Thu 14 Sep 2023 to Sat 4 Nov 2023
Artist: Pierre Soulages
“At every stage of his career, the paintings of Pierre Soulages remain contemporary.”
-Dominque Lévy, 1999
Lévy Gorvy Dayan presents Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight, a major survey spanning seven decades of the artist’s career, with an emphasis on the 1950s-60s New York art establishment that fostered his early rise to global institutional recognition, as well as his later-career Outrenoir (“beyond black”) paintings, created between 1979 and 2019. Also presented are several 1990s works on paper that demonstrate the artist’s breadth of material mastery, including his brou de noix (walnut stain) medium.
Commemorating the one-year anniversary of Soulages’ death last October at age 102, the exhibition is organized in collaboration with Soulages’ widow and partner of 80 years, Colette Soulages (b. 1919), and furthers Dominique Lévy’s and senior gallery partner Emilio Steinberger’s decades-long advocacy of and personal friendship with Colette and Pierre Soulages. The presentation marks the first full-building dedication to a single artist in the gallery’s new global flagship at 19 East 64 Street, a Beaux-Arts-style townhouse designed as an art gallery in the 1930s.
With museum loans from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and others, the exhibition honors the late artist through an extraordinarily academic approach, including a room devoted to documentary materials and historical context, as well as a scholarly publication with an introduction by Alfred Pacquement (co-organizer of Soulages’ 2019-2020 Musée du Louvre exhibition and President of Musée Soulages), and an illustrated comparative chronology by the Centre Pompidou’s Camille Morando, Head of Information and Research on Modern Collections. These materials represent the first posthumous examination of Soulages’ life and legacy, particularly his relationships in New York in the 1950s-60s.
“In the early-1950s, there was strong interest in my work [across Europe] and even in Brazil and Australia,” said Soulages in 2014. “But the most decisive impact came from America. It all happened so fast.” In 1949, Soulages had his first-ever solo exhibition, in Paris; by 1953, his paintings were in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. (The latter acquisition, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, mai 1953 (1953), is on loan to the gallery from the Guggenheim for Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight.)
Soulages’ meteoric rise to global institutional recognition, with the New York art establishment as conduit, began in December 1948 with an unexpected knock on his Paris studio door by James Johnson Sweeney, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (and future director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, then called “the Museum of Non-Objective Painting”). Soulages recounted: “he told me he’d heard talk in Paris of a painter who worked in black with large brushstrokes. He wanted to find out more.” Sweeney bought himself a painting out of the studio then “vanished” until 1953, according to Soulages, when he again turned up at the studio unannounced and bought a painting on behalf of the Guggenheim. These early encounters solidified the foundation of a lifelong friendship and an important vein of institutional credibility in New York. The exhibition title itself is borrowed from a phrase penned by Sweeney, who wrote prolifically on Soulages.
The nascent painting style Sweeney had observed during his 1948 studio visit would characterize Soulages’ oeuvre in varying degrees through the 1970s, including most of the paintings on view in Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight. Remarked Soulages: “It was in 1947 that I began to group the brushstrokes—always becoming larger—(lines which were from the beginning actually colored surfaces) into a sign which could be read at a single glance, in an abrupt way. ... movement is no longer described; it becomes tension, movement under control, that is to say: dynamism.” In 1952, this formal approach garnered another wave of institutional visibility when four paintings were featured in the French Pavilion at the 26th Venice Biennale.
The first New York dealer to exhibit Soulages was Betty Parsons (15 East 57 Street) in 1949, who included him in a group exhibition, Painted in 1949: European & American Painters, alongside artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Soulages stated in 2014 that his inclusion in the exhibition “didn’t have any impact;” however, around the same time, the artist Herman Cherry hung a poster of Soulages’ work at the just-opened Artist’s Club at 39 East Eighth Street—frequented by future close personal friends of Soulages, including Rothko and Robert Motherwell— which he believed gave him more attention than the Betty Parsons exhibition. In 1950, Leo Castelli organized a group exhibition with Sidney Janis (also at 15 East 57 Street), in which Soulages was positioned next to Franz Kline. In 1954, Soulages signed a contract with the dealer Samuel Kootz of Kootz Gallery (also at 15 East 57 Street), who would represent the artist until 1965; “My American period, if I can call it that, was marked by Kootz,” said the artist in 2014.
Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight, which features several canvases that debuted just blocks from Lévy Gorvy Dayan before eventual acquisition into the significant art collections from which they are now being loaned for the exhibition, represents a full-circle revisitation of this legendary circa-1950 Upper East Side art scene that nurtured Soulages alongside so many other now-canonical artists associated with Abstract Expressionism.
In 1979, when Soulages conceived what would become his Outrenoir (“beyond black”) paintings, he embarked on a revelatory formal pivot that would redefine the rest of his career: using the physical properties of light itself, paired with thickly applied black paint, to actualize material questions he had explored since his earliest paintings. “It is important to remember that when Soulages elected to completely redefine his practice, he was already an internationally known artist whose work had been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions,” said the art historian John Yau. “Instead of repeating himself or refining his achievements, as many artists who attain such recognition have often done, Soulages opened himself up to change, even though it meant abandoning his practice and starting fresh. The changes he made in his work at that point underscore his lifelong interest in light.” This is a testament to what Dominique Lévy describes as Soulages’ “courage of constantly searching, questioning, pushing all boundaries, stripping the act of painting down to its essentials.”
Soulages describes the January 1979 genesis of Outrenoir as such: “One day, when I was painting, the black had covered the whole surface of the canvas, without forms, without contrasts, without transparencies. In this extreme I saw, in a sense, the negation of black. The different textures reflected more or less weakly the light and from the darkness there emanated a clarity, a pictorial light whose particular emotional power awoke my desire to paint.” Said Dominique Lévy: “He followed one journey all his life, which has led him more and more towards the light.”
While Soulages’ paintings are celebrated in their own right, much fascination has surrounded his relationships – from fleeting encounters to close personal friendships – with now-canonical cultural figures of time. Though Soulages’ reputation in New York flourished from abroad, it wasn’t until 1957 that he and Colette visited. During one of the many parties hosted in Pierre’s honor during this trip, Soulages met Robert Motherwell, who with his wife Helen Frankenthaler would become dear friends of Pierre and Colette’s; at another party several days later, they similarly found an immediate bond with Mark Rothko and his wife Mell. Among other experiences during the visit, Pierre and Colette spent one Sunday afternoon visiting Philip Johnson at his ‘Glass House’ in New Canaan before rushing back to New York for dinner with Clement Greenberg. Another day, while visiting the Whitney Museum of American Art, Soulages was recognized by Milton Resnick, who insisted that Soulages visit his studio; it was there that Soulages first met Willem de Kooning, whose studio was one floor up. Another day, French expat Louise Bourgeois heard Soulages participate in a radio interview and called his hotel to share her thoughts. He met the dealers Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend; visited Louise Nevelson’s studio; and more. Soulages remarked in 2014: “I have to admit, I make friends more easily with [Americans and expats living in New York] than I do with Europeans! Americans could see that I wasn’t your typical Parisian. My roots come from elsewhere, more from the history of painting than from nationality.” Perhaps Soulages’ earliest encounter with an American artist had been a decade prior to his New York visit, when he met Alexander Calder at a party in Paris in 1946.
Soulages also gained popularity with cultural figures beyond the art world; his collectors included Hollywood A-listers of the time, and John Coltrane was said to be a fan as well: “It was interesting because Coltrane and his new, more intellectual jazz rejected the classic clichés,” reflected Soulages in 2014. “Through his music, he was looking to free humanity from its complexes and taboos. I was touched that Coltrane perceived that freedom in my work.”
Despite these encounters and relationships that he valued deeply, Soulages rejected formal associations: ”I’ve never been part of any group. Every time I felt a group forming, I hightailed it.” Similarly, and unlike many of the era’s self-defined cohorts such as the American Abstract Artists (which welcomed Europeans, and with many of whom he socialized), Soulages maintained that his practice was not influenced by his contemporaries: “My encounters didn’t influence my work. My ties go much further back, elsewhere, in prehistory, Romanesque painting, in chance discoveries in the course of my work as a painter, more than in what goes on around me. It’s what I do that shows me what I’m looking for.”
Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight follows Pierre Soulages exhibitions organized by Lévy Gorvy (2019) and Dominique Lévy (2014). The gallery’s prior publications on the artist include Soulages in America (2014), comprising an interview with writer and director Philippe Ungar that explores the artist’s work in the 1950s and 60s and his prominence in America and New York; and Pierre Soulages (2014) which features an interview with the artist by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Accompanying Pierre Soulages: A Century in 2019 was a comprehensive catalogue with essays by Pacquement, as well as a chronology.