ADDS Macron reax, Sotheby’s sale
French abstract artist Pierre Soulages, who died at the age of 102, was the Henry Ford of painting: for him, there was only one color, black, and he spent his life exploring it the light.
“I like the authority of black, its severity, its obviousness, its radicality”, declares the great painter himself, always dressed in black.
“It’s a very active color. It lights up when you put it next to a dark color,” he told AFP in an interview in February 2019.
Soulages’ death was confirmed to AFP on Wednesday by his longtime friend Alfred Pacquement, also president of the Soulages museum in southern France.
The best-selling French artist’s works have fetched seven-figure sums, with a 1960 canvas in thick black stripes sold at auction at the Louvre for $10.5 million in 2019.
A household name in France but lesser known internationally, his paintings are exhibited in over 110 museums around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York and the Tate Gallery in London, with hundreds more at the Soulages Museum in his hometown of Rodez, in the south of the country.
For his 100th birthday in December 2019, he was treated to a retrospective at the Louvre, a rare honor for a living artist.
“Beyond black, his works are living metaphors from which each of us draws hope,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter.
Soulages titles all his pieces “Painting”, or “Painting” in English, then distinguishing them by their size and their date of production.
One, dubbed “Painting 162 x 130 cm, May 2, 1963”, sold for nearly six million euros on Wednesday, Sotheby’s auctioneers said.
Around the age of 60, Soulages switched from black to reflecting light from black – a technique he called “outrenoir” or “beyond black” in English.
It involved scraping, digging and etching thick layers of paint with rubber, spoons or tiny rakes to create different textures that absorb or reject light, taking him to what he called a “different country” from the plain black.
Standing 1.9 meters (six feet two inches), “his body language is often described in the same terms as his paintings: strong, vital, powerful,” noted The New York Times in 2014.
Hollywood celebrities, including Alfred Hitchcock, are said to have collected his works.
Born on December 24, 1919, he was even, as a child, obsessed with the dark luster of ink.
With all his “black marks on the paper”, his mother teased him that he was “already mourning his death”, he said in the AFP interview.
He showed his first works shortly after World War II in 1947.
While his contemporaries and friends, such as Hans Hartung and Francis Picabia, indulged in color, he opted for the walnut stain used on furniture to create geometric works on paper or canvas.
For a while he even tried smearing black tar on glass.
At 33, Soulages exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1954 and held his first solo exhibition in New York two years later.
Black wasn’t just his own obsession, he said, wondering, “Why did prehistoric people draw black inside black caves when they could have used chalk? ?”
Soulages was also known for his perfectionism: if he was not 100% satisfied with a painting, “I burn the canvas outside. If it’s mediocre, it goes away”, he told the AFP.
He is survived by his wife of 80 years, Colette.