Peinture 116 x 89 cm, 22 mai 1958, 1958 signed 'soulages' (lower left); signed 'SOULAGES' (on the stretcher bar), signed and dated 'SOULAGES 22/5/58' (on the reverse) oil on canvas 45 7/8 x 35 1/4in. (116.5 x 89.5cm)
PROVENANCE: Gimpel Fils Gallery, London. Collection of Mrs. Walter Ferré Gage (acquired from the above in 1964) and thence by descent to the present owner.
LITERATURE: P. Encrevé, Soulages; L'oeuvre complet, peintures, 1946-1959, Paris 1994, vol. I, no. 327 (illustrated in color, p. 258).
Pierre Soulages or the "painter of black" as he is often referred to, has rightfully become one of the key international figures of post-war abstraction. Since the 1940s, Soulages has been known as one of the leaders of what was then a new group of purely abstract painters known as the Ecole de Paris. For over seventy years now, Soulages has been systematically exploring the material properties of paint, pushing the boundaries of the power of expression contained within the medium. In his early work primarily dating from the early to late 1940s Soulages utilized a variety of media including walnut stain and tar which proved to be moderately successful for endeavors, however, it was not until the 1950s when he began painting with oil on canvas, and more specifically, black oil paint on canvas that he was really able to tackle his investigation with thorough execution. Soulages became transfixed with black paint, using it almost exclusively in the following decades of his career up until today. "I was always interested in black, even as a child," Soulages once stated, "I used black paint and when someone asked what I was painting I said 'snow'. I think with hindsight that I used black to make the paper look more white" (Claire Rosemberg. "Black is the new black for Pierre Soulages, France's best known living artist." The Telegraph [London] 14 October 2009). For Soulages, black is not only a color, but it is also and almost more importantly a non-color; meaning that unlike most other pigments, it contains all colors within it making it the most versatile hue that can change dramatically with light.
Along with his use of black paint, Soulages' almost poetic mark-making and the formal play he creates within his compositions, imbues his paintings with an ethereal and ultimately existential quality. The sweeping and almost forceful planar brushstrokes are evocative of an American counterpart, Franz Kline. Yet, unlike Kline, Soulages' initial application of paint and further manipulation of the surface work together to form his dramatic compositions. Often Soulages would make and use his own painting implements or tools, including homemade brushes and palette knives to his own invention, a flat rubber spatula type tool known as a lame. With this these tools, Soulages would apply broad and dense layers of paint that he would then adjust by scraping, digging and etching into, resulting in a surface which brilliantly articulates a space of tension created by the play between light and dark, space and absence and the passing of time.
Soulages' Peinture 116 x 89 cm, 22 mai 1958 dates from a period when the artist had truly come into his own; when his investigation of light and space had reached a certain apex. Here Soulages first applied a think tobacco brown wash over the expanse of the canvas before then applying the striking swatches of black in multiples layers. In between layering his applications of paint and again on the outermost surfaces, Soulages used his various scraping devices to subtract from the strokes, allowing some of the brown undertone to show through in specific places, in effect heightening both the luminosity and vividness of the black. Furthermore, his layering of perpendicular and parallel "lines" create an almost tangible space seemingly allowing the viewer to move three dimensionally through the painting. Perhaps one of his most successful experiments of the period, Peinture 116 x 89 cm, 22 mai 1958 is a spectacular example of the artist in the prime of his career successfully conveying both the spatial and theoretical concerns that have occupied Soulages throughout his lifetime.
Photo credit for artist image: Photograph by Dmitri Kessel/Getty Images
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