Pierre Soulages went back to black before it was the fashion.
For a major retrospective of the 89-year-old French painter's work, the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris is dressed up with his giant, abstract, all-black canvases. For aficionados of the color, there is shiny black, matte black, black with gashes in it, black with ripples, black with a white stripe.
The artist made an appearance at the press visit ahead of Wednesday's opening — wearing, of course, head-to-toe black.
So when did he fall in love with the color?
"I can't say when, it's been forever," Soulages told reporters. And he launched into an ode that began: "Black is for anarchy, for revolt, it's for mourning, but it's also for partying..."
Soulages, whom the Pompidou Center calls the "best-known living French painter, and one of the key figures in postwar abstraction" has already had retrospectives around the world, from Houston to Seoul, South Korea. In 2001, he became the first living painter to be given an exhibit at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. A Soulages museum is planned in his hometown of Rodez, in southern France.
Soulages is still prolific, and the focus of the Paris show is his recent work. Pierre Encreve, co-curating the exhibit with Alfred Pacquement, says new paintings have been arranged to interact with each other in ways that "no one, not even Soulages, has seen."
The painter, who turns 90 in December, lives in the present, even the future.
Asked about his current work, he jokes, "That's tough, I almost want to tell you about what I'll be doing tomorrow."
Though the show starts with Soulages' early brown-black paintings in walnut stain, the heart of the exhibit is his "outrenoir," or beyond black, paintings. Those works are almost always pure black, with paint gooped onto huge canvases, then scraped at with knives and caressed with paintbrushes until they are practically sculptures.
Soulages discovered the technique in 1979 while at work on a painting he thought was a failure, a "black swamp." Then he realized that the painting was reflective, that "light comes from the color that is the absence of light." The viewers' reflection and the shifting daylight become part of the art, which he says creates "a new mental space."
At the Pompidou Center, many paintings are suspended on wires from the ceiling, sometimes back-to-back. Some gallery spaces are pure white, while one room is black with black carpeting. The title of each work is always the same minimalist formula: the painting's size followed by its date of production.
Quotes by the artist dot the walls, such as, "Black has unsuspected possibilities, and conscious of what I do not know, I go to meet them." Such philosophical musings help some viewers understand the paintings — while others may be even more perplexed.
"Soulages" runs at the Pompidou Center through March 8, 2010.