive language, Soulages titles his paintings with their physical dimensions, indicating the difference between those of similar size by the date they were completed. In this exhibition the viewer encounters works with such titles as Peinture 296 x 165 cm, 4 janvier 2014 (p. x), Peinture 202 x 159 cm, 19 octobre 2013 (p. x), and Peinture 202 x 202 cm, 13 septembre 2013 (p. x). By detailing the exact dimensions of the object, Soulages chooses to be about as non-literary and matter-of-fact as you can get.

In the vertical human-scaled painting, Peinture 202 x 159 cm, 19 octobre 2013 (fig. x), Soulages has made thirteen irregular, horizontal grooves across the painting’s thick surface. Depending on where you are standing and the direction of the light, the uneven surface and grooves run from matte to shiny. When the light is reflected by the grooves, they seem to dematerialize. It is impossible to get a fixed view – and the painting is certainly difficult to photograph – because change is central to the viewer’s experience; it literally keeps changing before your very eyes.

The painting’s surface materiality, for all its impassivity, is highly volatile. And in this volatility and change the viewer is invited to consider, amid its range of possible meanings, the relationship between the solid and the ephemeral, darkness and splendor.

In the painting’s scale and vigorously worked surfaces the viewer senses the remarkable robustness of the artist. He is decisive and direct, the results being unpredictable. In the two-panel Peinture 181 x 162 cm, 26 janvier, 2014, the artist pairs a canvas in which the black acrylic surface is marked from top to bottom by thin grooves and ridges with one that is smooth and light-drinking. If we read the diptych from left to right, the smooth surface on the right becomes the future upon which we have not yet written.

When he changed his work in 1979 – establishing the parameters of the thick acrylic surface that he works back into with a wide variety of tools – Soulages not only went “beyond black,” he also severed any connection that he might have had to what in America has been called the “French touch,” the long tradition of sensuous paint strokes that is central to the work of Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet, and others. In Soulages’ work, the grooves, gouges, shallow troughs, and thin furrows come across as elemental. Their scratching and digging are the aftermath of a physical activity that we are likely to associate with common labor. More importantly, they bond together the physical and the immaterial, the body’s movement amidst light’s relentless changes. Living in time, and showing no signs of slowing down, Soulages finds new ways to register its passing.

Pierre Soulages: An Affirmationist Painter?

by Alain Badiou

As the philosopher I am, I have every reason to be wary of how Pierre Soulages might judge me.
Most of the time, philosophy is concerned with painting in terms of the opposition between the sensible and the Idea, form and concept, appearing and being. It oscillates between a phenomenology of the image, through the relationship between consciousness and reference, and a rhetoric of forms, through the notion of a language of painting, or even of a conceptual understanding of forms. The opposition between figurative and abstract is a by-product of this view, and, as a matter of fact, Pierre Soulages – a first sign of how little store he sets by critical discourses and classifications – likes to ridicule this sort of labeling as “non-figurative painting.”
The reason for this is, as Pierre Soulages tells us in the well-known, truly fundamental text of his published in 1984:
From very early on, I practiced a kind of painting that dispensed with images and that I never considered as a language (in the sense that language conveys meaning). Neither image nor language.

Here we philosophers are, if not dismissed out of hand, at least forewarned. None of our traditional approaches will allow us to have any real access to Soulages. “Neither image nor language”? How can we even begin, then? How can we engage in meaningful philosophical discourse about painting?
Feeling wary, then, I decided to guard against rhetorical and interpretative excesses. I’m forgoing – for lack of authority, perhaps – the glorious style of continuous discourse here. Instead, I’m going to propose a few fragments – nine fragments, actually.

Fragment 1 – Essentially autobiographical
I’m proud to be able to say here that my discovery of the name Soulages and of one of his works dates back to 1951, when I was fourteen and a half.
As my father, Raymond Badiou, was mayor of Toulouse at the time, in June 1951 (seated in the mayor’s box) I attended the first production of the dance drama Abraham at the Théâtre du Capitole, with music by Marcel Delannoy, choreography by Jeannine Charrat, and lighting by Louis Jouvet. I have a perfect memory of the stage sets painted by Soulages: big, black, slightly curved verticals, which I was amazed and very struck by, and which a critic of the time compared to palm tree trunks. That’s the first of the two memories I’ve kept of that now universally forgotten production. The second is of a line, spoken by a narrator in a terrifying voice: “Thus saith the Lord God: I exist!”
This correlation between Soulages’ brushstrokes, which were already black back then, and God’s existence might come to mind if we were to look at things this way: Isn’t the trajectory of the painter’s work, including the stained glass windows that he did for the abbey church of Sainte-Foy of Conques, a resolutely artistic experience, albeit one in full command of its artisanal techniques, whose aim is to be able to say, on behalf of all humanity, “Let there be light!”? Isn’t this how Soulages’ view of the artists of the Chauvet or Lascaux caves should be interpreted, when he says that they ventured into the pitch-blackness of the caves to paint in black a luminous conviction on the walls? And couldn’t it be argued that Soulages’ work creates the discipline of a Sacred devoid of any God?
So, for me, Soulages’s stage set in 1951 represented a sort of ironic humanistic response, through painting, to the thunderous declaration of his own existence by God, who, for his part, used the Word (because God – that’s one of his failings – doesn’t paint). Soulages’ painting forcefully proclaims: “Thus saith creative Humanity: I exist.”

Fragment 2 – On a text by Soulages
We should note in passing how clear and concise Soulages’ texts and interviews are. And how the negations in them (for example, “Neither image nor language”) gradually give rise to affirmation (for example, “A painting is an organization, a set of relationships between shapes, lines, and colored surfaces, on which the meanings we give it are made and unmade.”). In Soulages’ language as in his painting, the apparent refusal, the blackness, the negation, create light and shimmering affirmation.
The sentence that is the crux of this fragment is from an interview Soulages gave to Christian Labbaye in January 1974:
When I paint, the shape, the color, and the material all come to me at once. I don’t work on each of the different aspects of form separately. If I change or add something, I really don’t know whether it’s on account of the shape, the color, the material, the space, or the rhythm they create; rather, it’s on account of the effect of a whole set of relationships on my imagination and sensibility, on what I’m conscious and not conscious of, an effect that arouses the desire either to go deeper, to continue, or to destroy.

This text describes the actual process of the act of painting, and the description is by no means a simple one. It includes five different terms, or factors, that are involved in the activity.
1. There are the basic factors, the possibilities both concrete and abstract: shape, color, and material.
2. There is the way they come to the painter, with the crucial notion that they come to him all together. The act of painting consists in the simultaneous arrival of the shapes, colors, and materials.
3. This simultaneous arrival occurs in the guise of a relationship between the various components. What comes to the painter, in the act of painting, is a set of relationships.
4. This set of relationships either acts or has a retroactive effect on the very creator to whom it comes, namely the painter, the Subject. Imagination, sensibility, the conscious, the unconscious – all of this is seized upon by the relationships that emerge in this Subject’s act.
5. This action determines three possible orientations of the activity itself: to go deeper, to continue, or to destroy.
A description like this sheds light on the very powerful feeling that Soulages’ painting produces in the viewer: the feeling of a self-sufficiency that nonetheless summons one to a surpassing of self. Or to put it another way, a calmness, a completeness, that is nonetheless imbued with a sort of inherent instability. The viewer’s gaze can also go deeper, continue, or withdraw. But there can be no doubt that the painting itself endures throughout these trials. There is something specific to Soulages that remains forever intact, untouched in the instability involved in the experience. Yes, in the contemporary context, where figures of precariousness, of mortal-being, or even of erasure or waste are sought, Soulages, without the slightest remorse, conveys the feeling of, if not eternity, at least of the always-already-there.
Soulages: a perpetrator of the crime of eternity, a “classic,” from whom the contemporary clamor will never be able to wring a single word of regret.

Fragment 3 – A painting. (Peinture 222 x 314 cm, 24 février 2008)
What does it really mean to speak about a painting? What can be said? Interpreted? Described? Are we condemned to shuttling back and forth between formalism and hermeneutics? Here, once again, the philosopher had better watch out. At any rate, it’s not for him to extract the meaning of a painting. Soulages writes:
A painting doesn’t convey meaning, it means […] It’s above all a thing that we enjoy seeing, that we enjoy interacting with, it’s the origin and the object of a dynamics of sensibility.

Soulages is very clear: it’s a thing, not an object.
Let me tell you a little story. More than fifty years ago, when I was taking the philosophy orals that were part of the entrance exam for the École Normale Supérieure, my examiner, Jean Hyppolite, the outstanding translator and critic of Hegel, suggested “What is a thing?” as a subject to me. When he critiqued my performance, Hyppolite, who had a lisp, said, “That’th very good, Mithter Badiou, but in the final analythis, what’th the differenth between a thing and an object?” Even way back then I could have answered: “Take one of Soulages’ paintings. It’s a thing that means, not an object that has meaning.”
Let’s try not to see the large painting 222 x 314cm, 28 février 2008 as an object that has a meaning. Soulages is categorical about this. In 1957, almost at the exact same time as Hyppolite was forcing me to ask myself about the relations between things, objects, and meaning, Soulages wrote:
The various aspects of objects and objects themselves are not the reality.

It can obviously be inferred from this that a painting’s reality is not that it is an object whose various aspects and meanings can be inventoried as its own specific properties.
So let’s make an effort to see the painting not as an object whose meaning we can perceive but as a thing that, in Soulages’ phrase, “we enjoy interacting with.” A thing that has come into being via all its various dimensions. A thing that, simply by virtue of looking at it, we can go deeper into, continue with, or withdraw from, just as the painter has done at different stages of his work by virtue of his action.
So this is what I’d say about this painting:
– I enjoy interacting with the powerful intensification created by the juxtaposition of the two elements that are closely related yet different, like an erotic twinning.
– Its profound and deep surface presents unlimited possibilities of darkness, dense or smooth.
– The simplicity of the demarcation, a stunningly precise discontinuity, the result of a placement that looks like it derives from an artful, invisible calculation, namely, the horizontal bar and the diagonal bar – the latter as a crossing out, some giant tiger’s scratch, and the former as a boundary, a division establishing a permanent inequality.
– But the opposite of this simplicity as well: it’s the scratch that is deep and clean and the division that bleeds and is surrounded by complicated shapes, like a fractal curve.
In the end, what I interact with is a radiant duality fashioned by its own impurity. But this is the framework for so many vital experiences! Who among us, whether as friends, enemies, or lovers, isn’t familiar with differences like these, so clear when viewed from afar and yet so obscure when viewed up close?

Fragment 4 – The insistence of painting
It is striking how insistent Soulages is on saying that he’s a painter, intrinsically a painter, a painter now and forever. And that this is how he himself, hewing as closely as possible to the act of painting, explains his pursuit. This is a crucial idea, linked to the fact that this act of painting, in which the material gesture and thought are indistinguishable, is a process that gradually explores its own effects. The statement he makes is one that’s very emphatic, repeated often, and self-evident for Soulages right from the start:
I think I learn what I’m looking for only by painting.
Yet everyone knows that painting today is controversial and under attack on all sides, from soft technologies, reproducible images, ephemeral performance art, installations, wrappings, the secret theatricalizing of everyday life, the mixing of the arts, improvisation, the intrusion of pierced or tattooed bodies, and so many other practices. More broadly speaking, the objection raised is to the idea that an artwork can now take the form of a thing – a key term, as we’ve seen. In fact, the notion that an artist should want to exhibit a thing whose purpose is to give pleasure, to inspire our experiencing a kind of love, is considered archaic today. The painter must disappear to make way, for example, for the dancer-actor-visual artist-poet.
The ever-so-highly acclaimed Soulages is nevertheless out of sync with his time in this regard. Never forget that, having been born in 1919, he is nearly the only survivor (along with Tàpies, born in 1923) of a constellation of great painters, and that he witnessed a magnificent era of artistic creativity following the global cataclysm of the 1930s and ’40s. Let me give you a few reference points in support of this remark. Soulages was much younger than Rothko (born in 1903), Hartung (1904), and Vieira da Silva (1908) when he met them, although the age difference wasn’t enormous. All these artists were less than fifty years old at the time when Soulages first gained enthusiastic worldwide recognition. Soulages was also younger, although only a little less so, than Kline (1910), Manessier (1911), Pollock (1912), and De Staël (1914). But he was older than either Rauschenberg (1925) or Yves Klein (1928). The contemporaries of Soulages I just mentioned are all gone; a lot of them have been so for many years now. But Soulages is here, still here, an invincible witness. His defiant stubbornness has long been on display, to be sure, but is so now more than ever. It is connected, where he is concerned, to an obstinate resistance to any reduction of artistic activity to its context. The context includes schools of art or movements lumped together under a single adjective: surrealist, tachist, expressionist, abstract, conceptual, minimalist, constructivist, cubist, impressionist, figurative, socialist-realist, futurist, dadaist, pop, pointillist, ready-made, naïf… And goodness knows what others, in particular the one I’m suggesting we add to this already ludicrous list, namely – and I’ll justify this later – “affirmationist.” Not to mention everything based on the adjective “new,” from new figuration to new abstraction by way of neo-classicism. To tell the truth, this inflation of novelty isn’t something unique to painting. In the late 1970s we ourselves had the “new philosophers.” I can’t say we’ve benefited from it.
Soulages, for his part, never tires of repeating: I don’t belong to any school. This means that his painting, as he sees it, does not come from any coded collective context. This idea is what he was calmly opposing, already in 1951, to a certain Marxist dogma, which had spread even into his immediate circle. The conclusion is all-important, so I will quote it:
Because painting is an adventure in the world, it signifies the world. Because it is a synthesis, it signifies the world in its totality. Because it is a poetic experience, it signifies the world by transfiguring it. This metaphor cannot be undermined or explained by any of the factors to which one arbitrarily tends to make it correspond.

Note the subtle correlations between adventure and signification; synthesis and total signification; poetry and signifying transfiguration, after which we get an irreducible metaphor.
This path – adventure, synthesis, transfiguration – reveals painting to be a process, a totality, and an act of creation. All three of these aspects are affirmative. Painting is not a critique; it is an affirmation. An affirmation in painting, but also an affirmation of painting. An affirmation that, in Soulages’ case, has two features:
– It comes from nothing. As I already noted, painting begins with all the relationships that constitute it. So it is not transitive to a context; it is non-contextual right from the start. Paintings that are reducible to their milieu, era, or social context can be of interest only to the historian, because they have become mere documents, symptoms of their times. True painting is trans-temporal; it endures throughout time. This also means that it is accessible to people from all backgrounds. I’m going to argue here that, for Soulages, despite all evidence to the contrary, painting is a popular art, in the following way: it presupposes nothing on the part of the viewer since it requires no prior knowledge of a context. Painting is generic.
– It comes from the dawn of time. Painting, as the prehistoric caves prove, is coextensive with the human race. It has always existed, and therefore, regardless of what certain avant-gardes may claim, it will always begin again.
This explains why Soulages’ paintings are at once self-evident and strange. Their self-evidence comes from prehistory, their strangeness from the fact that, in Soulages’ work, the act of painting decontextualizes the artistic phenomenon as much as possible. Soulages is our contemporary – no one can deny that he belongs to our times – but he is also a contemporary of our origins. That would explain the irresistible impact he produces, regardless of the time or place. Soulages: a perennial contemporary.

Fragment 5 – The pictorial triangle
Another of Soulages’ well-known, key statements:
The reality of a work is the three-way relationship it establishes between the thing it is, the artist who produces it, and the viewer who sees it.

We have already seen how a painting’s reality does not lie in its being an object that conveys meaning but a thing one enjoys seeing. We have also seen how it is the result of a process by which the painter gradually comes to learn what he is looking for, with no pre-existing agenda. The overall reality of a work thus involves:
– a Subject who is looking for something without knowing what she/he’s looking for;
– a thing that results from a process of partial awareness as to what is being looked for; – another Subject who enjoys interacting with the thing and who therefore finds support in it for what she/he her/himself is looking for.
Soulages would also say something along the lines of: A painting creates a space in front of itself, and the viewer is in that space. As a result, the viewer’s movements in the space are part of the work’s reality. The thing is seen from multiple points of view. Therefore, it must itself be a sign of this multiplicity.
The thing can be said to be a mediation between the artist’s partly blind quest and the viewers’ partly aware quest. I think this relationship between blindness and awareness, which presupposes three terms (two Subjects and a thing), explains why the best thing possible is ultimately to show the infinite luminosity that is latent in black. In this sense, Soulages’ ultrablack is indeed the pictorial affirmation of what painting is capable of.
For example, the space created for the viewer in front of the immense black polyptychs is such that his/her movements, his/her walking around, cause the various different lights and colors in the black to change all the time. Thus, the pictorial triangle becomes: the various different ways the painter worked his way through the black; the thing exhibited as an infinite synthesis of the different kinds of light in the black; and the constantly shifting gaze teasing out a part of this infinity.
The pictorial triangle can be defined again, in more philosophic terms, as follows:
1. The painter’s creative experience, through going deeper, continuing, or breaking off, turns the One of the black thing into the repository of an infinite variety of lights-colors.
2. The thing sets out its own particular space for the viewer from which it can be viewed, from which one can enjoy viewing it. This is the being-there of the One of the thing, its exhibition.
3. The viewer introduces his/her own movement into the space and teases out the One of the thing in accordance with the latent treasures of its infinity.
So, yes, we sense and know how true Pierre Encrevé’s words are. Oh, that Pierre Encrevé! He’s so extraordinary. He’s the subtle connoisseur and lover of each one of Soulages’s paintings, of each one of the more than fifteen hundred paintings, just think! I feel as though I’m standing humbly in judgment before him. He’s the chief examiner of the Soulages exam that I’m taking here, at Beaubourg. It was this incredible Encrevé who wrote:
A painting that refers to nothing refers me back to myself, and since it calls for no deciphering, no imposing of meaning on it, it calls for me to constitute myself as meaning.

It couldn’t have been said any better.

Fragment 6 – A painting. 165 x 117cm, 1 février 2000
In this painting, I see Soulages’ unique operations taken to their peak in the painting process. They are so singular that just being able to identify them is an iffy proposition.
Generally speaking, the black overlay of the painting is scored, as it were, in the guise of fourteen horizontal bands, the result of which is a violent emotion, as if the black were blocking out a world that can only be seen, so to speak, through the slats in some blinds.
But the surface on which this blocking-out occurs is itself enigmatic. It is based wholly on deceptive symmetries. First of all, the division into two suggests a diptych, but that’s only an illusion: the painting is all of a piece. It also suggests a kind of face-off between striations and smudges obtained by “pulling.” But the irregular repetitions on one side and the deliberate disorder of the smudges on the other bring to the surface a kind of chaos, in contrast to which it is the violated and defiled white that evokes a peaceful surface, whereas the imperious black is corroded, as it were, by a destructive rust of sorts.
The viewer in the space before this painting feels an emotion that combines discomfort and questioning. What is concealed and hidden from view by a surface at once hypnotic, scored, scratched, and on the verge of disintegration? What is at work in the painting, the philosopher would say, is the subversion of any assumption of Oneness. Here, the pictorial thing overtly displays its incapacity to restrain the infinite it both possesses and contains.
The sanctity of pure whiteness is virtually at work, though, since the dark surface continues to disintegrate on my right and to turn into metallic light on my left.
Thus, every painting by Soulages indicates that it could go on. That is how the painter-Subject is the same as the viewer-Subject. The former cannot say that the activity from which the work derives is definitely finished, nor can the latter say she/he is done with what his/her gaze can discover. As in the prose works of Beckett, who was in a way the creator of the ultrablack of writing, the sole imperative of ethics is: go on.

Fragment 7 – The dialectics of the painting process
At first glance, Soulages’ painting seems monolithic and perfectly self-assured. It is by no means a kind of tormented deconstruction. On the contrary, it seems to be much more a serene construction. It is not heterogeneous or tortured; it is, as Spinoza might say, aquiescentia in se ipso, “at rest in itself.” Its guiding principle is not unconscious fantasy, the horrible, the shrill cry, the Subject’s capitulation or splitting. It learns what it is looking for little by little and, we might even say, relishes this learning. As we’ve all seen, its blackness is light. Gradually, there also develops an ambition for monumentality. The glorification of the ultrablack is consistent with oversized formats, just as it is with the very deliberate transparency of the stained glass windows of Conques. You’d have to look long and hard to find a kind of painting that was as far removed as this from the theme – which came from the likes of Dada and Duchamp – of art as the destruction of art!
And yet, and yet! The fact that black should be light, that it should be color, ought to alert us. As should the fact that the huge One of the painting should be the infinite scintillation of the brushstrokes, which sometimes seem to include an unknown metal in the impasto; that the stability of the whole should be home to a multitude of local instabilities; that the techniques involved should be tearing, savage scratches, deliberate bleeding, the imposing of dripping bands of acrylic paint on the white; that there should suddenly return, like a persistent memory, the deepest blue, at once rival and friend of the black; that the diptychs should be disjointed, or even asymmetrical – all this indicates that a dense, teeming dialectic, like some secret process of affirmative monumentality, is operating within.
With Soulages, the solemn Unity of the paintings is but the arena, or one could almost say the fiction, of an infinitely complex, open network of relationships that the viewer’s gaze gradually discloses. And in the end, these relationships surpass the Unity enclosing them because the gaze, combined with the displacement of the body in space, discovers that they are, quite simply, infinite. And all the more infinite, I’d say, since they are not restrained, or constrained, by either an image or an anecdote, or by any meaning imposed on them, or even by a univocal construction. The calm, monumental unity of ultrablack, which is really like ultramarine then, is the pictorial landscape of a world without borders, and of an infinite potentiality of perspectives and meanings.

Fragment 8 – A painting. Peinture. 222x137cm, 3 février 1990
The dialectical subject matter proposed here, in its immediate appearance, is the hard-won defeat of the black by the blue. On a canvas with a height of 2.22m [7 ], the blue, at the bottom, takes up approximately 1.38m [4½] and the black, only 84cm [2¾]. In reality, though, the black seeps into the blue, because it seems as though smooth ribbons of blue were simply falling onto an essential black. But you could also say that a sort of luminous blue contagion, very elusive but nonetheless inevitable, is spreading to the black bands at the top. And so what ultimately comes “together,” inseparably, there, at once revealing and concealing the background and the colors, is a construction of bands displayed against a presumably black, motionless backdrop, like a curtain standing out against the profound darkness behind it.
Faced with these ambiguous reversibilities, the philosopher’s affect can be described – I’m borrowing from Lacan – as follows: A truth, namely, the black of the ultrablack here, can only be “half-said.” You might want to say it’s in the blue, for example, with a remnant of black, but in the final analysis this remnant is equivalent to what it’s the remnant of. And consequently the truth displays the veil, the curtain, above all, which means that it can only be glimpsed. Or, as Soulages says, we learn what we’re looking for only in proportion to what the quest itself reveals of its own means.
A truth is never given, it is always constructed. And this construction, which is always incomplete, leaves the person who comes in contact with it, or participates in it, suspended between the joy of the new and the melancholy of incompletion.
So we can understand why Soulages, who, when his catalogue raisonné came out, was asked, “How do you feel about returning during your lifetime to the works of your youth?” replied: “Well, actually, I don’t like it, I prefer to think about the painting I’m going to do tomorrow.”
Someone looking at one of Soulages’ paintings is no better off: she/he can only stop looking at it because she/he has the urge to look at another one.

Fragment 9 – Comments and philosophical lingo
In conclusion, I’m going to allow myself to shamelessly use my own philosophical lingo. As far as I’m concerned, truths exist; we know what they are. A truth is a unique construction: a love, a mathematical theorem, a popular uprising, or a painting. It begins as an event, a rupture; in short, it begins nowhere, or rather, where it’s not expected. It continues owing to a dogged determination to explore the consequences of this unforeseen upsurge and to construct something out of it. And it comes to an end as something both miraculous and incomplete.
I would say that Soulages’ painting is like an allegory of this construction of truth. He’s aware of this:
I think painting can discover new forms that correspond to a truth.
Painting of this sort comes from neither a sensory referent nor a conceptual agenda, nor some ideal of Beauty, nor the ambitions of a school. It comes from nothing but itself. It is self-legitimating. It doesn’t know what it’s looking for, but its process involves constructing the possibility of a knowledge. It is the dogged determination to organize the consequences of the first gestures that engender it. And this creates a thing that I’d call a thing of painting-truth, always thoroughly in the making.
A painting by Soulages, one he himself regards as a success, constructs within the painting a fragment of truth of the painting. That’s why I’m giving myself the right to partly appropriate this great painter: he is, in a way, “my” painter, and this is so even though he owes absolutely nothing to me, while I, on the contrary, owe a great deal to him. A notable survivor, he is a painter in search of the timeless essence of painting. He is a Platonic painter, in the sense that I give that word.
There holds sway, or once did, a critical esthetic consciousness hostile to beautiful form, or to form as such, and seeking the anxiety of the form-less. An art opposed to the artwork, an art that aspires to the work’s undoing. An art that dislikes art, that desires non-art, or the dissolution of art into ordinary life. Painting without a thing painted, or painting done not by one but by all. Painting that is done away with by being widely disseminated.
Based on paintings from four hundred centuries ago, Soulages, as opposed to esthetic nihilism, completely reaffirms painting in its perennially new continuity. It is in this sense that he is an affirmationist. In the sphere of the truths of art, this no doubt corresponds to what “the Platonism of the multiple” attempts to express in the sphere of philosophy.
In the text entitled “A Manifesto of Affirmationist Art” (in my book Polemics), here is how I formulated what seemed to me to be the maxims of an affirmationist art:
The art that is, and the art that is to come, should hang together as solidly as a demonstration, be as surprising as a night-time ambush, and as elevated as a star. (p.147)

And I remarked that these three imperatives, in the various different contemporary schools of art, were usually separate and distinct. Originality, or surprise, precludes coherence. Coherence, or solidity, doesn’t go with surprise. Surprise, a desire to shock, and transgression preclude elevation. You can have the conceptualist demonstration, the surprise of performance art, or architectural or contemplative elevation; you can’t have all three.
Except in the case of some artists, including Soulages in France and, using different or even opposite means, Anselm Kiefer in Germany. I say “opposite” because Soulages trusts in pure pictorial form whereas Kiefer needs huge symbolic supports, such as Wagnerian opera, the history of the Nazi extermination, or Paul Celan’s poetry. But the end result, in both cases, imposes the explicit power of a latent infinity.
A painting by Soulages, one of his largest, is always monumental, dispersive, and radiant. It demonstrates, it surprises, it shows us the way to an inner star. Because it is an allegory of the way of truths, Soulages’ art, which some regard as little more than a stylish affectation of black, is in fact a consummate art.
And since Soulages made a point of saying that painting is a poetic experience that only signifies by trans-figuring (which is to say: by going beyond figure, beyond any and all figure), I’ll take my final words from the French poet of the 1940s and ’50s who most resembles him, owing to the rugged peasant force of his stubborn preoccupation with language: André Frénaud. I’m going to read you an excerpt from the long, magnificent poem entitled “La Complainte du roi mage” [“The Complaint of the Wise Man”], a poem Frénaud wrote while a prisoner of war in 1941. It is the rêverie of the Three Wise Men during a stop on their journey.
Yet during the first campaigns, how delightful the waiting
when with two other dreamers,
by the same star diverted
from their groves, from the serene sweetness of their shade,
we traveled over deserts replenished by our fervor.
O contented, eager wing! Long rainbow breath
in our hearts and the land. O early morn!
When our tents, errant isles, wreaked fresh havoc on
the multitudes pliant to our emotion and awkwardly entranced.
Lord of plenitude… Stranger who approached,
majestic and fleeting as a cloud.
Pierre Soulages! I’d like to say something about you that was inspired by the effect of meaning on whose account I remain, utterly amazed, in the space that your ultrablack painting creates in front of itself: solitary, complete, overwhelming, and surely astonishing. Yes, it can indeed be said of you:
Lord of plenitude… Stranger who approached,
majestic and fleeting as a cloud.

Alain Badiou January 22, 2010

An Interview with Pierre Soulages

by Hans Ulrich Obrist

With his multidimensional work, combining a considered approach to painting with a unique take on architecture and space, Pierre Soulages continues to inspire new generations of artists. For the past few years, the ties he built between painting and architecture have grown to be particularly important for many artists—from Ai Weiwei to Olafur Eliasson—who have expanded the range of their practice to the world of architecture.

From the very beginnings of his work, Soulages considered painting in its relationship to architecture. Not only did he “free himself from painting to move toward architecture,” he treated painting like architecture, “attaching” his works with cables hung between the floor and the ceiling, working exactly like an architect in an architectural space. “If you hang a painting on the wall,” he explains, “it becomes a sort of window. But when it’s attached by cables, it becomes a wall.” Shown that way, his paintings became a new mode of presentation, a new space. They opened new horizons for the many contemporary artists who used their own installations to question the relationship between a work of art and its exhibition space, and its status as an object.

Since 1960, Soulages has lived in the house he designed in Sète, in the south of France, with his wife Colette. Among his influences, he cites Mies van der Rohe, as well as what the French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée called “buried architecture,” in which the parts that stick up from the ground should allow us to imagine what the ground is hiding from us. “An architecture you do not see—I find that wonderful,” says the painter. “Similarly, when you look at my house, you see very few traces of humanity.” That comment could also be applied to his painting.

Another architectural project Soulages was part of: creating stained-glass windows for the Conques abbey-church near Rodez. Working inside of and with the architecture of the space, he wanted to express the passing of time through light. “The light I wanted I finally found,” he explained to the medieval historian Jacques Le Goff. “It’s natural light that is transformed, transmuted; it has an inner life, in keeping with this admirable space which so lends itself to meditation or prayer. . . . That was what struck me the most during this adventure: creating for such a space a material that shows the flowing of time. That is something that has deep meaning and which counted a lot in my work afterward.”

Now, Soulages has designed a “living museum,” built in Rodez, where 500 square meters will be exclusively reserved for temporary exhibitions. The Musée Soulages, he explains in this interview, “will be founded on a way of conceiving art without a plan, open to chance, to the unknown.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist: What was the first aesthetic shock you ever felt? Do you have a specific memory of it?
Pierre Soulages: Yes, it was in the interior of the Romanesque abbey-church in Conques, near Rodez, the city where I was born. A city that for a long time was far from everything.

HUO: That first contact seems to have been a real epiphany!
PS: That first contact led shortly thereafter to a new way of thinking about art. In a book, I came across a reproduction of the Altamira cave painting of a bison. Eighteen thousand years; I translated: one hundred eighty centuries! Abruptly, I realized how narrow art history was as taught at school or seen in museums. We only get five or six centuries of painting, and even if you go back to archaic Greek sculpture, that’s only twenty-six centuries! From that moment on, I wanted to see what we weren’t being told about. We were told about Romanesque architecture, for instance, but not a word about Tavant, Saint-Savin, etc. So I began to delve into painting going back to its most distant origins, and alongside that, the art of other countries—Africa, Asia, etc. I also took part in digs at prehistoric sites, grottos, dolmens . . .

HUO: What, specifically, speaks to you about those periods?
PS: As far as prehistoric times are concerned, that things appear to us in successive waves. We knew about Pech Merle, Niaux. Then Lascaux appeared, and now Chauvet, in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc: with the latter site, we jumped three hundred forty centuries back in time! Those large painted spaces gave me a yearning for freedom. The paintings impressed me with the force of their presence, which went far beyond a desire for illusionistic representation—which eventually led to perspective studies. We were shown all that as though it were progress, but the work’s presence vanished in favor of what it represented. To that kind of visual recentering, I preferred openness.

HUO: The need for space can also be seen in your way of living. Your house is also set in a wide landscape . . .
PS: Yes, for the house in Sète, I was immediately fascinated by a space open to an empty horizon. In fact, it was a landscape dominated by a pretentious house, with reinforced concrete balusters and a crenelated tower, a ridiculous sign of the conquering petty bourgeoisie.

HUO: And what about the house you built?
PS: We absolutely didn’t want to settle somewhere! In Paris, we lived in old houses, where I always managed to be able to paint. I was hesitant, but we were trapped by the empty horizon, so we demolished the existing house and went on to build a new one, which we had never planned on at any point in our lives.

We imagined a house, and it was really fun. For instance, we thought it would be nice to have the bedroom to the east so we would have sun when we woke up in the morning. I chose a reclusive spot for the workshop in the lower part of the house. We each took a colored pencil and drew the spaces and ways of moving through them, with the inside in continuity with the outside.

HUO: Speaking of architecture, what are your influences there?
PS: I know a little bit about contemporary architecture since Bauhaus. I also had the chance to meet Mies van der Rohe, in Chicago in 1957. He had chosen one of my paintings for one of his students, Anderson Todd. But if you go back a bit further in time, I really like Étienne-Louis Boullée, for his writings and drawings, along with Ledoux and several others, all utopian architects. I recently received a postcard from a museum that Tadao Ando had just built—a museum that was completely underground. I visited another one, in Miho, that was partly underground, designed by I. M. Pei. They made me think back to what Boullée had written—I’m quoting from memory, here: “The parts that stick up out of the surface of the ground must make one think of what the ground is hiding from sight.” The idea of an architecture that isn’t seen but rather is imagined, or suspected, is wonderful.

HUO: Your relationship to architecture seems totally crucial, to me. Aside from creating your own house, you also feel compelled to set your works in a specific architectural space. Art exhibits considered as architectural environment issues, you could say . . .
PS: Yes, always. And it was precisely in an architectural space designed by Mies van der Rohe that I started hanging my paintings on wires. It was with Sweeney in the Houston museum, in 1966. I have done that often, since, but attached to cables between the floor and the ceiling. They are very firmly located in space. Part of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, the large polyptychs, will be presented that way as well. Furthermore, one of my paintings will be shown in the Louvre throughout the show’s run. It will be hung in the Salon Carré. They first offered me a room with red walls, and then something I liked better, the Salon Carré.

HUO: Which painting is it?
PS: I don’t know yet. But it will be hung alongside the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello. The Salon Carré is where one can see Cimabue’s Maestà, the first Giottos and Fra Angelicos. To me, it’s the most beautiful room in the Louvre. I am delighted! But once again, you have to think about how it’s hung: all those works have wide sculpted frames in high relief. Of course, there is no way I am going to use a frame, but I still have to find a balance with the rest of what’s there. So I thought of hanging my painting not against the wall, but slightly away from it. I hope that that distance will isolate it from the wall—something like the way a frame isolates it, but not quite.

HUO: The relationship to architecture also raises the question of commissioned work . . .
PS: Indeed. At some point in the past, they used to ask artists to work on historic monuments. And they thought—it wasn’t the first time—that my painting was especially suited to stained glass windows. After several suggestions, I was asked to work on the Conques abbey-church. I didn’t really care that much about it, and for a while I thought, and even hoped, that the project would not come to fruition. But different Ministers of Culture came and went and all of them, whatever their politics, supported the project.

Something unusual about my work is that I refuse to do preparatory sketches.

HUO: No outlines beforehand?
PS: I didn’t want to use a pictorial intermediary, whether watercolor, gouache or some other medium. The interior space at Conques is based on the organization of light, and what I wanted was to find a material that would create the light I wanted. Furthermore, the abbey-church’s stones are colored—what I wanted was light to show the existing colors, so, colorless glass that would be opaque to our gaze, with a level of translucency I could modulate. I looked for glass like that, and it didn’t exist, so I decided to create it. After 800 tests at CIRVA (Centre International du Verre et Arts Plastiques) in Marseille and the Saint-Gobain research lab in Aubervilliers, I finally managed to obtain the right glass. The first time I saw the light produced by the new glass, an astonishing phenomenon appeared before my eyes: the colorless glass took on color in natural light. When light passes through it, it is bluish, and when less light passes through, the glass gives off a warmer light, while from the outside, in those parts, the glass reflects the blue that’s missing when seen from inside. The stained glass window is visible from both sides! It was only then that we produced the 104 cardboards (to scale).

HUO: A real invention!
PS: Above all it was a surprise, a discovery, tied to a way of making art. Because if I’d started out from a painted sketch, I would have found nothing but what is usually in a painting. The project arose from the material itself, a specially created type of glass, the same that was then used to make the whole thing.

HUO: How important is discovery to you?
PS: I am always open to happy accidents. For example, in my engravings. When I was working on copper with acid, I was trying to intensify the black and I carved deeper and deeper into the plate. Until one day I ended up making a hole in it . . . Lacourière, the engraver who printed for Picasso, Miró, and Derain, said, “As long as there’s copper, there’s hope.” Even without copper! I printed the copper with the hole. On that part, the paper was not pressed; it retained its usual beautiful white paper material, becoming something other than the medium for a print: one of the colors of the print. That was an adventure not unlike the stained glass windows in Conques: you have to be available and open to the unexpected.

HUO: What will the future museum planned for Rodez be like?
PS: You know, I am against artists’ museums. I had already refused an offer from the mayor of Montpellier. What convinced me to do the one in Rodez was the chance to create another type of museum: a place where the genesis of artworks would be displayed. There would be, with the mock-ups of the Conques windows, walnut stains, all my engravings, and some examples of my paintings—on one condition: that 500 square meters be reserved for temporary exhibitions. I wanted a museum that would be open to contemporary creation. It would be founded on a way of conceiving art without a plan, open to chance, to the unknown. Like life, in the end.

HUO: What about the building itself? Did you design it?
PS: No, the project led to a major competition, in which 98 architects participated, and in the end, it was a Corten steel design by RCR, a Spanish architecture firm, that was chosen.

HUO: That leads me to my last question on architecture. Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter, and other painters since the 1960s have confirmed that their large-scale works were a way of moving toward architecture. But it seems that you heralded that movement, with the immense pieces we all recognize.
PS: What is absolutely fundamental is the physical relationship between a work and its viewer. Essentially, that is why I don’t like art books: they are always reductions. On paper, The Wedding at Cana has almost the same dimensions as a Vermeer from Delft. You don’t get a sense of the works’ dimensions. At first, I didn’t want people to take pictures of my works, and it was my friends Hans Hartung and Jean-Michel Atlan who told me in 1947, “If you don’t take pictures of your works, one day it will come back to bite you.” They were right, because later people started saying I was the copycat of a painter who, in fact, had come on the scene after me. . . . But with proof in hand, everything was set straight.

HUO: How did things go for you when you first entered the art scene?
PS: Among those who were quickly interested in my work were artists like Picabia, Hartung, and others who were less well known.

HUO: How did you meet?
PS: The first time I showed a few paintings, in 1947 at the Salon des Surindépendants, a woman asked me, “Are you the one who did those? My husband likes your work a lot.” That was Roberta González, the daughter of sculptor Julio González as well as the wife of Hans Hartung. Another young woman came up to me and claimed that Picabia admired my painting. . . . I thought she was just trying to flatter me. But later, at an opening at the Galerie Drouin on the Place Vendôme, she introduced me to him: “Francis, this is Pierre Soulages.” And there was no reaction from him! “Come on, you remember, at the Surindépendents show,” she went on. At that, Picabia’s eyes widened and he said, “The big black paintings, that was you?” He seemed astonished. “How old are you?” — “27 years old.” He started laughing hard: “I am going to tell you what Pissarro said to me one day. ‘Given your age and what you’re doing, it won’t be long before you have a lot of enemies!’” I found it amazing that that quip could travel through a whole period of art from Pissarro to Picabia to reach the young painter I was in 1947.

HUO: What was your first exhibition outside France?
PS: It was in Germany in 1948. There were ten of us. I was alongside Bott, Kupka, Domela, Herbin, Del Marle, Hartung, and Schneider.

HUO: The famous poster using walnut stain? Another invention!
PS: Or rather . . . a bold gesture. To my knowledge, no one had used it before. Its use in Arte Povera later made it less surprising.

HUO: The phenomenon of invention is of extreme interest to me. When I interviewed Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, he was 100 years old, and he told me he remembered exactly the day he made his discovery. Do you have that kind of precise memory about the invention of your use of the color black?
PS: Black used like that, yes. It was in 1979. I was painting. Or rather, screwing up a painting. A big black mess. I was unhappy, and because I thought it was pure masochism to continue at such length, I went off to sleep. When I woke up, I went to look at the painting. I saw that it was no longer the black that brought the painting to life but rather the reflection of the light on the black surfaces. On the striated areas, the light vibrated, and on the flat surfaces everything was calm. It opened up a new space: the space of painting was no longer on the wall as in the Byzantine pictorial tradition, nor was it behind the wall, as in perspectival painting; now it is physically in front of the canvas. Light comes from the painting toward me; I am in the painting. And what’s more, the light comes from color, which is the greatest absence of light. I continue to pursue this avenue.

HUO: So the tool you use is in fact light, not the color black?
PS: Exactly. Light reflected by the color black. I invented a word to explain the phenomenon: outrenoir [beyond black].

HUO: How do you define outrenoir in 2009?
PS: It’s a different mental space than that of the color black. Art is always about a mental space. That “other” space, in front of the canvas itself, creates a different relationship to space. And a different relationship to time. And it gives the work an intense presence. The idea of presence is crucial in art. When a painting refers to a subject, its presence weakens. A painting should be present at the time someone looks at it. What I like is the power of its presence.

HUO: You allude to the idea of motionless time by explaining that, when looking at a line, we mentally create a repetitive trajectory.
PS: Yes, it’s true, when I was just starting out, I said that. Against drawing.

HUO: What do you think about the future?
PS: It doesn’t belong to me.

HUO: Let’s go back to the color black. You say that it is a violent color, one that eliminated the others. For you it’s also a passion.
PS: Black first interested me because of its relationship to the other colors; it’s a contrast. Next to it, a dark color becomes lighter. To intensify a white, the same is true. As for absolute black, it doesn’t exist. Or it only exists in caves. What’s more, I find it fascinating that man went down into the darkest places, into the total blackness of caves to paint down there . . . with black. The color black is the original color. And the color of our origin. Before we are born, before we “see the light of day,” we are all in a black darkness. And the first person to draw a black square was Robert Fludd in 1617. He was a Rosicrucian. The Rosicrucians thought, I believe, that the world started and ended in blackness.

HUO: Before Malevitch?
PS: Indeed, several centuries earlier.

HUO: What does the color black represent, to you?
PS: As a symbol, black is a contradictory color. It refers both to anarchy and to officialdom. It is used for festivities and for austerity and mourning. For me, it is far from any symbolic value; I find it fascinating because of the pictorial powers it contains.

HUO: It is a color that has fascinated you for quite some time. . . .
PS: It’s true. As a child, I liked to dip my paintbrushes into black ink rather than using colors. I’ve been told that I would paint fat black lines on paper, and I said that I was making snow. . . .

HUO: Marcel Duchamp said, more or less, that the viewer does half the work. . . .
PS: The viewer’s participation is even more crucial, and in a different way!

HUO: Do you have any plans, utopias, or commissions that have not been produced?
PS: I was asked to work with the Fontevraud Abbey. I thought I would present three paintings held by cables in the church’s transept. I found it interesting to work spatially within an architectural space.

HUO: Hang them from the ceiling, rather than hanging them on the wall?
PS: I don’t hang things from the ceiling: I attach things between the floor and the ceiling.

HUO: Yet another invention. How far back does that one go?
PS: It was in 1966, in Houston, with James Johnson Sweeney. With nylon threads, on which the paintings were simply hung—it was pretty rudimentary. Since, it has evolved a lot, and the paintings are attached, immobile between the floor and the ceiling. They are very present, and they punctuate a space; they create a space.

HUO: Can you tell me more about Sweeney?
PS: James J. Sweeney, in 1948, came to the workshop unexpectedly. He was the first art historian and museum curator to come to my place, to take an interest in my work. I didn’t even know who he was! Later, I asked him how he had known to come to me. He simply told me that he wanted to know who was the young painter he had been told worked with black and large paintbrushes. He left his card, and a friend told me that he was a curator at the MoMA in New York. He hadn’t told me that! I now know that he was one of the first people to take an interest in Pollock and Calder.

HUO: So it was thanks to him that you established ties with the United States?
PS: In 1949, a year after I’d met Picabia, I was part of a show with a group of five painters at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Then, in 1950 and 1951, Advancing French Art in several American museums. And especially Younger European Painters in 1953, in the old Guggenheim Museum, where J. J. Sweeney had become the director. The next year I had my first solo show at the Kootz Gallery. . . .

HUO: What is your relationship to scientists and writers? I’m thinking of Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon . . . Nathalie Sarraute often spoke of you to me!
PS: One day, a magazine asked me for reproductions of my work, to be included in a special edition devoted to Nathalie Sarraute. She was the one who wanted my art for it. I accepted; I met her later, and we became friends. Claude Simon came to one of my shows, and we immediately hit it off. Saint-John Perse got my address through one of his friends, and he came to see me—and what’s more, he mentions the visit to my workshop in his autobiography. Aragon? I never met him, but on his wall, he had a picture of one of my paintings next to Prose du Transsibérien illustrated by Sonia Delaunay. As for scientists, I’ve mainly met physicians and biologists.

HUO: What’s unusual about your paintings is that they have no title.
PS: That’s not true! They have a title: the work’s dimensions. And also the date [on which the work was completed]. I always wanted my paintings to be objects, or rather, things. That’s why the title is restricted to their material scope, which is even more pronounced with paintings attached to cables between the floor and the ceiling. A painting on a wall is a kind of window. On cables, it becomes a wall.

HUO: So paintings divide a space.
PS: They give it its tempo. They create a different space. Part of the show at the Centre Pompidou is presented along the lines of this principle, which I have been using since 1966.

In collaboration with Cédric Moullier.

Pierre Soulages at Galerie Perrotin, New York (April 24 - June 27, 2014)

Pierre Soulages at Galerie Perrotin, New York...