Molly Warnock on Pierre Soulages and Pierrette Bloch

IN 1979, Bernard Ceysson, then the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Saint-Étienne, France, published a monograph devoted to the painter Pierre Soulages. He began his absorbing text with a long epigraph drawn from a collection of prose poems first published by Victor Segalen in Beijing between 1912 and 1914 (and reissued in France in 1955). The suggestive excerpt describes the inscriptions on stone tablets the French polymath had observed at tomb sites in central China:

Linked by laws as clear as ancient thought & as simple as musical scales, the Characters hang from one another, clutch & enmesh themselves in an irreversible network refractory even to the one who wove it. As soon as they are inlaid on the tablet—which they penetrate with intelligence—there they are, despoiling the forms of moving human intelligence & having become the thought of the stone to whose grain they conform. Hence this severe composition, this density, this internal equilibrium & these angles, qualities necessary like geometric forms to crystal. Hence the challenge to whoever would have them say what they protect. They disdain being read. They do not call for voice or music. . . . They do not express; they mean; they are.*

Soulages admired the passage. Ceysson reports that his subject often quoted these lines when asked to explain his work. Brandished as a standard, the citation serves to deflect the existentialist readings popular in the Paris art world in the years immediately following World War II, when Soulages began showing his abstract compositions. For what follows in Ceysson’s book is a very different account of the painter’s oeuvre, one squarely focused on notionally impersonal matters of form, surface, and materiality—emphases far more congenial to the new painterly tendencies that emerged in France in the late 1960s and ’70s. It is Soulages seen in the light of Supports/Surfaces.

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 81 x 60 cm, 14 mars 1950, oil on canvas, 31 7⁄8 × 23 5⁄8

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about that epigraph in the wake of two back-to-back events this past October. One was Soulages’s death at age 102, the other a visit to the monographic room recently devoted to Pierrette Bloch (1928–2017) at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (MAM). Comprising eight objects from between 1974 and 1999, all belonging to the museum’s permanent collection, the focused presentation offered a welcome opportunity to think broadly about a singularly poetic body of work exhibited regularly in Europe but rarely in the US. Particularly in the wake of Soulages’s death, however, it also invites fresh consideration of the two artists’ longtime dialogue. Introduced in 1949 by Bloch’s art professor Henri Goetz, the pair were friends for nearly seven decades, and their lives and oeuvres were closely intertwined. Early in her career, Bloch used a spare room in Soulages’s house as her studio, and each collected work by the other. Slightly older than the artists of Supports/Surfaces but avowedly attentive to their investigations, Bloch developed a similarly expanded practice of painting, moving beyond the stretched canvas support to engage a broad array of nontraditional and often notably humble materials. Her work brilliantly illuminates both the fecundity and the limits of the “materiological” Soulages brought to the fore through Segalen’s striking image of signs woven in stone.

View of “Pierre Soulages: Retrospective Exhibition,” 1966, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

TO FOLLOW CEYSSON, two factors contributed to Soulages’s enduring relevance for younger painters of the Supports/Surfaces generation. The first was his consistent emphasis on the painting as a material object, manifest in part in the titling format he adopted early in his career: a straightforward notation of each work’s dimensions and date of completion. (To this we might now add his inventive installation practices: Beginning in 1966, Soulages often exhibited his canvases by suspending them from the ceiling on nylon cords; from 1979, he adapted floor-to-ceiling steel cables to the same ends. Detaching the paintings from the wall, these display strategies emphasized their physical presence in real space.) More surprising, perhaps, for US observers used to thinking of him as a French analogue to Franz Kline—this reputation centering on the paintings of black brushstrokes on white grounds that Soulages produced during the ’50s and ’60s, the period in which his art was most extensively exhibited and collected this side of the Atlantic—is Ceysson’s insistence that the painter’s practice was essentially non- or indeed anti-gestural. At issue in particular is the by then widespread understanding of gesture as essentially seismographic, indexed to the artist’s ever-changing emotional state. Deliberate and architectonic, Soulages’s compositions resist being read as visual transcriptions of psychic flux.

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 222 x 137 cm, printemps 1980, oil on canvas, 873⁄8 × 54

Returning to the Segalen quote, we might then say that Soulages is drawn, above all, to the author’s fantasy of characters utterly severed from subjectivity, cohering in a constellation so inevitable-seeming, so absolute, as to forcibly eject the authorial hand—indeed, to impassively deny authorship itself. That desire drives the development of his work from the early, remarkably static signs he began making in the late ’40s with walnut stain and ink on paper through the clustered masses of his oil-on-canvas paintings of the ’50s and ’60s. But it doubtless finds its fullest expression in the Outrenoir, or “Beyond Black,” paintings, which he commenced in 1979 and continued making for the rest of his life—large, slablike canvases and polyptychs, often characterized by stele-like verticality, whose all-black surfaces run from smooth to variously striated so as to modulate the light in different ways. Incised in the surface with extra-wide brushes and other long-handled implements that distance the author’s hand both in appearance and in fact, the lines and other scarifications produce the distinct impression that they have been generated en masse, quasi-mechanically—if not, indeed, that they have simply appeared. Rebuking the very notion of autographic gesture, they sit in the support like the grain in stone.

Deliberate and architectonic, Soulages’s compositions resist being read as visual transcriptions of psychic flux.

BLOCH, TOO, UNDERSTOOD Soulages’s work as essentially “nonpsychological,” explicitly praising that aspect of it in a 1975 article in Opus International. The centerpiece of her room at MAM, Maille no. 8 (Mesh no. 8), 1974, literalizes a related understanding of the artwork as a woven thing—“refractory,” in Segalen’s words, “even to the one that wove it.” Executed in reinforced halyard, nylon braid, and extra-strong ribbon, the work is one of several large wall-hung assemblages Bloch created between 1973 and 1977 from individually knitted and knotted rectangles that she stitched together and affixed to unstretched felt supports. (Smaller Mailles executed in horsehair and typically composed of a single unit without felt backing continued into the ’80s.) Produced roughly a decade after Bloch herself had abandoned oil painting in favor of ink-on-paper drawings and collages, Maille no. 8 nonetheless conjures the conventions of painting—Soulages’s in particular. Witness the different stitches, miniaturized and routinized versions of the knotlike clusters of brushstrokes in his early paintings on white and off-white grounds; the inclusion of a bit of rose-colored fabric behind one of the units, so like the similarly hued underpainting in a Soulages composition from her personal collection; the quasi-cubist grid, a staple of his works into the late ’50s; or, indeed, her use of exclusively black but differently textured and variously light-absorptive or reflective materials, a method of wresting diversity from restraint that presages the Outrenoirs.

Pierrette Bloch, Untitled, 1976, ink on paper, 25 1⁄4 × 19 3⁄4

No less clearly, however, Maille no. 8 departs from the paradigm established by Soulages’s work to date. Gone are the “severe composition,” the “internal equilibrium,” and the “angles” so evocatively at stake in the Segalen epigraph. Generated and enchained through the strict yet never simply mechanical repetition of manual gestures—indeed, exposed to various slips, irregularities, and imperfections by precisely the laborious and protracted nature of the hand-knitting and knotting process—the sagging quadrilaterals that compose Bloch’s mesh speak to a broader turn toward the noncompositional and antiformal tendencies characteristic of the rising generation. (One might also think, of course, of the more specific reclamations of knitting and weaving on the part of feminist artists in France and elsewhere, though Bloch did not speak of her work in these terms.) Density remains, yet it assumes a different guise, tending less toward hieratic condensation than toward nonhierarchical, quasi-vegetal proliferation. Bloch, for her part, likened her Mailles to forests, casting each assemblage as “a more and more intimate network where I accumulated steps and detours.”

View of “Pierrette Bloch,” 2022–23, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. From top: Ligne 1 (Line 1); Ligne 2 (Line 2); Ligne 3 (Line 3), all 1999. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

At issue in the language of steps and detours is a return to the inescapably durational dimension of an embodied itinerary, as well as an acceptance of its inevitable vicissitudes. This is a thought that, notably, does not disdain reading but extends into it. Of particular interest here are the emphatically horizontal works that Bloch began making in the wake of the Mailles, first by twisting, looping, and knotting horsehair around nearly invisible nylon threads and later by marking thin strips of paper with variously sized, oriented, and saturated blots of ink. Three examples of the latter mode, Ligne 1, Ligne 2, and Ligne 3, all 1999, are presented at MAM. Each is roughly two inches tall; the widths range from a little more than twelve feet to just over thirteen. (Other Lignes are even longer, extending to thirty-two feet.) The length, Bloch has indicated, quickly came to matter to her more than any other element of the work “because it is in the length that things can happen—unexpected things, surprising things.”

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 51 x 165 cm, 2 décembre 1985, oil on wood, 20 1⁄8 × 65

It is tempting to see these works in part as so many responses to the rather atypical Outrenoir in Bloch’s personal collection, Peinture 51 x 165 cm, 2 décembre 1985. Now at Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne, the painting is markedly horizontal, with predella-like proportions and oblique, recto-descendant lines that in places curve gently toward the lower edge. Like Soulages’s striations—less rigidly disposed in this example than elsewhere in his oeuvre—Bloch’s discontinuous touches resist being understood as conventionally autographic. Yet they also recover a sense of finitude, even fragility, that Soulages’s monumental aggregates deny—just as, unfolding in time, they invite us to follow along. Reopening toward the voice, toward music, they eschew the stele for the score.

Molly Warnock is the author of Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting (Penn State University Press, 2020).

*Victor Segalen, Stèles, trans. Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 59–61.

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