“Some darknesses refuse to fade,” the poet Danielle DeTiberus observed after contemplating “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi. Having recently seen the dark paintings by Pierre Soulages at Levy Gorvy Dayan gallery, in Manhattan, the poet’s lyric resonated.
DeTiberus, in “The Artist Signs Her Masterpiece, Immodestly,” sees in Gentileschi’s depiction of a revenge killing the assertion of her agency. Sometimes we come to a fuller reckoning of ourselves through the most Stygian passageways. The work of Soulages, a French artist who died last year at age 102, after more than 70 years in persistent investigation of black paint, convinces me that, for him, the truth was not only that the darknesses didn’t fade, but that his curiosity and conviction that he would continue to make discoveries in the dark also didn’t wane.
Other artists have made similar excursions. Lee Bontecou created sculptures in which a black, seductive void threatens to swallow the viewer whole. Franz Kline fashioned black calligraphic lines that look like the errant script of some drunken, primordial god. Kerry James Marshall used jet black skin tones to make Black people seem like human archetypes birthed from a subterranean womb. Ad Reinhardt painted subtly dark canvases at the edge of our eyes’ scotopic capabilities, their hues legible only after prolonged looking.
Soulages was born in Rodez, France, in 1919 and made his way to Paris after World War II, where he opened a studio. Over the course of his life he made prints and sculpted, designed stage sets and even produced stained-glass windows, but is best known for his paintings, of which 30 are shown here. The ones he made after 1979, which he called “outrenoir,” or “beyond black,” are engulfing, using black pigment, embedded in oil or acrylic, as a material to be sculpted, combed, furrowed and grooved. In “Peinture 222 x 137 cm, printemps 1980,” the paint has been pulled across the canvas in alternating striations like sheaths of muscle fibers, contending with a body’s contradictory will. In “Peinture 71 x 181 cm, 13 juillet 2011,” the surface is like the pocked skin of a toad, or a riverbed onto which thousands of small bodies were flung to hatch, leaving their carapace’s impressions behind.
When Soulages used the canvas to create a pictorial plane the images were as enthralling. His “Peinture 190 x 222 cm, 5 février 2012” exploits the contrast between a horizontally streaked, thick and glossy bottom, with a band of flat but deeper black above that, and a top of vertical brushstrokes that is so matte it reads as gray, to form the silhouette of a distant seaside village beneath a murky sky. Earlier in his explorations he made several paintings like “Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 3 février 1957,” which employ thick and wide black bands intersecting the other at 90-degree angles, against backgrounds of light colors, to suggest speculative architectural structures or ancient obelisks.
I first saw his work about 30 years ago and was then, as I am now, amazed that such minimalist compositions read like investigations of the human psyche’s darker shades. They consistently make this metaphorical leap. Looking at “Peinture 130 x 97 cm, 1960,” its scarlet id peeks out like a nocturnal creature waiting for darkness to flex its ravening being. Other paintings that are tinged with teal and aquamarine feel languorously melancholy, like a depressive state that doesn’t quite vanish, but dissipates over time. In black, the confluence of all the colors, we find the greater part of our emotional registers.”
In his decades-long evocation of texture, depth, and drama in black paint, Soulages finds a link to our sorrows, despair, regrets — the deeps of our emotional selves. These depths contrast with the low ceilings we encounter with feelings of elation and happiness. These paintings visually demonstrate that for the painter and for the viewer willing to confront themselves, in the darknesses there’s still work to do.
Pierre Soulages: From Midnight to Twilight
Through Nov. 4, Lévy Gorvy Dayan, 19 East 64th Street, Manhattan; 212-772-2004 levygorvy.com.