New York

Pierre Soulages

Haim Chanin Fine Arts/Robert Miller Gallery

The moody scumbling, planar layers, and primarily vertical format of Pierre Soulages’s walnut-stain works on paper, a selection of which were exhibited recently at Haim Chanin Fine Arts, signal a strong affinity with the paintings of Mark Rothko. Soulages uses dense black and dark, diffuse brown exclusively, whereas Rothko also deployed luminous colors, and he sometimes introduces sudden “horizons” of piercing white, but the two artists share the same peculiar blend of intimacy and what Roger Fry called “cosmic sensibility”—a somewhat labored sense of the epic, inseparable from a search for emotional paydirt. Both artists strike it rich, though the feelings they concentrate on are different—our sensation of insignificance in the face of the immeasurable in Soulages (I once described his works as “negatively sublime”), and an overromanticized sense of tragedy in Rothko. The latter is a humanist, even a sentimentalist, in abstract disguise, whereas Soulages illustrates Adorno’s idea that “abstractness in art signals a withdrawal from the objective world at a time when nothing remains of that world save its caput mortuum.”

Soulages’s Outrenoir family of paintings—a neologism invented by the artist to signify “beyond black, a light which is transmuted by black”—were exhibited in a concurrent show at Robert Miller Gallery. In this series the artist shifts his emphasis slightly but retains the same general focus. Black has two faces in avant-garde painting: It is the “color” of death, but also, after Ad Reinhardt, the “noncolor” of hermetically pure (nonrepresentational) art. The Outrenoir paintings are neither symbolic—unlike the works on paper, which seem to derive from or at least echo Soulages’s first “emotionally realistic” works—nor noncommittally pure. Instead, they are gnostic; that is, they deal with the challenge of separating light and dark, emblematic of the metaphysical—and “metapsychological”—problem of differentiation.

Black is the “color of the origin of painting,” Soulages states, reminding us of “the absolute darkness of caves” in which the first paintings were made. All of us live in the womb’s blackness and are born in blackness before we are thrust into the light of day, he adds. Black is “anterior” and doubly fundamental, linking the origins of painting and life, hence the Outrenoir paintings’ focus on the problem of the origin or emergence of light from pure darkness. Sometimes, as in Peinture 165 x 117 cm, 1 Juin 2002, their light appears in a series of sullen slanting streaks sandwiched between black planes. Elsewhere, as in Peinture 324 x 181 cm, 4 Janvier 2005, the light boldly asserts itself in a series of parallel horizontal streaks. But invariably there is a sense of a difficult birth, and a troubled relationship.

The unexpected revelation of divine light from the midst of the black indifference of the cosmos that these paintings suggest is precisely the point of gnosticism. Soulages’s “beyond black” calls to mind the gnostic paradox of an unconscious self that is of the same fundamental substance as the Godhead, while the blackness that is inseparable from it remains the fundamental substance of the alien world into which it is blindly thrown. Soulages’s emphasis on the physical singularity of his paintings, underlined by the quantitative and temporal descriptions that constitute their titles, is self-deceptive, although his stated interest in origins suggests that he is concerned to become aware of the unconscious self that ultimately gives rise to them.

Donald Kuspit