‘A painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously – struck and held’
–James Johnson Sweeney
Never before seen in public, Peinture 162 x 114 cm, 29 août 1958 is a dramatic large-scale oil painting by Pierre Soulages. It has been held in the same private collection for the sixty years since its creation, and dates from a defining decade in the artist’s career. Between 1953 and 1959, Soulages produced just 39 paintings of this scale: of these, only fourteen remain in private collections, and nineteen are in museums, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Museum Folkwang, Essen; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee; the Australian National Gallery, Canberra; and Kunsthaus Zürich. Soulages had first made unified linear compositions in the late 1940s, realising in them the guiding principle of his art – ‘The duration of the line having disappeared, time was static in these signs made by summary and direct strokes of the brush; movement is no longer described; it becomes tension, movement under control, that is to say dynamism’ (P. Soulages, quoted in J. Johnson Sweeney, Soulages, New York, 1972, p. 22). He experimented with sonorous chiaroscuro effects throughout the 1950s, and was by 1958 creating complex, translucent colour in his works through scraping away layers of impasto, modulating his paint’s lustre and texture to create a dazzling array of effects. The present work is a magnificent example of this approach. Broad, interlocking bars of gleaming black are dragged vertically and horizontally against a shimmering field of dark grey, which itself has been pulled like a curtain over a ground of pale gold. Gaps, fissures and varied opacities in the work’s structure conjure a rich variety of tone and texture. At the centre glows a zone of warm amber; to the upper right, a vertical flurry of incisions into the black reveals sharp flashes of off-white. The weighty lattice of glossy black beams creates an imposing yet delicately balanced form, reminiscent of a character of Japanese script. Its swathes of dark, lacquer-like pigment are offset by areas dragged into lyrical translucency. The work exploits the full range of oil paint’s expression. This exalting of his material’s innate qualities is typical of Soulages, who makes every decision based on the painting in front of him. He paints not as a philosopher, narrator or ideologue, but as a painter. Nor, despite winning early acclaim in America during the art world’s focal shift from Paris to New York in the 1950s, is he an Abstract Expressionist. Uninterested in communicating his emotions or states of being, he does not aim to record gesture or movement in his brushstrokes. He instead arranges contrasts into a single, forceful surface that is to be apprehended in its totality. As the artist himself says: ‘I do not depict, I paint. I do not represent, I present’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Peindre la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, p. 16). Replete with the timeless grandeur of the prehistoric and Romanesque art that inspired him as a youth, Peinture 162 x 114 cm, 29 août 1958 epitomises the unique immediacy, assurance and power of Soulages’ practice.
James Johnson Sweeney, an early champion of Soulages as director of the Guggenheim in the 1950s, wrote memorably that ‘A painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously – struck and held’ (J. Johnson Sweeney, Pierre Soulages, New York, 1972, p. 5). This apt simile captures the sustained, singular intensity of Soulages’ work. It is important to distinguish chord from melody: unlike the gestural sequences of Abstract Expressionism, a work like Peinture 162 x 114 cm, 29 août 1958 offers no itinerary to be followed, no temporal anecdote of the artist’s feelings poured onto the canvas. Neither lyrical, personal or sentimental, it is instead a single, resonant surface of overall structural energy. Soulages never paints ‘from his head’ with something already in mind, but rather responds to the paint in front of him, working directly with its viscosity, translucency and colour to build a ‘sign’ that can be apprehended in an instant. ‘Rather than movement, I prefer to talk of tension’, he says. ‘And rhythm, yes. We can also say form: a shaping of matter and light’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Les instruments de la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, p. 92). To apply the paint, he uses house-painters’ brushes or wide, flat scraping tools that he constructs himself, purposely eliding the expressive dimension of the gestural trace. ‘My pictures are poetic objects capable of receiving what each person is ready to invest there according to the ensemble of forms and colours that is proposed to him’, he explains. ‘As for me, I don’t know what I am looking for when painting. Picasso said: “I do not search, I find.” My attitude is a bit different: it’s what I do that teaches me what I’m looking for’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Peindre la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, p. 14).
Soulages feels little artistic kinship with the American painters Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, to whom he has sometimes been compared. While Kline’s strident monochrome compositions of 1950-51 are superficially comparable to his own early works, Soulages’ predate them by several years, and he does not share Kline’s overarching concern with physical movement. When Soulages first visited New York in 1957, the year before the present work was painted, Motherwell told him that Abstract Expressionism could only truly be understood by Americans. Soulages countered that ‘An art should be understood, loved and shared by anyone, anywhere in the world. That we are marked by the culture in which we have grown up and lived, that’s part of us, very obviously. But I believe that in art, there are fundamentally only personal adventures that go beyond the individual, and even beyond his culture’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Peindre la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, p. 31). Soulages esteems art in its most universal dimension. In any case, dividing art into groups or movements is as reductive as using a word to describe a colour. Art, Soulages believes, begins precisely where words end. ‘Words are crutches that allow us to make a little way towards the work … But the greater part of the path remains beyond their reach, since art, by definition, is beyond them’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Peindre la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, pp. 13-14). It is for this reason, too, that he always uses the same neutral format for his titles – painting, dimensions, date. Keeping any extrapictorial meaning firmly at bay, he lets the experience of the picture be governed solely by the unique, unfixed dynamic of its abstract painted forms.
Soulages’ journey to a successful painting is not always easy. If a composition is not working, he incinerates the canvas. Only when he feels that there is something in there that the viewer can respond to does he persist, pausing between each stroke as he pursues a unified and dynamic whole. The physical strength required to apply his broad planes of paint must be charged with total assurance. Peinture 162 x 114 cm, 29 août 1958, with its remarkable clarity, unity and resonance, is a masterpiece of Soulages’ method. The work has the natural, unquestionable structural beauty and monumentality of a tree, its spatial relationships and tensions laid bare in boughs stripped dark against the sky. The historical moment of its execution is largely an irrelevance: for Soulages, an artwork exists not as an artefact of its time, but only in the ever-new, ever-changing present that is created with the viewer’s involvement. ‘The reality of a painting is born from the triple relationship which is established between him who paints, the thing painted and the person who looks at it. All the reality of the picture is contained in this trilogy. It is thus a moving, multiple and constantly new reality, since this relationship of three is constantly changing. This is the only explanation that we can give for the interest that we can bring today, for example, to an art as distant from us – chronologically, geographically and culturally – as Mesopotamian art. It is that we invest a part of ourselves’ (P. Soulages, quoted in ‘Peindre la peinture’, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2014, pp. 14-15). Concentrated, ageless, serene and inevitable, Peinture 162 x 114 cm, 29 août 1958 stands before us as an irresistible invitation into that reality.