New York

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 130 x 102 cm, 27 août 1986 (Painting 130 x 102 cm, August 27, 1986), oil on canvas, 51 1⁄8 × 40 1⁄8".

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 130 x 102 cm, 27 août 1986 (Painting 130 x 102 cm, August 27, 1986), oil on canvas, 51 1⁄8 × 40 1⁄8".

Pierre Soulages

In an homage to Pierre Soulages’s indomitable spirit, this mini survey at Lévy Gorvy featured twenty of the French artist’s oils made between 1954 and 2019. He is still amazingly productive and still obsessed with the color black, even at the grand old age of ninety-nine. At this stage of the human life cycle, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson has said, the only choice a person has is to either stagnate or to keep pushing along, full steam ahead. Soulages has clearly chosen the latter. He has never stopped being generative, despite the fact that his trademark hue is “a totally dead silence . . . a silence with no possibilities,” as Wassily Kandinsky wrote. The Russian abstractionist also said that “the silence of black is the silence of death,” but clearly Soulages has found in it life and enormous creative possibility. Each of Soulages’s canvases is like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes. His briskly varied strokes—flamboyant or calm, sharp or slapdash—are exquisitely nuanced and fresh. By comparison, Ad Reinhardt’s solemn, dusky monochromes feel static, dead-end.

Kandinsky also stated that black is “a kind of neutral background against which the minutest shades of other colours stand clearly forward.” But the creamy yellow of Soulages’s Peinture 125 x 202 cm, 30 octobre 1958 (Painting 125 x 202 cm, October 30, 1958) is slowly but surely being absorbed into the twilight, while the hints of sky blue lurking between the onyx slabs of Peinture 130 x 97 cm, 5 mai 1959 (Painting 130 x 97 cm, May 5, 1959) all but disappear, like the straws that slip from a drowning man’s grasp. The strip of heavenly azure in Peinture 92 x 73 cm, 27 février 1989 (Painting 92 x 73 cm, February 27, 1989) could be read as a token of hope. Yet the sweet bands of cobalt in Peinture 130 x 102 cm, 27 août 1986 (Painting 130 x 102 cm, August 27, 1986), racing against streams of sable, seemed fraught with anxiety.

Soulages’s blacks are always foreground, not background. There is never anything neutral, or unfeeling, about them. They also seem to acknowledge his indebtedness to the heaviness and insularity of Romanesque architecture: The artist was stunned by the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy in Conques, France, a popular way station for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela, a city in Spain where the apostle James is allegedly interred. Soulages’s works remind me of Saint John of the Cross’s famous poem “Dark Night of the Soul” (ca. 1577–79), which describes the difficulty of seeing God’s light. In Soulages’s paintings, we take in a demiurgic tenebrosity, which indicates that his faith is couched in a strain of gnostic mysticism.

“Did I begin to love black because of the trees in winter without their leaves,” Soulages has mused, “because of the way the black trunks and branches stood out against the background of sky or snow?” The artist had in fact been making tree paintings, which led him to realize that such a subject could be regarded as an “abstract sculpture, an interacting series of forms, tensions and colors.” It has also been suggested that Soulages’s paintings are informed by France’s hideous failures during World War II. His relentless gestures convey inconsolable rage at the country’s collapse even as they symbolize it. Clearly, there is an air of bitter tragedy to Soulages’s art. It certainly suffers from bad memories.

But however much the death instinct is alive and well in his paintings, the works also paradoxically communicate and preserve what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the “incommunicado element” that exists at the core of every man and woman, “sacred and most worthy of preservation.” Perhaps more to the aesthetic point, Soulages argues in these paintings that blackness is sublime—or in Kant’s sense, limitless—and as such a vehicle of numinous experience. Soulages’s abstractions are a breed of sanctified art, ever respectful of life’s enormousness and endless mystery.