Painted the day before the artist’s fortieth birthday, Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 is a beautiful and monumental painting by Pierre Soulages. A dark field of tar-black oil paint, finely striated by broad, horizontal brushstrokes, is combed across the full breadth of the canvas, and bracketed top and bottom by a ground of off-white. In a brilliant instance of his scraped raclage technique, Soulages has incised the still-wet black with bold, diagonal drags of a homemade spatula, pulling back the curtain of dark pigment to reveal bright, theatrical flashes of blood red beneath. In the lower reaches of the black, a horizontal scrape exposes a golden gleam of off-white—a touch of instinctive compositional genius which sets the whole work in formidable balance. The force and drama of the painting, which stands as tall as a person, is inescapable. Its rich variety of tones and textures is astonishing. The sonorous chiaroscuro of reds and blacks conjures the warm darkness of a Rembrandt, recalling a blaze of opulent fabric and glinting metal; the calligraphy of scraped, marbled paint brings to mind the dragged veils of color achieved by the German master Gerhard Richter in the 1980s. From the rough, fine-grained opacity of the black to the glowing, translucent, almost glassy slashes of red, Soulages exploits the full potential of oil paint, celebrating what he has called its “physiognomic” character. This exalting of his material’s innate physical 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 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 epitomises the unique immediacy, assurance and power of Soulages’s practice.
This work dates from the peak of Soulages’s use of the raclage technique, a high point in a career of remarkable, single-minded consistency. He had first made unified linear compositions in brou de noix—a dark stain brewed from walnut husks—in 1947, realizing 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 chiaroscuro effects and dark, interlocking beams of paint throughout the 1950s, and was by 1959 creating complex, translucent color in his works through scraping away layers of pigment. “The years 1957-1963”, writes Pierre Encrevé, “particularly illustrate one of Soulages’s characteristic techniques in the double treatment of the surface: that of scraping, or, if one prefers, transparency through uncovering. On the prepared canvas (primed in white), he applies a layer of paint covering part or all of the surface, upon which he superimposes, while the paint is fresh, one or more layers of different color. He then uncovers a part of the background using the same soft-bladed spatulas that he more often loads with black paint: according to the power and the shape of the movement, this scraping will remove paint all the way down to the canvas, or only as far as one of the intermediate layers. A subtle mixture of the different layers’ colors is created, each time surprising for the painter himself; infinite variations of color are discovered on the canvas; new luminosities, and unexpected color intensities through transparencies of black … red, blue, and yellow ocher seem Soulages’ colors of choice for neighbouring with large surfaces of black, at the same time as he uses them to create these mixtures, these disappearances-reappearances under the blade-scraped veils of black where the ‘transfigured’ color acquires a presence of a very particular emotional intensity” (P. Encrevé, “Le noir et l’outrenoir,” in Soulages: Noir Lumière, exh. cat. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris 1996, p. 30).
This “emotional intensity” is at its most vivid in Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959. Painted in the airy rue Galande studio that Soulages moved to in 1957 and would occupy for almost two decades, the work witnesses an artist at the height of his powers. Although he was yet to receive major acclaim in France, Soulages was enjoying huge success in New York. He had visited the city in 1957 and became close friends with Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. In 1959, the prices paid for his works by his dealer Samuel Kootz had doubled for the second time, and in July that same year Soulages’s friend Rothko visited him and his wife in Paris, where they threw him a party at the studio. While Rothko was never a direct influence on Soulages’s work, Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 bears some of the imposing vertical impact of the American painter’s floating bars of color, and Soulages was certainly animated by the lively exchanges they shared. This work displays Soulages at his most energized and daring, pushing his work into a bold and tumultuous chromatic dance. Beyond its dynamic relationship between red, black and white, the work’s interplay of rough, smooth, diagonal and horizontal textures also shows Soulages exploiting his material’s myriad interactions with light to ever greater power and contrast, filling the surface with life and anticipating the ultimate, breakthrough simplicity of the all-black Outrenoir canvases commenced in 1979.
Born in Rodez in Southern France in 1919, Soulages was captivated as a boy by the region’s menhirs: enigmatic, carved standing stones dating to the late Neolithic era. Aged seventeen, his name was first noted in Rodez’s Musée de Fenaille not as an artist but as the discoverer of a cache of pottery shards and arrowheads near a prehistoric tomb. He was indignant when a teacher derided the simplicity of the stark carvings in Sainte-Foy de Conques, a famous Romanesque abbey church close to his hometown. The experience of standing beneath this 11th-century building’s huge barrel vault was what first inspired Soulages to become a painter; in 1986, he would have the honour of designing its new windows, for which he developed a new kind of glass with variable translucency. “Even today in Soulages’ handling of paint,” wrote James Johnson Sweeney in 1972, “there is something which recalls the warm darkness of that Romanesque interior of Sainte-Foy. For, there, it was no dead blackness, but a live and gently palpitating dark suffused with a subtle illumination which reached its fullness in slashes of light from the high narrow windows and the soft glow where it struck the floors and walls” (J. Johnson Sweeney, Pierre Soulages, New York, 1972, pp. 10-11). Just as inspirational were the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940, and, later, the even older cave art found in Chauvet en Ardèche in 1994. Soulages’s own palette—as in the present work—has scarcely deviated from the rich, elemental reds, blacks and ochers used by the ancient artists who worked in the darkness of the caves. For Soulages, such rough-hewn creations are far more moving than the most elegant mimetic accomplishments of Classical art. He is impressed by their fervor and intensity, their desire to escape the fleeting. As he puts it, “I have always revolted against this foolishly evolutionary conception of art, which leads one to believe that there are at first awkward gropings, then that technique becomes more and more skilful and mastered, and that finally we arrive at the apotheosis of a perfectly imitative art. It must be said and repeated: there is no progress in art, only techniques that are perfected and which can lead you where you do not want to go. The painters of Lascaux or Chauvet brought art to a summit from the very start” (P. Soulages, quoted in “Guetteur des origines,” Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne, 2014, pp. 45-46).
With the spectacular and imposing form of Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959, Soulages reaches that summit. 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 many Abstract Expressionist paintings, a work like Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 offers no itinerary to be followed, no temporal anecdote of the artist’s feelings poured or splashed onto the canvas. Neither lyrical, personal or sentimental, it is instead a single, resonant surface of overall structural and chromatic 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 color 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 blunt house-painters’ brushes or wide, flat scraping tools that he constructs himself from scraps of leather and rubber, 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 colors 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).
The force of Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 is born of a deep, complex understanding of the nature of color and form. Soulages frequently recalls a childhood episode when he was spreading black ink upon white paper. A friend of his older sister asked what he was painting; she laughed when he replied “snow.” He now believes that he had been trying to render the white paper more white, luminous and snow-like via its contrast with the black ink. Such intuitive sensitivity informs all of Soulages’s mature work. “Color,” he observes, “never exists in the absolute” (P. Soulages, quoted in “Peindre la peinture,” Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne, 2014, p. 13). The word for a color is inevitably a poor, reductive abstraction compared to our actual perception of that color, which is modified by its shape, its density and consistency, its interaction with the colors that surround it, and its quantity. “Gauguin already expressed it perfectly,” says Soulages, “when he said that a kilo of green is more green than a hundred grams of the same green” (P. Soulages, quoted in “Peindre la peinture”, Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir: Entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne, 2014, pp. 12-13). It is thus that each stroke of Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 is a unique element, and the painting as a whole such a rich experience: all these variables are brought into simultaneous action. Each peeled-back flash of red, each glint of light caught by the combed grain of the black, takes on its own personality in a play of endless, irreducible variety. This acute and subtle approach also guides Soulages’s majestic Outrenoir canvases, begun five years later. These paintings are entirely black, yet interact with the light in infinite combinations of form and rough, smooth, matt, lustrous, flat or striated texture.
Although he was friends with both artists, Soulages feels little stylistic kinship with the American painters Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, to whom he has sometimes been compared. While Kline’s strident monochrome compositions of 1950-1951 are superficially comparable to his own early works, Soulages’s 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, 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, he believes that dividing art into groups or movements is as reductive as using a word to describe a color. When we look to the common denominators of any such grouping, be it Abstract Expressionism or Impressionism, we are not looking at art but at sociology or history. Pollock and Rothko, for example, are vastly different, as are Manet and Pissarro. Forcing them into categories only stifles appreciation of their distinct artistic qualities. Art, for Soulages, 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’s 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 great physical strength required to apply his broad planes of paint must be charged with total assurance. Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959, with its remarkable clarity, unity and resonance, is a masterpiece of Soulages’s 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. Concentrated, ageless, serene and inevitable, Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 aims to provoke as profound and engaged a response as a blood-red beast on a prehistoric wall, the graceful darkness of Conques, or any other art of true power and mystery. “It’s fascinating to think that as soon as man came into existence, he started painting," says Soulages. "As I said, I’ve always loved black, and I realized that, from the beginning, man went into completely dark caves to paint. They painted with black too. They could have painted with white because there were white stones all over the ground, but no, they chose to paint with black in the dark. It’s incredible, isn’t it?” (P. Soulages, quoted in Z. Stillpass, “Pierre Soulages,” Interview Magazine, 7 May 2014).