Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, New York
April 24th - June 27th, 2014
By SHANA BETH MASON, MAY 2014
I had become increasingly cynical about Emmanuel Perrotin. The self-made showman/capitalist is more often associated with glossy society pages than with the heavy words of academics and curators. That was never his game. He synthesizes social brevity with artwork that looks like fun ('fun'? What the hell is that?), but more importantly, looks like dollar signs. Works by Murakami, KAWS, Daniel Arsham and Pharrell Williams (he has ventured into designing cheeky furniture alongside his countless other daily cultural explorations) are bullet-proof crowd pleasers, but not quite as readily welcomed into the institutional sectors as other artists on his roster such as Sophie Calle, Paola Pivi and Bernard Frize. I had interacted with him from a distance at art fairs, biennials and openings between Basel, Hong Kong, London, Miami and here in New York; all the while, never fully convinced that he was 'serious.' What did I know and who would take my word for it? This flimsy perception of the man known as "The French Gagosian" would change, radically, at his press conference for French painter Pierre Soulages.
In collaboration with gallerist Dominique Lévy, Perrotin hosted members of the press at their shared space on Madison Avenue. Soulages' heavy black works hovered and hung in the space like squares cut out of Darth Vader. Once they were looked at closely, they revealed a subtle mastery: layers upon layers of paint carved into and smoothed over in various gradients. They resembled landscapes, frequently venturing into Abstract Expressionist exercises. Each work was a study in Zen-like patience, lined with delicate grooves or dented deep into the surfaces. It could be thought of as sculpture, due to the works' collective alternations between low relief and thick, tar-like projections. Let there be no mistake, though, Soulages' primary objective is expanding his relationship with paint. Via an interpreter (over a crackly Skype connection), the 94 year-old Soulages spoke to the audience of journalists and invited guests about his practice and the forthcoming opening of The Museé Soulages in his birthplace of Rodez, France. Just prior to the live chat, both Lévy and Perrotin spoke passionately about studio visits with Soulages and how Perrotin was eager to reexamine and recontextualize the significance of the artist to an American audience. The fact that Soulages remains largely obscured from an established canon of modern artists in the Western Hemisphere is, frankly, quite shameful. Soulages' works are held in the permanent collections of over one hundred public institutions worldwide (including MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Israel Museum, Tate Modern, the Pompidou, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and The Hermitage, to name a few).
Soulages' signature approach, what he calls Outrenoir (loosely translated, meaning "beyond black"), defies every practical definition of the word "monochrome" (a largely useless term, itself, given they every visible object has some distinctive variation of light and color). Soulages' progression from Abstract Expressionist leanings (a creative lineage may be drawn between him and artists such as Gottlieb, Rothko and Motherwell) towards the present-day monoliths could be definitively traced. The 1960's was a productive period for Soulages in his increasing boldness with the application of paint, but it is his work within the last two years that truly stuns with pigment transforming into tangible topography. His tireless experimentations with black and "black light" demonstrate and prove the enduring influence of a rare and original innovator.
Regarding Perrotin, himself, all the art world-tabloid headlines and paparazzi-snaps had fluttered out of my memory bank. Here was someone willing to go the distance for an artist who had never made the Billboard Top 100 or whose designs hadn't graced the little Louis Vuitton purses of twelve year-olds throughout the world. All of Perrotin's artists are visionaries in their own right, but Soulages was and remains, unequivocally, an under-appreciated, underestimated master.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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