> Pierre Soulages' Declaration of Independence
> John Yau

Introduction to the catalogue published for the exhibition Pierre Soulages Works on Paper, Haim Chanin Fine Arts, New York, May 4 – june 25, 2005


“I am neither a Gestural nor an Expressionist painter”
Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages’ abstract paintings arrived in America just as the New York art world was heating up. In retrospect, it is easy to see why his work was included in group shows at Betty Parsons in 1949 and Sidney Janis in 1950, and why he had eight one-man shows at the highly respected Kootz Gallery between 1954 and 1966. His black ideographic paintings have immense staying power. Made of abutting and overlapping beam-like slabs of paint, the flat, frontal forms feel monumental, but do not overwhelm the viewer with their scale or weight. Their surface tactility invites intimacy, but the forms themselves remain remote and enigmatic. For all their diagonals and sudden angular changes, the structure seems to sit absolutely still. There is deliberateness to the way the artist has laid down the viscous paint. One is reminded of a log cabin on a wind swept plain; everything about it must both function and be necessary. 

Many early critics and viewers mistakenly saw an underlying affinity between Soulages and Franz Kline. Most could not help but notice that both artists used black, never mind that they used it very differently as well as directed it towards very different ends. The other telling dissimilarity is that Kline’s gesture is expansive, while Soulages’ brushstroke is highly controlled. Finally, Soulages arrived at his flat frontal forms in 1946, three years before Kline made an immense leap in his work, and began making the black-and-white paintings for which he is justly celebrated. But these misunderstandings and divergences are just the beginning of a deeper, more profound misconception about the differences separating Soulages from his European and American peers. For what the American audience did not recognize—at least perhaps until now—is that Soulages was an independent figure from the very outset of his career, that he did not fit comfortably into any American or European group, and that he was not part of any of the gestural, post-Cubist, post-Surrealist, or painterly tendencies that were predominant in Paris, when he moved there in 1947.  

In the four decades that have passed since Soulages last showed his work at Kootz Gallery, which was the last time he exhibited regularly in New York, it has become even more evident with each passing year that the path he first defined for himself when he was a young artist recently arrived in Paris, and which today he continues to explore with determined and focused rigor, is very different from the ones taken by both his American and French counterparts. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Soulages was never truly what he was first identified with, a tachiste or informel painter. For the most part, artists associated with informel believed in the artist’s touch. For many of these French and German abstract painters, the act of painting was understood within the context of existentialism, something Soulages never bought into. In contrast to their American counterparts, informel artists hadn’t moved decisively away from the diaristic approach that Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt had totally rejected.  Soulages, on the other hand, was neither a diaristic gesturalist nor a geometric abstractionist. The path he took was more solitary.  Thus, his paintings are an anomaly because they are radical without fitting comfortably into any of the ways that that category has been defined. 

Soulages began his career by developing an alternative to both the diaristic appiroach and the privileging of touch. In contrast to younger artists such as Frank Stella and Francois Morellet, he never became programmatic or mechanical, perhaps because he intuitively realized that that too could become (as it did with Andy Warhol) a way of declaring one’s personality. Instead, Soulages actively dissolved his personality in his work, which for him consisted of common, non-artistic materials and straightforward processes. His paintings were homemade rather than handmade or machine-like. 

Early in his career, Soulages was interested in the materiality of his medium and the possibility of it becoming a sign, like those cut into the archaic menhirs he encountered near Rodez, where he spent his childhood. Thus, it is not surprising that the artist was attracted to the writings of Victor Segalen, who, in 1908, traveled across Central and Western China to the edge of Tibet. In Steles, which was the result of his travels, Segalen wrote eloquently about the funerary stelae he saw in China’s countryside:

“They disdain to be read. They require neither voice nor music. They spurn the mutable tones and syllables that garb them differently in the different provinces. They do not express; they signify; they are.”  [1]

While the stelae rejected discursiveness, they did not shut out the natural world. They existed in the world, which is where Soulages has always wanted to locate his paintings. Thus, throughout a career that now spans seven decades, he has been preoccupied with the changing and elusive relationship between materiality and light. His desire is to have his paintings and works on paper be of and in the world, to have them be both obdurate things and sensitive to light. 

* * *

In 1947, like Pollock, Soulages introduced a non-art material (in his case, walnut stain) into his process, and has used it ever since. He also began his practice of using applicators that could either be obtained from the hardware store or were designed and made by him. In this regard, Soulages has more to do with younger French artists such as Yves Klein, who used sponges, Martin Barre, who used cans of spray paint, and Simon Hantai, who folded his canvases before applying paint. The difference is that these younger artists found it necessary to escape or overturn a mode of art making that they were initially attracted to, while Soulages began as an abstract artist using non-art materials. He wasn’t rebelling; he was setting out into his own territory.

By using walnut stain and various housepainter’s brushes and applicators, Soulages distinguished himself from those of his generation who believed that the artist’s brush and palette knife were the most perfect mediums to express their inner being. At the same time, the unhurried pace of his evenly widthed brushstrokes underscored that they were the direct result of a performance, which, in his case, seamlessly combined both the particular and the anonymous, and is thus a visual paradox that is impossible to unravel. One could further add that Soulages’ distinct, unhurried brushstrokes, particularly as they are utilized in his works on paper, anticipate by some four decades Brice Marden’s animated ribbons of paint. The controlled tactility of his surfaces makes Soulages’ work into a hybrid (both a painting and an object). And yet, despite the grand impassiveness of his paintings and works on paper, they do not align themselves with the Minimalist credo as succinctly summed up by Frank Stella: “what you see is what you see.” In Soulages’ work, the direct and simple becomes elusive and complex. 

With almost scientific detachment, the artist expresses his preoccupation with light through a constant and vigorous investigation of his materials, oil paint and walnut stain. In reacting to what appears as he is making it, he synthesizes both process and improvisation. The surfaces of his oil paintings range from smooth to grooved, from matte to reflective, and from tile-like to corrugated. While the grooves are the result of a stiff brush pulled through the paint, they do not evoke the gesturalist’s belief in the diaristic. Soulages isn’t focusing on the mark, but on the overall structuring of the surface. Thus, the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal directions of the grooves and flat surfaces seem to be echoing our conception of light moving through space, its swift directness. 

At times, the thick black paint is reminiscent of roofing tar, which in a semi-heated state is extremely sensitive to intervention. The direction of the grooves causes them to interact differently with the light. Although the insistently physical paintings radiate stillness, change is constant. As the viewer moves around or shifts position, the light that gathers in the grooves sharpens and softens, as well as shifts and dissolves, while the light reflected by the smooth surfaces constantly alters, like what happens when a full moon floats above a pond. The slightest movement of one’s eyes activates the dense tactile surfaces, and stubborn matter becomes sensitive and delicate. Materiality rises towards its opposite, changing light. 

* * *

Soulages wants his work to both embody and interact with the elemental world.  In his works on paper, he uses different flat-edged applicators to spread and direct the walnut stain across the surface. When he lays a black plane over a larger brown one, he causes the viewer to become more aware that, starting with the paper itself, the work is made of layers. His modesty, however, prevents him from calling attention to how much control he exerts over his materials. After all, it isn’t about what he can do; and it never was. 

The walnut stain, which is viscous liquid that behaves differently than oil paint, requires that the artist approach the surface differently than he does in the paintings. The liquidity of the stain cannot be built up into a thick, grooved or corrugated surface. Rather, it is the viscosity that must be both exploited and controlled, and that it can go from opaque to semi-transparent. As Soulages knows from nearly sixty years of experience, there is a direct correlation between the viscosity and the resulting color, which ranges from a dark black to a light-filled light brown, and from a solid plane to a semi-transparent one. As in his earliest works on paper, where he also used walnut stain, the key lies in his ability to manipulate a rather unforgiving material. 

The edges of the rectangular planes go from ragged to straight. The viewer has the feeling that the artist has controlled how the edges have come out, and that the raggedness isn’t simply the result of chance. Moreover, instead of underscoring the stain’s bruteness, Soulages imbues it with a delicacy that is, paradoxically, sturdy and resistant. He will place a brown plane full of subtle tonal shifts next to a narrow or wide smooth black band. Each plane interacts differently to and with the light. Thus, for all his emphasis on materiality, the artist is interested in its opposite, light. 

Soulages seldom covers the paper’s entire surface with the walnut stain. When he does, he alters the viscosity so that different black and brown planes abut each other. In addition, the black may shift from shiny and reflective to matte and absorbent. Always, the viewer is aware that the artist is acknowledging the white paper’s material surface as one source of light.  In addition, the paper does not function as a ground on which the artist has applied the paint. The white unpainted planes are equal to the painted black or brown ones, thus collapsing all figure-ground distinctions. By bringing the paper (or support) into play, Soulages also extends our attention to the wall. Certainly, his use of a material that is typically applied to furniture, doors, and interiors underscores the connection between object and environment, which in turn echoes his interest in the interplay between matter and light. 

In his matter-of-fact articulations of the walnut stain, his bringing it to a specific tonality and density, Soulages shares something with Robert Ryman who has said that he wants to “paint the paint.”  It is not paint that Soulages wants to paint, though there is clearly some of that impulse in what he does. The identity of his walnut stain is not fixed; it can be as thick as motor oil or as thin as maple syrup, but variousness has never been the point he wanted to make. Rather, he wants the walnut stain in combination with the paper to embody states of light, how it streams in through a window, fills a street, and defines a cul-de-sac of shadow. Moreover, he doesn’t want to represent these phenomena; he wants to make them occur. 

One of Soulages’ ongoing preoccupations is discovering the way light manifests itself when it approaches what we call matter.  Thus, in many works, the light can seem solid and thing-like. The world verges on becoming a state of ceaseless change. Thus, black is neither just a color nor the representation of an interior state, it is a reflective or light-drinking surface, an active thing. 

Both in their color and relationship to its surroundings, each rectangular plane is the direct consequence of a precise action. The light emanating from the interior or reflecting off their surfaces reminds us that stillness is, at best, an idealized state. Soulages will use the same material to carefully establish two or more distinct planes within a single work. When one of the rectangular planes is solid black and the other more veil-like and brown, the differences are not gradual, but discontinuous. The plane made of white paper abutting the ones made of walnut stain underscores the discontinuity. The applied rectangular planes might be made of the same stuff, but they don’t strike the viewer that way. Thus, there is an irresolvable contradiction at the core of these works on paper; and it is one that has metaphysical implications.  It is a testament to the artist, however, that he never claims to be an authority on such matters, and that he never tries to direct us to think along those lines. 

Soulages’ art is driven by curiosity, rather than judgment, by a desire to see rather than by a need to prove. Although he has used primarily black oil paint and walnut stain throughout his career, he has been able to sustain and expand the terms of his investigation.  These recent works on paper are further proof that we are in the presence of a contemporary master working at the height of his powers. They invite the viewer to look closely and they reward speculation.

[1] Segalen, Victor, Steles (Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1987), translated by Michael Taylor, unpaginated

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