This show was both an update and sketchy survey of Pierre Soulages’s “Outre Noir” (Beyond Black) series, whose theme the French abstractionist has been exploring for more than 30 years. After decades of experimentation, he can now transform black acrylic into gunmetal graphite, earthy brown, or sickly gray. He’s a master at exploring the esthetic possibilities of darkness, using contrasting ridges of matte and gloss paint. Yet rather than being somber or lugubrious, his work in this show was very much about light and the unique way that black paint captures and reflects it.
The first room consisted of paintings made since 2008, most of it from this year, suggesting that Soulages at 90 has plenty left to say. Peinture 130 x 102 cm, 10 Janvier, 2010 exemplifies the richly tactile, almost sculptural quality of his recent work. The repetition of line and pattern can suggest an industrial process while the surface has the carved, artisanal look of a woodcut.
A second room featured paintings dating as far back as 1998, and these took a bleaker, harder-edged tone. In works on paper like Walnut stain 76 x 54 cm, 2004B- , the black and brown bands of color bleed into one another, suggesting a receding horizon and conveying an emotional starkness that one associates with Anselm Kiefer. Soulages has worked with walnut stain since the ’40s, and yet the works remain inventive.
But what this sampling of his painting showed most eloquently was how Soulages, since the postwar heyday of abstraction, has evolved in accord with his own interests, rather than the fashions of the times, into a less gestural, more controlled, and more introspective painter.