PARIS — French painter Pierre Soulages, an icon of post-WWII European abstract art famous for his use of black, has died in his hometown of Rodez, according to the Soulages Museum. He was 102.
Soulages became highly influential for his reflections on black, which he called ‘noir-lumiere’ or ‘black light’, and in recent years has come to be regarded as France’s greatest living painter.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who tweeted a photo of himself sitting smiling with the artist, paid tribute, saying: “Pierre Soulages was able to reinvent black by revealing the light. Beyond the darkness, his works are living metaphors from which each of us draws hope.”
A major Soulages retrospective was held at the Louvre in 2019 to mark his 100th birthday, in which the museum dubbed him “a major figure in non-figurative painting” and paid tribute to his “remarkable vitality”.
Soulages rose to prominence in the Mahoning Valley when the Butler Institute of American Art acquired a 14-by-20-foot ceramic mural of him in 2009.
The Butler received the mural from the owners of the Oliver Building, a skyscraper in downtown Pittsburgh, who commissioned it and where it is displayed.
The mural entitled “14. May 1968″ was displayed behind a glass wall in what was then The Butler’s Trumbull Branch in Howland Township, where it was visible to passing motorists. The glass wall was part of an extension built specifically for the Soulages mural.
The branch has since taken on new management and is known as The Medici Museum of Art. The mural is still on display there, awaiting removal or further trials.
The mural became the subject of a court battle when The Butler tried to return it to his museum in Youngstown. The Medici claimed ownership of the mural and asked to keep it, but a judge awarded the mural to the butler earlier this year.
The butler plans to display the mural behind a glass wall that would make it visible from the street, much like the Medici. The premises are located in the extension of the museum, which is currently under construction.
Louis A. Zona, curator and executive director of The Butler, has long admired Soulages’ work.
“I had the honor of meeting Pierre in Paris,” Zona said. “He was so pleased that his Pittsburgh ceramic mural was saved and would be installed at The Butler.”
Zona said every Frenchman knows Soulages as “the painter of the black” and from his remarkable career.
Soulages was part of a post-World War II art movement sometimes referred to as The Paris School. “He was one of those big talents that inspired artists on both sides of the Atlantic,” Zona said.
Soulages’ early walnut-stained brown and black paintings led to the works that defined his life: his “Outrenoir” or “Beyond Black” paintings. These are almost always pure black, with paint pressed onto giant canvases, then scraped off with knives and stroked with brushes to a quasi-sculptural degree.
Soulages discovered the technique in 1979 while working on a painting he believed to be a failure, a “Black Swamp”. Then he realized that the painting was reflective, that “light comes from color, which is the absence of light”. The viewer’s reflection and the changing daylight become part of the art, which in his opinion creates “a new mental space”.
Pierre Jean Louis Germain Soulages was born in Rodez in the Occitania region of southern France in 1919 after World War I and grew up with a fascination for old stones, landscapes and craftsmanship.
His beginnings in painting in 1936 and 1937 awakened in him ambitions to work in Paris. While teaching in Montpellier during this period, he met his future wife, Colette Llaurens, who stayed with him for the rest of his life.
In 1943, Soulages had an important encounter when he met the artist Sonia Delaunay, who introduced him to abstract art. But it was not until the end of World War II, in which he served, that the young painter was able to open his first studio in the French capital and hold his first exhibition in 1947.
Internationally, and particularly in the United States in the post-war period, he steadily gained recognition.
Soulages’ work was featured in major US exhibitions in the 1950s, including the 1955 New York Museum of Modern Art.
In his native France, he was considered a national treasure.
His legacy included the production of 104 stained glass windows for the Romanesque Abbey of Sainte-Foy de Conques from 1987 to 1994 – a site he visited as a child and which in interviews he described as an influential moment in his life.
At a 2009 retrospective at Paris’ Pompidou, Soulages said he couldn’t say when he fell in love with black.
“I can’t say when, it’s been ages,” he told reporters, beginning an ode that began: “Black is for anarchy, it’s for revolt, it’s for grief, but it’s also for celebration…”
Soulages, whom the Center Pompidou calls “the best-known living French painter”, was prolific to the end. Over the decades he has had retrospectives all over the world, from Houston to Seoul, South Korea. In 2001 he was the first living painter to have an exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Soulages Museum opened in 2014 in his southern French hometown of Rodez.
The painter was quick on the uptake and lived in the present. When asked about his work, he once joked to The Associated Press, “It’s tough, I almost want to tell you what I’m going to do tomorrow.”
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Pictured above: French painter Pierre Soulages poses next to one of his works at the Center Pompidou in Paris in this 2009 photo. Soulages, famous for his use of black and an icon of post-WWII European abstract art, has died. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere, File)
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