Known as “the painter of black and light,” Pierre Soulages (1919–2022) forged a career remarkable not only for its rigorous invention, but for its longevity. The artist worked predominantly with the color black from the postwar period onward, creating canvases which might recall nocturnal landscapes or charred earth. Rather than adhering to such movements as Abstract Expressionism, tachism, and Informel, Soulages contextualized his paintings in terms of vitalism, classicism, and prehistoric forms. He pursued his series Outrenoir, whose title is a portmanteau Soulages defined as “beyond black,” from 1979 until his death. With these scraped and slicked tar–like surfaces, he transformed the spatial and temporal dimensions of painting.
Born in 1919 in Rodez, France, Soulages first exhibited his paintings—bold, flat marks of walnut stain (Brou de noix) on paper—in the 1947 Salon des Surindépendents. In 1949, his work featured in his first solo exhibition at Galerie Lydia Conti, Paris, and a group exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. Samuel Kootz offered Soulages his first solo show in New York in 1954. The artist’s first retrospective was organized in 1960 by the Museum Folkwang, Essen, and traveled to the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, and Kunsthaus Zürich. Subsequent retrospectives of his paintings include those at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1966); Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1967); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1996); Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (2001); and Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden (2020). On the occasion of his centennial birthday in 2019, the Louvre, Paris, honored the artist with a survey of his eight-decade career—marking the third time a living artist had received a retrospective at the museum; previously, this honor had been conferred only to Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
Soulages has received numerous awards, including the Grand Prix National de Peinture (1986) and the Praemium Imperiale for Painting from the Japan Art Association (1992). In 2014, the Musée Soulages opened in Rodez, France. His artwork also resides in public collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tate, London; and Centre Pompidou, Paris.