November 2010, Pierre Soulages Martin Gropius Bau

Pierre Soulages in his atelier in the Quartier Maubert, Paris, May 2009
© Photo: Vincent Cunillere, Courtesy of the Martin–Gropius-Bau

Pierre Soulages
Niederkirchnerstr. 7
10963 Berlin
October 2, 2010 through to January 17, 2011

Originally held earlier this year at the Centre Pompidou in Paris to celebrate the 90th birthday of Pierre Soulages, one of France’s most important living artists, the Martin–Gropius-Bau now presents a slightly altered version of the retrospective in Berlin. The show honours the prolific painter whose work, spanning 64 years and dealing excessively with the (non) colour black, holds a unique position in the contemporary art world.

Pierre Soulages gained international recognition as early as 1948, when one of his walnut stain works on paper was selected as the official poster representing the ‘Grosse Ausstellung Französischer Abstrakter Malerei’. Featuring unknown French painters amongst more established ones, such as Hans Hartung and Auguste Herbin, the show was exhibited in several major German cities. Having once decorated the ruins of the post-war era, the poster - now over six decades later - opens the Berlin retrospective of an artist whose long career has been marked by an ongoing relationship with Germany.

The first part of the exhibition is dedicated to his early paintings from 1946 onwards. Walnut stain, gouache and charcoal works on paper are displayed alongside rarely seen experiments of tar on glass. Whilst such works are clearly indebted to calligraphy as gestural assertions in black and white, their forms and symbols refuse to be read or interpreted - they signify nothing besides their apparent visual and rhetorical qualities. It is of no surprise that this work has often been associated with Art Informel, an artistic movement that, as something of a counterpart to American Abstract Expressionism, originated in the mid 40s in Paris and spread through Europe. Soulages has, however, always refused to align himself with any specific group or school of thought. Progressing further through the exhibition, we encounter works from the 50s and 60s. Larger in scale, they are energetic oil paintings on canvas, which, in contrast to earlier pieces of work, embrace some use of colour. Another aspect is added to the contrast of light and dark; next to a strong black the subtle hues hint at a delicate, yet undeniable radiance.

Pierre Soulages, Walnut stain on paper, 48 x 62,5 cm, 1946
Private collection, © Photo: DR, Archive Soulages / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010, Courtesy of the Martin–Gropius-Bau


Pierre Soulages, Installation view, Martin–Gropius–Bau, 2010

What follows marks a major shift in Pierre Soulages’ work, coming out of the late 70s and which, according to the artist, was brought about by accident. Toiling over a painting one day Soulages - having covered the whole canvas in black - stopped working, convinced it was ruined. It was not until later that the potential of what he had created became evident. This was the beginning of an intense investigation into rhythmically structured, highly textured black surfaces and their receptiveness to light. Generally referred to as the outrenoir period (or ‘beyond black’) as coined by the painter, this phase stretches over the last 30 years of his career and is the main focus of the show.

What is so special about those black paintings, which Soulages prefers to be hung centrally, and from the ceilings rather than the walls? Wandering through the rest of the exhibition at the Martin–Gropius–Bau and spending time in the painterly spaces created by the artist, there is a lot to contemplate. Monumental in scale as most of the works are, their presence is an immediate and a strong one. Painting as presentation, not representation. And then there is light, which ironically plays the central role of Soulages’ mature works. It travels over deep furrows and level planes, striking the various different surfaces, and returning the viewer his altered gaze. This inversion is playfully emphasised in a black room, within which four portrait format works are displayed alongside one another. Lit indirectly by an illuminated white wall opposite, these apparently floating works enter into a dialogue with space and time, the light bouncing back and forward, becoming subject to infinite reflection.

Black, a (non) colour heavily loaded with symbolic meanings and connotations is treated solely for its pictorial aspects by the French artist. From the very beginning, Pierre Soulages refused to lead the viewer into the realm of associations with suggestive titles, stating only the dimensions and the year of production instead. He rightly rejects the label of a monochromatic painter, as even though he deals solely in black, his large canvases of the last three decades not only reveal astonishing subtleties in their blackness, but also contain the ability to generate colour in interaction with their surroundings. Mysterious and somewhat sacral, Soulages makes frequent use of polyptych formats to structure the ‘organizations of light’, as his outrenoirs are sometimes referred to.

Pierre Soulages, Oil on canvas, 222 x 537 cm, 30th of May 1979
Triptych, Private collection, Installation view, Martin– Gropius–Bau, 2010

Belonging to the post-war generation of painters, critically and profoundly engaged in reinventing their working medium, Pierre Soulages’ oeuvre is both remarkably unified, and yet distinguishable into two essentially different phases. Though his investigation into the nature of painting, interest in mark making and brush strokes and dedication to black remained at the core of his practice, his later period of the outrenoir differs strongly from the earlier works. Besides being an increasingly formal and structured approach to organising the picture space, there is another more subtle, yet defining element of change. A sense of singularity seems to replace the previously dualistic characteristics. In an apparent contradiction, light and dark share the same space, as they become alternately visible in accordance to the perspective of the viewer. At times the light that hits the canvas is reflected, whilst at other times it is absorbed, resulting in the creation of a particular sense of depth. It is this relationship with their environment that gives them their ultimately lively presence, a presence that far exceeds the possibilities of photographic reproduction. The current retrospective in Berlin is a great chance to experience such later works in relation to the development of an artistic vision over time. The only potential disappointment is that only a few of over 70 works on display are actually installed in space; a decision either dictated by the spatial confinements of the exhibition, or the formidable task of capturing the dynamics and diversity of an extensive body of work characterised by continuous development.

Declaring that if a work hangs on a wall it becomes a window, whilst when displayed in space it becomes a wall, it seems to be the aspect of confrontation – of facing oneself – that fascinates Pierre Soulages above all. Rather than looking for distraction in the far distance, his works throw the viewer’s gaze back towards its origin. Infinitely open to thoughtful introspection, the black canvases become highly ambivalent surfaces, receptive to the point at which they become their own negation. Way back, when the now 90 year-old artist was a young boy, he was once asked what he was painting. The boy, who had marked his paper with black lines, replied that he was painting snow.

Pierre Soulages, Installation view, Martin–Gropius–Bau, 2010

Nadine Poulain

Nadine Poulain is a writer, artist and filmmaker based in Berlin.

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