Pierre Soulages, the Painter of Black and Light, has died aged 102

Pierre Soulages, the French abstract artist who dedicated hundreds of canvas to the colour black for decades, died aged 102. The news was confirmed to Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Wednesday by his friend Alfred Pacquement, who is also the president of the Musée Soulages in southern France. 

An important figure in the post-war abstract movement, Soulages' oeuvre is revered around the globe, being held in the collections of more than 110 museums, including Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate, London. On the occasion of his centennial birthday in December 2019, the Musée du Louvre paid homage to the artist with a major retrospective, making him the third living artist – after Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall – to receive such an honor. 

Recent years have witnessed a steady increase in the artist's auction price, with his new record set last November at US$20.1 million. Following his death, it is likely that the demand for his works will only continue to go up. 

Pierre Soulages

Soulages was an important figure in the postwar abstract movement

Guggenheim Museum | Pierre Soulages | Painting, 195 x 130 cm, May 1953 

Pierre Soulages (left) and Zao Wou-Ki (right) were close friends and inspired one another artistically

Pierre Soulages and his wife on a trip to Hawaii with Zao Wou-ki

Born in Rodez in the south of France in 1909, Soulages moved to Paris at age 18 and began his career. Actively engaged in the post-war Parisian art scene, he encountered Chinese-French abstract master Zao wou-ki in the 1950s. Since then, the two had become close friends and inspired one another artistically. 

While Zao drew inspiration from oracle bones, Soulages was fascinated by the prehistoric wall paintings and medieval monasteries found in his hometown. In this cultural milieu, Soulages started to create abstract compositions with calligraphic rhythms, and relied on black as the conveyer of meaning.

Soulages’ passion for black had been a lifelong preoccupation for the artist, one that he had explored for over 70 years in his creative production, and since 1979 with exclusive devotion.

He once said, “I like the authority of black. It’s an uncompromising colour. A violent colour, but one that encourages internalization. Both a colour and a non-colour. When light is reflected on black, it transforms and transmutes it. It opens up a mental field all of its own.”

Soulages' Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 4 aout 1961 | Sotheby's New York, 2021 | Sold: US$20,141,700

Soulages' Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 3 decembre 1956 | Sotheby's Hong Kong | Sold: HK$45,145,000 (US$5.7 million)

Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir, his first exhibition in Hong Kong, held by Lévy Gorvy

Peinture 202 x 143 cm, 8 septembre 2019, shown in the exhibition

The year 1957 saw Soulages amass major international recognition, receiving the first prize at the International Exhibition in Tokyo jointly with Sam Francis, as well as the Windsor prize in Paris. The year also marked his first trip to New York for his solo exhibition at the acclaimed Kootz Gallery.

Ever since, his works has been exhibited in solo shows, retrospectives, and major museum exhibitions around the world. In 2001, he became the first contemporary artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. In 2009, his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris attracted over 500,000 visitors, marking the museum's largest show devoted to a living artist. 

In Hong Kong, Soulages was represented by Lévy Gorvy, who organized a solo exhibition for the artist in 2019 and showed the artist's late work. This season's sale week in Hong Kong also saw a strong demand for his ouevre, with his Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 3 decembre 1956 selling for over HK$45 million (US$5.7 million). 

Next month, Soulages' Peinture 92 x 65 cm. 7 février 1954 will hit the auction block at Sotheby's – let's see if the “death effect” would influence the value of his artwork.