The following interview was conducted with Pierre Soulages at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Manhattan during his last two exhibits at Robert Miller and Haim Chanin. The translation, transcription, and editing of this manuscript involved a considerable amount of attention. I am grateful to Mathilde Simian for accompanying me for the duration of the interview with the painter. Given that he prefers French to English, the answers to my questions generally came in French, and occasionally in English. Most often, it was half and half. This made the transcribing process difficult, to say the least. In the process of editing the manuscript, I often had to resort to my own translation—that I would compare with that of my colleague—in order to get the most accurate response. Finally, I must say that I am happy with the results. I believe the interview offers fresh insight into the work of one of France’s leading artists in the second half of the 20th century. I am grateful to Pierre Soulages for his indefatigable patience as we proceeded through the details of his carefully reflected ideas.
Robert C. Morgan (Rail): Monsieur Soulages, it’s a pleasure to greet you in New York on the occasion of your two exhibitions. I have personally followed your work as a painter for many years, always with great admiration. I would like to begin by asking you how your career began?
Pierre Soulages: In 1947, I began to show my work with a group of painters in Paris that included Victor Vasarely, Gerard Schneider, and Nicolas de Staël. My first group show was in Germany in ’48. I showed with the Modern Masters and was, by far, the youngest of this group. The youngest after me was Schneider who would be today 109 years old if he were alive. My first exhibition in the United States was at Betty Parsons in 1949.
Rail: At that time, Paris was still the center of the art world.
Soulages: It was a time where we were thinking of the world in relation to Paris, whereas today there are no more centers.
Rail: Well, yes, maybe then, but today we have this marketing that is so aggressive, in places like New York, London, Berlin, maybe Tokyo.
Soulages: It depends on what you are talking about. Are you talking about centers of creation or centers of business, of trade? If you are talking about centers of trade, then New York is number one.
Rail: But, this has become very boring, don’t you think?
Soulages: Art commerce today is now totally global and international. But this is not my problem. I have always kept myself outside of the commerce of art.
Rail: But, getting back to your period, I think from an American perspective, your work was understood from a symbolic point of view—that the gesture had more symbolic content.
Soulages: At that time, at least, I was not really a part of l’Ecole de Paris. I was always working on my own. Nobody paid attention to us anyway. The first who did were not the French, but the Danish, Germans and the Americans, like Sweeney who came to Paris in ’48.
Rail: Do you mean James Johnson Sweeney from the Museum of Modern Art?
Soulages: Exactly. He came to my studio in 1948 because he had heard that my work was different than what you could find in Paris.
Rail: If you don’t mind, I would like to address the issue of symbolism in your work. There are two European artists that were very interesting to Americans at the end of the war: one was Alberto Burri and the other was you. Some Americans art historians believed that your work possessed a kind of symbolic and emotional content that reflected the experience of the war more accurately than other painters and, in a way, different form the paintings of the abstract expressionists. I think Harold Rosenberg was important in clarifying this issue…
Soulages: That’s true. After the war I didn’t feel like painting with color. Any color, whether red, pink, blue and so on.
Rail: [Laughs] That’s wonderful! But, I remember for a period of time there was the interest in the relationship between you and Franz Kline because of the similar use of black, which led to many superficial comparisons. But I think by the ‘50s it became apparent that you both were different kind of painters.
Soulages: Yes, I am aware of this. It was a mistake from the beginning to compare my work with Kline.
Rail: But I think this comparison was largely coming more from the American side than the French—no?
Soulages: The first time such a comparison was made, it was to reproach me. It was to suggest that I followed or copied Kline that I was trying to do what Kline was doing. Sure I am almost certain that was coming probably from an American critical perspective.
Rail: The first abstract paintings of Kline were either in late ’49 or early in 1950. Yours, I believe, were in 1947. I think the problem is very evident that your approach to abstraction had preceded Kline.
Soulages: Regardless, I think it’s a mistake to compare. I mean—I like Kline. When I was in New York for the first time in ’57, I met him. When Kline saw my work, he immediately said “Oh! My paintings look like his paintings.”
Rail: Ah, that’s wonderful! So, he was friendly.
Rail: To me the difference is very clear. While Kline’s sweeping, precariously balanced from references eastern calligraphy, yours suggests the ambiguous icon like presence derived from European medieval art. Besides Kline’s brush strokes are more broken up and varied whereas yours maintains a consistent width and strength.
Soulages: I like very much the text that John Yau wrote for the introduction to my catalog, because he makes it very clear that I have always followed my own path, that I was not painter of l’Ecole de Paris, that I was very much an individual. I was not part of a group, nor was I an abstract expressionist painter.
Rail: Where did you begin to paint?
Soulages: I began to paint in the south of France, not in Paris.
Rail: Where—in Nice?
Soulages: No, in a very remote countryside in the mountains in the center of France. It’s very dry and remote with desert plains. All the commuters go around it, but never through it.
Rail: Did you study art?
Soulages: When I was a child, I painted with black. I took my brush in the inkstand and I painted with ink. One day I was painting in my grammar book at school, and my friends asked: “What is this, mon petite Pierre?” And I said it’s a landscape. I never really studied much. I don’t remember any of this, but my family members do. I always did my landscape with black brushstrokes. I suppose I was trying to deal with the whiteness of the paper, as a contrast: to intensify the white through the black.
Rail: So, how old were you when you first went to Paris?
Soulages: The first time I went to Paris was around ’39, just before the Occupation. I was conscripted into military service that year. I was supposed to go for mandatory work in Germany, instead I fled underground. Then I got married and my wife and I had to move eleven times while in hiding.
Rail: Did you join the resistance?
Soulages: Not exactly. No, basically I did it alone. I am very much an individual. I always try and avoid groups or organization.
Rail: So you are not political involved?
Soulages: I was anti-fascist, and I was ready to go to fight in the Spanish war, but I was too young at that point. I wanted ready to go because my only political commitment was against fascism. One of my friends—an historian—told me that of all the artists and intellectuals he knew after the War that I was the only one who was not a communist.
Rail: So you were never associated with the writers in Les Temps Modernes?
Rail: You remained independent.
Soulages: When I make a painting, I give it a title, a date, list the materials, and the dimensions. The young artists of the ‘60s—when they saw the titles of my paintings—felt they were very literal and therefore different from those of other American or French artists. These ‘60s young intellectual artists were Maoists. They wanted to embrace me as their friend. So I met them, and said: “You confuse materiality and reality.” I am a realist, but my reality is not only a material one. Reality is the triple relationship between the perceiver, the painting, and the artist. I wrote this in a catalog in ’48 for a traveling exhibition in Germany. It was an anti-expressionistic statement.
Rail: Would it be correct to assume that your stance against impressionism would be in opposition to a kind of existential Cartesian position?
Soulages: I never said I was against it. I am never against something, in favor for something else. I always am, trying to be positive nevertheless.
Rail: Well, perhaps, I misunderstood. But, what fascinated me was your description of paintings as a process in which creation and destruction of meaning occurs simultaneously. I think I understand this process—it builds into a kind of intensity.
Soulages: The story of art is very different than the story of life.
Rail: I am sure you are correct.
Soulages: In the 1890s there was a group of artists called “The Incoherents.” Their objective was not to make sense. They did everything that the Dadaists did afterwards. But they did them 20 or 30 years before. This group of artists already did monochrome works. Do you know about them?
Rail: If I’m not mistaken, I think that Yves Klein was interested in them.
Soulages: Yes, Yves Klein was the son of one of the members of the group. I knew Yves as a small boy. He used to sit on my knee. In a Dutch newspaper Yeves Klein’s mother wrote about my work. And the title of the article was “Osiris,” the Egyptian god. Osiris is a Black God.
Rail: So, as you have pursued your direction in painting with the color black, do you feel that you are moving in a formal point of view? I mean are you trying to deal with the basic elements of what a painting is?
Soulages: It’s more about a way of leaving—and a necessity. Painting is a way of life more than an actual theory. I was always trying to get away from theories.
Rail: Because I think the academic tradition is very strong in French art and culture.
Soulages: Academies exist everywhere—a lot of artists don’t know it, but they make academics of themselves. They build a theory about their work and then they just continue on with this theory.
Rail: I understand.
Soulages: You always have to question yourself.
Rail: By questioning, are you putting yourself in doubt or no?
Soulages: Not doubting, but opening yourself to what you don’t know, and to believe in the unknown.
Rail: Are you a mystic?
Soulages: I don’t know if I am a mystic, but there are always things to discover. And since I work with black, I always find new things.
Rail: Are you looking for the light in blackness?
Soulages: I wasn’t looking for it, but I have always managed to find it.
Rail: My sense is that this has become a prominent concern in your work, the revelation of light.
Soulages: Yes, it’s true. It started in 1979. I was aware and conscious of it at the end of the ‘70s. In 1979, a dealer in France telephoned me and insisted that I come and see him. When I arrived, he said: “I have a painting of yours from 1954 that I want you to see.” I was startled and asked if there was something wrong. “Is it in bad condition?” I inquired. “No, no.” he says, “it’s perfect. I just really want you to see it.” So we went into the back gallery to examine the work. After giving a close scrutinity, I replied: “Yes, the painting looks fine. Thank you, but I see nothing wrong.” Then the gallerist says to me: “You don’t see anything?” Then, with his hands he created a square and showed me the painting through the square. When I looked between his hands I saw something that I was not conscious of in 1979.
Rail: Interesting. So what did you see? A detail in the painting?
Soulages: Yes, it was a detail. I became aware of this light coming through the black. Through his gesture, my gallerist reminded me of a story I had told him about a recent painting. One night, I was working on a painting without any success. I was very upset, very unhappy. The painting was black—but nothing worked! I had been working on it for many hours. I thought to myself—I’m not masochistic, so why do I continue if nothing is happening? So I went to bed. An hour and a half later I went back to see the painting—and when I saw it, I looked at it and I said—“that’s it!” I understand. I’m not working anymore with black; I’m working with the light reflected by the black. So my gallerist was trying to show me that I had already come to a similar conclusion many years earlier in 1954, but it was not on a conscious level.
Rail: That was a real discovery.
Soulages: Yes, but I was not consciously aware of it before 1979. When you remove yourself from the blackness, you see the light from it—Therefore, the space of the painting is not on the canvas, or beside the canvas, but in front of it. As a viewer looking at the painting you are looking at the space inside of it—
Rail: The Cubists placed objects in front of the picture plane, but you were more interested in the light emanating from it.
Soulages: That’s true and the space of the painting is different. I think some people are beginning to understand that now.
Rail: How do you deal with the issue of the scale in your painting?
Soulages: It depends on the mood of the day, or the time. Most of the paintings are medium size. But some are quite large—six meters wide.
Rail: What about the difference in scale between your earlier works compared to the recent work? It seems that at a certain point, the scale in your work began to evolve, and I’m wondering when this happened?
Soulages: I have always worked in large scale—
Rail: Even in the ‘50s
Soulages: In 1949, I had made fifteen paintings, two-meters wide. I had intended to show two of these along with other French and Amreican painters at Sidney Janis. I also made smaller paintings—just as strong but smaller—as a way of confronting the issue of scale in American painting.
Rail: So what Americans saw of you work on this side of the Atlantic were the smaller-scale paintings and therefore assumed that the French worked on a smaller scale…
Soulages: The question of the scale was not an important issue for me—and besides, the largest paintings on canvas that I know are 19th century French paintings.
Rail: There was a collection I once saw of work by the abstract painters in France working in Paris at the end of the War. They were all small—what the Americans called easel-scale painting—with the exception of Georges Mathieu who was the only painter who worked large scale.
Soulages: In fact, a lot of the French painters from the post-War generation in France did easel-size paintings in order to appease their dealers. A lot of dealers in Paris wanted Impressionist-size and Impressionist-style works. When I proposed to my gallerist a painting that was two meters wide, his response was: “I’ll come to see you when you do something smaller.”
Rail: So there was pressure form the French gallerists?
Soulages: Exactly, and it was coming from all of them. So when I invited James Johnson Sweeney to my studio, he was looking at the work and said: “This one—you can be sure—will be bought by the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum.” And then he astonished me when he said that my dealer informed him that I only had small-scale paintings.
Rail: So let me ask you about the gesture in your work. It seems that the gesture is less important today in your work then it was maybe 30 or 40 years ago—is that true?
Soulages: Even 40 years ago, it was not the gesture that was important. It has always been a constriction on organization. It was the “gesture” for the sake of gesture itself.
Rail: Ok, you are making a clear distinction between your position and that of the American “action painters.”
Soulages: Yes. In the 50s, people were looking at my painting and thought I was not expressing myself enough. Too organized, too controlled—
Rail: This problem existed in France?
Soulages: In France, I’m deaf when people are talking about my paintings, so, I don’t know.
Rail: Because, for example in comparison to Schneider—
Soulages: Schneider was an Expressionist. What I was painting at that time was very different than his. My point of view was very different. I acknowledged the history and the paintings of my predecessors, especially The Incoherents of the late 19th century.
Rail: I know very little about them.
Soulages: This is not unusual, even in France. But what is important is to be a relativist, because the art history we are taught in school is really only a very small—
Rail: …part of civilization.
Soulages: Exactly. So we know the first paintings, and then for hundreds of thousands of years, they went underground, all in dark-ish locations…into caves…where they were painting in black. You always wonder why black intervenes in art...and why it touches us so deeply.
Rail: It touches us so deeply because of what?
Soulages: Because for hundreds and hundreds of years men had gone underground using black and teaching in black. White is everywhere. So instead of painting white, they use black.
Rail: So it’s a mystery.
Soulages: Yes, and it continues to the present day.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.