One of my art pet peeves is being told “You just have to see it in person.” While it’s true that this is sometimes the case, more often than not I find myself thinking, “Do I really?” And more often than that, if I do see the piece in person, I find the answer to be a resounding no. Even when a work is genuinely one that takes on meaningful new life when viewed up close, what am I to do with that? Maybe it’s true that certain works can’t be fully appreciated without one being in the same room, but if I can’t get to that room, does that mean I also can’t appreciate those pieces properly until some imaginary date of enlightenment arrives?
That said, I am loath to admit it but there’s no getting around it: Lévy Gorvy Dayan’s new exhibition, a career retrospective of late French master painter Pierre Soulages, needs to be seen in person.
Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight, which opened this past Thursday, functions not only as a standing ovation for Soulages’ long, illustrious career but also as a call to action. Despite French President François Hollande calling him “the world’s greatest living artist” in 2014, the Soulages fever that consumed Europe never quite made its way to the United States. With the exhibition, Lévy Gorvy Dayan (LGD) presents a convincing argument that it’s time American museums and art institutions gave him the recognition he so deserves.
Soulages, who was born in Rodez, France in 1919 and lived to be 102 years old before his passing last October, occupies a unique space in art history: as Emilio Steinberger, senior partner at LGD, told the New York Times in 2019, “He’s history and he’s contemporary at the same time. He was friends with Giacometti and Rothko; he started when Pollock just started pouring paintings. You’re talking to someone who was at the center of history in Paris and New York and at the moment is still a very contemporary artist. There’s almost nobody else like that.”
But despite living through so much history—and being at the heart of much of it—Soulages remained largely unaffected by outside influences on his work and adamantly refused to fit into any one art movement. From beginning to end, his style remained remarkably consistent, anchored to his vision, and even the violent, rapid and ever-shifting tides of the 20th and 21st centuries couldn’t sway him. Fascinated from a young age by prehistoric cave paintings and ancient stone monolith carvings, Soulages vehemently rejected many of the trends of his time, eschewing both “cold” painting (such as the angular constructions of post-Cubism) and “warm” painting (such as the sweeping gestural strokes of Abstract Expressionism).
As Alfred Pacquement, president of Musée Soulages in Rodez and former director of the Centre Pompidou, put it in the introduction to the upcoming scholarly publication accompanying From Midnight to Twilight, “Soulages wanted to escape the description of gesture; he sought to conceive a kind of painting that could be apprehended all at once.” Similarly, Soulages dismissed signification in and naturalistic interpretation of his art, viewing paintings as objects and things rather than, say, portals into the artist’s interior life or the surrealist imagination. Most of all, however, he was fascinated by the color black.
Black, which had been fundamental for Soulages ever since childhood, is the most defining characteristic of his artwork—so much so that frequent comparisons are drawn between his work and that of other monochromatic painters such as Yves Klein and Robert Ryman. But despite being known as the “painter of black,” his obsession with the hue has less to do with the color itself than the possibilities it presents.
As Pacquement explained in person at the opening of From Midnight to Twilight, “If there was one word to be used to describe his work, it would not be ‘black,’ it would be ‘light.’ He works with light, he works with the lightness of the black, the lightness of the black is used with many other colors… Black is a gloss, it’s a way of introducing the night into the painting.” Over seven decades of painting, black remained a prominent feature in nearly every single piece Soulages created, from his early works with brou de noix (walnut stain) to his experiments with contrast in the 1950s and 1960s to the mode of artistic creation that consumed the last four decades of his life, which he called outrenoir, or “beyond black.”
In 1979, a failed painting drenched in black paint was a revelation for Soulages. Enthralled by the infinite dimensions of black on the canvas and its unique ability to reflect and refract light, he began painting solely in black and never turned back in the forty years that followed. While this marks a clear shift from his earlier contrast-heavy works, Pacquement rejects the idea that such an evolution was a departure for Soulages. “People sometimes say that outrenoir is a shift, a break [from Soulages’ earlier works], but I don’t think it’s a break. I think it’s a continuity of what he had done before with color, but with a radical way to limit his painting to one pigment.”
Dominique Lévy of LGD believes that outrenoir is the pinnacle of “Pierre’s contribution to radical abstraction, to sculpture and to redefining the space, understanding light.” As she said at the opening, “The radical transformation and radical contribution [that is outrenoir] is where I think Soulages will…stay in the canon all the way to the end. One appreciates the intimacy and the monumentality. [The paintings] are totally atemporal and have been, I think, for a lot of artists, a source of influence and conversation. They are a sort of symphony of transparency and opacity, and their materiality is in constant flux when you move around it… They provide reflection and presence.”
LGD’s From Midnight to Twilight is organized on two floors—the second dedicated to Soulages’s studies from the 1950s and 1960s with the first an homage to outrenoir. The entire exhibition is beautifully curated, but the ground floor is the pièce de résistance. With the beautiful Beaux-Arts style architecture of LGD’s global flagship gallery serving as the exhibition’s backdrop, the show establishes a stunning contrast between the whites of the building’s interior and the depths of the black on the canvases.
In keeping with Soulages’ curatorial affinity for suspending his paintings such that they function as walls rather than windows, the ground floor’s centerpiece is a large and masterfully textured 2019 acrylic painting hung from the townhouse’s high ceilings. Viewers are thus able to walk around the painting and get close enough to see individual brush strokes, as well as Soulages’ handwriting on the back of the canvas. It’s a lovely curatorial choice that uses the beauty of the architecture to augment the works themselves, and this was the clear intention. As Steinberger told Observer, “We thought that this area had a very strong architectural element, so we needed something to stand up to it,” and the outrenoir work more than holds its own.
I do not like Yves Klein. I’ve never been a fan of monochromatic paintings, and Klein’s insistence that he invented his own unique shade of blue has always rankled me. So, as someone who had never seen Soulages’ work in person, I came in skeptical. I was familiar with reproductions of his work online and was prepared to be indifferent at best; after all, once you’ve seen one black canvas, haven’t you seen them all?
“You can’t get [his work] from a photograph,” LGD Senior Director Marly Hammer told Observer. “You can’t see how layered it is, how detailed even—there are hints of color underneath, there’s red, there’s blue, that you cannot tell from a photo.” After seeing the exhibition, I’m entirely inclined to agree. Each painting is its own beast, with tangible textural differences that shape the refractions of the light in vastly different ways. Some outrenoir works are so deep and smooth that the void you’re staring into stares right back—less black paint than darkened mirror. Others flick shards of light in every direction or serve as funhouse mirrors in which your reflection in the paint is slashed through at the torso with one sharp stroke or your shoes are divided into thick, choppy segments. The upstairs works, while not edge-to-edge black, are also unique and evocative, with bright colors peering through gaps in the black surface and broad yet measured lines of black covering colored surfaces like artistic and abstract graffiti.
The exhibition is more than a showing of paintings, however; it’s also a guided, comprehensive and academically-inclined tour through the life of Pierre Soulages, with a keen eye toward historical context. A side room on the ground floor is entirely devoted to archival materials and education—a TV displays a documentary on Soulages, and multiple books on his work are arranged on a table for easy perusal. Most impressive, though, is the wall-to-wall timeline of not only Soulages’s life and work but of the world at large, giving viewers a more thorough understanding of Soulages’ historical significance and positioning in the past century. Hammer affirmed this: “Education and awareness are definitely important to us, which is why we…wanted to invest our time and resources into creating this comparative chronology.” Very few works on display are for sale, meaning the exhibition “is all really about awareness and to educate people on Soulages who don’t know him in America.”
Soulages’ relative absence in the U.S. is surprising given how fundamental he was to American art movements in the 1950s and 60s, and how closely intertwined his career was with those of many of the preeminent artists in the American postwar canon. After catching the attention of American curator James Johnson Sweeney, Soulages’ work was a frequent presence in New York galleries—perhaps most notably in the solo exhibition organized by Samuel Kootz in 1954. Soulages traveled across the pond in 1957 and befriended many of the patron saints of American abstraction and contemporary art, forming close bonds with Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell in particular. But when Kootz’s gallery closed in 1966, the attention previously directed toward Soulages in America fizzled out. From Midnight to Twilight exists, in part, to remedy that: “This exhibition is an appetizer, in a way, showing a very long and relevant career,” Lévy said. “My hope, my secret hope—our secret hope—is that this will give the idea to the great American museums to bring Soulages back into the spotlight. It is time to see Soulages in his full breadth in America and secretly, I hope that this exhibition will promise that.”
It looks like Lévy’s “secret hope” is already well on its way to being fulfilled—in the wake of his passing, museums around the nation are finally dusting off their long-retired Soulages and installing them once more. This was a double-edged sword for From Midnight to Twilight, however. “We reached out to MoMA, LACMA, etc., and they said no to the loans because they were actually installing Soulages’ work,” Hammer told Observer. “Several institutions we approached had to decline.”
The Met, Guggenheim, Art Institute of Chicago and more loaned notable works, but the “standing ovation” LGD hoped for with From Midnight to Twilight had fewer paintings on display than originally anticipated. But the overarching goal of the exhibition—to bring Soulages back into circulation as a key figure in contemporary art for American audiences—seems like it will bear fruit even sooner than expected. While we will still have a ways to go before Soulages’ posthumous return to the broader American cultural consciousness, not to worry; it seems that LGD and its wonderful exhibit are more than equipped to bridge the gap.
Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight is on view at Lévy Gorvy Dayan through November 4.