Pierre Soulages (b. 1919, Rodez, France), is best known for his outrenoir, or ‘beyond black’ paintings, first exhibited in 1979 at the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris. These first single-pigment paintings represented the culmination of his study of black, previously used to contrast against other colours, thick, calligraphic strokes against lighter backgrounds. In reducing his palette to black alone, light became the central essence of his painting; the relationships created by black and light, or rather the reflections of light emanating from the black painted surface. The relationship between an intangible external light and the tangible black paint is determined by the variables of changing perspectives and the transient nature of light, reflections reverberate and echo the dynamism of his earlier works. His sombre, abstract paintings, dominated by black, were notable in their distance from the semi-figurative, colourful paintings
Soulages moved to Paris in 1938 to train as a drawing teacher. He briefly attended the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts before returning to Rodez. In 1940, he was drafted into the military. He was demobilised the following year but later conscripted into forced labour and went underground for the remainder of the Occupation. During this time he met the artist Sonia Delaunay and became interested in abstract art. In 1947, Soulages hired a space at the Salon des surindépendents and exhibited his paintings publicly for the first time. His first solo exhibition was held at Galerie Lydia Conti, Paris, in 1949. The same year the Musée de Grenoble made the first museum acquisition of his work. In New York, his work was included in the group show, ‘Painted’ in 1949, at Betty Parsons Gallery. In 1951 The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, became the first major American institution to purchase his work, followed shortly after with acquisitions by the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, in New York. His first American one-man show was held at Kootz Gallery, New York, in 1954 with whom he would exhibit over the next four years. Soulages travelled to the United States for the first time in 1957, where he met artists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Soulages exhibited in London at the Gimpel Fils gallery in 1955.
His first retrospective exhibition was held at Museum Folkwang, Essen, in 1960, and toured Germany. In 1964 he was awarded the Carnegie Prize from the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Further retrospectives followed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1966, the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, in 1967 and at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and Musée du Québec, both in 1968. In 1979, Soulages was named Foreign Honorary Member for Art, by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in New York. He won the Grand Prix National for Painting, Paris, in 1986. Beyond Europe and North America, retrospective exhibitions were held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, in 1993 and the China Fine Arts Palace, Beijing, and Taipei Fine Arts Museum, in 1994. In 2001 he exhibited in St Petersburg and Moscow. The Centre Georges Pompidou opened a major retrospective of his work in October 2009. The Musée Soulages opened in Rodez in 2014 and Soulages was awarded the Legion of Honour in 2015. ). The most recent prestigious retrospective, ‘Pierre Soulages au Louvre’ (2019–20), in Paris, celebrates the artist’s 100th birthday and avows his position as a pioneer of modern art.
Soulages lives and works in Paris and Sète.