Soulages :: Centre Pompidou :: Paris :: 14 October 2009 – 8 March 2010
The Centre Pompidou presents a retrospective of the work of one of major players in the post-war abstract movement, Pierre Soulages. The exposition spans 60 years of activity, with more than 100 works on display, all set-up with the help of Soulages himself. The latter is important for an artist who dedicated his life to the analysis of light bouncing off black canvas. This black light, or outrenoir (“other-black”) as he calls it, varies greatly with your position in relation to the work. A quick search on Google will show you some his paintings, should you not already know them, but you might as well know that they are quite meaningless on a screen. To experience Soulages’ work, it is essential to face the work yourself. If you give them the chance to speak to you, which they may or may not do, you will find out whether or not it means anything to you at all. Or have had the chance to experience first hand a major contemporary artist.
As you walk around the exposition, you will initially see works resembling graphical-design abstract characters painted in thick strokes of black paint. The canvas material is still visible through the paint, reminding the viewer of the reality of the work as an object. As Soulages’ interest seems to be more and more focussed on the colour and its intuitively-contradictory capacity to reflect light, the character-type forms are slowly replaced by more abstract structure of vertical and horizontal lines. There is a 1984 wallpaper-effect painting, created through an image of black homogeneous wood, cut up with a horizontally structured vertical lines. It is all black, but the reflection suggests an abstract version of trees in a forest which light up in an illusionary lighter grey. The effect comes out perhaps even better in a 1997 bamboo-ish painting in black with the thick vertical strokes conjuring up the image of a mangrove in glowing blue in the night.
In the heart of the exposition, it is these dark textured paintings which dominate. There are wide strokes of paint which at times (as in the 2007 work) are so thickly put on that the painter managed to carve into it, giving it a 3D effect. As you move around the paintings, the light bounces off different parts of the work, changing the image. In effect, the space around you is also being changed, as you move.
As the lighting is so important to the experience of the works, you might be surprised to hear that the exposition’s lighting is a common museum mixture of spotlight and white ambient lighting. You may also be surprised to hear that the walls and floors are plain white too. In a lot of his work, Soulages emphasized the black he used by contrasting it with a white -or sometimes a yellowish or other- hue. I can not help but wonder why he did not go that one step further to darken the walls and the floors and paint directly on to the wall to maximize the effect. Soulage does break the mould with a step over into a black on black room (1990 onwards), which shows three of his paintings in a black room with ambient style lighting from behind. The emphasis is on the lined texture. It is abstract without the letter-type motifs, giving that grey-tone effect despite being pure black.
For an artist who has been so fascinated with blackness and light, it is surprising that his work did not take a more object or experience orientated turn. The black-on-black room still had one white wall and featured real paintings. It seems but a step in the direction of “experience art”, where the artist gives the visitor an ephemeral aesthetic experience. Why not go all the way? After all, light is an ephemeral experience. The same feeling returned with the lighting, when we move around to see the light reflect off the paintings, why not allow for a room with changing light or even allow for an audience to manipulate the light or a movement of the work itself? Or is this all a little too playful for such a serious colour? Monochrome (or nearly monochrome) does, after all, command respect. Or perhaps even black could just, you know, lighten up a bit.