As part of the series of sales hosted on 22 October between London and Paris, Christie’s France will present a masterwork by Pierre Soulages in their next Paris Avant-Garde auction.
Acquired in 1961 by the American collectors Donald & Jean Stralem from New York’s Kootz Gallery, Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 is making its first-ever come back to the market since it was painted.
Major players in the New York art scene, Donald & Jean Stralem once put together a prime collection which included works by Matisse, Cézanne, Giacometti, Van Gogh and Picasso. The presence of a Soulages masterpiece in this extraordinary collection is a testament to the crucial role New York played for the French artist’s international recognition from the 1950s onwards.
Paul Nyzam, co-head of the Paris Avant-Garde sale commented: “It is an immense honour for Christie’s to present to the market this Soulages masterpiece, Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961, for the first time since it was realized. A work of major importance, displaying both nerve and a great sensuality, it shows an artist at the pinnacle of his career, mixing abstraction with an authority worthy of the greatest painters in 20th-century art history.”
Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 dates from the peak of Soulages’ use of the raclage technique, a high point in a career of remarkable, single-minded consistency. The years 1957-1963, particularly illustrate one of Soulages’ characteristic techniques in the double treatment of the surface: that of scraping, or, if one prefers, transparency through uncovering writes the late Pierre Encrevé (author of Soulages’ catalogue raisonné). Against a bone-white ground, broad strokes of black and Prussian blue build a right-angled structure of bold, rhythmic power. Horizontal beams span the canvas with bird-wing iridescence. Pitch-dark bars of black hang to the left, bringing the work into imposing asymmetric tension. In the words of the artist:
There is always something quite sensual about the meeting of a black and a blue, one indulges in it with a certain pleasure.
Painted in the airy rue Galande studio that Soulages moved to in 1957 and would occupy for almost two decades, the work witnesses an artist at the height of his powers. Although he was yet to receive major acclaim in France, Soulages was enjoying huge success in New York.
He had visited the city in 1957 and became close friends with Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. In 1959, Rothko visited Soulages and his wife in Paris, where they threw him a party at the studio. Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 juillet 1961 bears some of the imposing vertical impact of Rothko’s floating bars of colour, and Soulages was certainly animated by the lively exchanges they shared.
This work displays Soulages at his most energized and daring, pushing his technique into muscular chromatic cadences. Beyond its dynamic relationship between blue, black and chalky white, the work’s interplay of rough, smooth, diagonal and horizontal textures shows Soulages exploiting his material’s myriad interactions with light to ever-greater power and contrast, filling the surface with life and anticipating the ultimate, breakthrough dynamism of the all-black Outrenoir canvases he began creating in 1979.
Like his late friend Zao Wou-Ki, whose Franco-Chinese influences flowered into a painterly aesthetic with universal appeal, he believes that dividing art into groups or movements is as reductive as using a word to describe a colour. Art, for Soulages, begins precisely where words end. It is for this reason, too, that he always uses the same neutral format for his titles—painting, dimensions, date. Keeping any extra pictorial meaning firmly at bay, he lets the experience of the picture be governed solely by the unique, unfixed dynamic of its abstract painted forms.