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Pierre Soulages
15 December 1962

Pierre Soulages

16 February 1964

12 January 1996

Stained glass windows for the Romanesque
abbey-church Saint Foy of Conques, 1994

negatively sublime 
pierre soulages's 
abstract paintings

by Donald Kuspit

Using the term `abstract' in its 

loosest sense for a moment, we can say that 

abstractness in art signals a 

withdrawal from the objective world at a 

time when nothing remains of that world save 

its caput mortuum. Modern art is as 

abstract as the real relations among men. Such 

notions as realism and symbolism have been

completely invalidated.

- T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
1 The question is: how to be isolated without having to be insulated?
- D. W. Winnicott, "Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites"
2 Dialectics is the consistent sense of nonidentity.
- T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics
3 1 There is no art that is more subject to humiliation--neutralization, objectifi- cation, conventionalization--than abstract painting: "the non- representational is perfectly compatible with the ideas affluent members of society have about decorating their walls."4 Through its reduction to decoration-- "wallpaper patterns capable of being extended infinitely"5 --it is brought into the collective, which is to take revenge on it for the fact that it has a certain "power of resistance" to the world, because it cannot be objectified in its terms (unlike realism and symbolism).6 Moreover, "radically abstract painting" is "lonely and exposed," which makes it a critique of the objective world, for it reminds it of the subjective reality it repudiates--the subjective reality lurking within its objectivity 7 : this is another reason radically abstract painting must be neutralized, degraded, trivialized, almost annihilated. Adorno has argued that we live "in an age of total neutralization of art,"8 an overstatement which nonetheless makes it clear that the "compact majorities" of modernity, as he calls them, must defend themselves against the emotional recognition radical art brings with it, even as they endorse and objectify it as commodified civilization. For art at its most radical is full of too many unwelcome, dark truths about modernity and its effect on the self--too much contradictory enlightenment. From the start of his career, with a kind of heroic tenacity and singlemindedness, Soulages has struggled to maintain abstract painting's power of resistance--its "critical bite."9 Indeed, the critical bite of his blackness--initially eschatological in import, and then, in his later works, a luminous Gnostic revelation in itself--not only subverts the decorative, but restores a sense of the subjective rebellion which abstract painting at its most radical is. Soulages uses blackness, aroused and dramatized, and finally transparent and infused with light, to finesse uniformity dialectically--to defeat the wallpaper effect of redundant flatness, emotional as well as literal, that is the instrument of neutralization, de-radicalization, in the very act of acknowledging it. But it is above all the tenacious isolation of his blackness that re-radicalizes the abstract painting: loneliness has become blatant and intransigent--overexposed and assaultive, violent and stubborn--in Soulages's blackness, making it utterly incompatible with the sociality represented by the decorative. It has the force of irreconcilability: the transcendence of negation.10 The abstract painting must contradict, even seem to abandon the wall: to float free of it, or to stand out from it, as though levitating at a deliberate distance from it, and thus become untouchable, and beyond simple placement, social or esthetic-- beyond embeddedness in any decorative scheme. The wall, in losing necessity, makes the abstract painting seem self-grounding--an autonomous if insecure architecture. Thus the radically abstract painting reacts to the wall's dull stability and clear identity with the ironic instability of its own identity. Such irreverent detachment is one of the things Soulages's blackness accomplishes: it is an ecstatic presence--a levitating force that slowly ferments a negative freedom, once again giving the abstract painting a negative identity, thus renewing its radicality, its lonely exposure. 2 "Abstract pictures" may no longer be able to escape being subsumed as "one element in a purposive arrangement," but they can be a discomforting element.11Unsettling because unsettled in themselves, they are only superficially compatible with luxury. Society may think it has grown wise in no longer resisting the abstract painting that once resisted it, and try to swallow it whole without blinking. But the most radical abstract painting remains indigestible--peculiarly "out of sight," unseeable, ironically invisible. It is too hard for ordinary perception, which seeks comfort before insight, to swallow.12 Radical abstract painting does not accommodate to decor, does not fit in, despite every effort to metabolize it into a "place setting." Indeed, it always seems oddly out of place, no matter how well one places it. No matter how glamorous its presence, it adds an odd tone of absence. No matter how much it communicates, it seems incommunicado. Thus it can never be completely neutralized into decoration, the power of its difference drained from it, because it does not submit to the usual processes of perception designed to foreclose on radical difference, subsume the uniqueness that is evident in irreconcilability. Decoration symbolizes the comfort that denies the anxiety aroused by the irreconcilably isolated self, so radically different from the self that falsifies itself by glorifying itself as an ornament of the world. When it was unexpected, abstract painting forced itself on us like a bizarre eruption from the unconscious, breaking through the defensive everyday blindness we achieve through selective inattention, as Harry Stack Sullivan called it, of which decoration is a major instrument, leveling as it does whatever strangeness invades attention. Now that abstract painting has become expected, an academic category, its contemporary problem is to reassert its difference--not to restore the old sense of difference, but to test the authenticity of its difference and irreconcilability, its resistance to the sameness that decorative neutralization instigates in the name of society. It must show that the difference of radical abstract painting is not a gratuitous act of social defiance, but ontologically inherent. It is inherently nonconformist, because it is conforming to its own anxiety. The task that Soulages has set himself, and that he sustains throughout his development, is to establish and define this radical difference. The absence and invisibility embodied in blackness--the apotheosis of absence and invisibility through blackness--is its major mode and instrument: the blackness of his abstract paintings is irreconcilable with decor, resists decor with all the power of its nothingness, even when, as in the later works, it sometimes seems more elegant than existential. It is through blackness that Soulages's abstract paintings articulate the social truth of their outsiderness, their nonidentity in a society that posits its own mythical self-identity--also symbolized by the uniformity of the decorative. Soulages's abstract black paintings do something more: they reveal the negation inherent in the forced social march to self-identity, a negation articulating the truth that abstraction informs all real relations among men, as Adorno said. It is this ironical revelation of the ambiguity of abstraction--the fact that it is as much an instrument of conformity as of uniqueness, that it establishes the compact majority as well as the difference of the outsider individual-- that makes Soulages's abstract black paintings truly radical. But they are even more extraordinarily radical: they reveal that to be unconditionally negative is to become conditionally positive. That is, their victory over decoration is more than Pyrrhic because they affirm, in the very act of making the negation implicit in abstraction explicit and uncompromising, the subliminal, attenuated feeling of being an incommunicado subject, which is to be an autonomous if isolated self. It is this feeling that the collectivization represented by the decorative is determined to destroy. In reaching, through their negativity, the truth that "by slaying the subject, reality itself becomes lifeless," Soulages's abstract black paintings restore a kind of dialectical life to the "powerless subject," thus showing that "reality" is not as "all-powerful" as its abstractness makes it seem.13 "Annihilating reality" is revealed in all its self- annihilation, which does not mean the subject has the power to undo the annihilating effect of abstract reality on it--the feeling that it is unreal--but does give it the courage to recognize itself in the black mirror of its emaciation,14 to face the fact that continuous abstract relations have reduced it to a shadow of itself. But recognition of the fact that in everyday collective existence one has become an abstract, inwardly lifeless shadow of oneself, is to begin to recognize one's true self, for it is ironically mirrored by--hidden in--one's shadow. Such ironical recognition of one's shadowy reality gives one the courage to survive and feel real and emotionally full, rather than unreal and emotionally emaciated. For by admitting the truth to oneself, one becomes true to oneself, in however small a way, and thus transcends one's feeling of being annihilated--profoundly falsified and diminished in one's being--by the abstract collective. Perhaps such dialectical self- recognition is no more than an artistic kind of survival, but it nonetheless testifies to the subject's will to live. The subject's emaciation becomes negatively sublime--a blackness that is too extreme to become the site of human fantasy, an infinity too black to be idealized into a decorative cornucopia, to be compromised in its stubborn immediacy. Soulages's blackness may seem to reverse, may seem to become "light " (luminous and less of a burden), may seem to become the color Soulages thinks it is, and indeed he often suggests that it is full of color, or hides color 15 --but it never disappears: it remains insidiously absolute, omnipresent and omnipotent, a fearless negative transcendence, a symbol of his insight into nothingness, and acceptance and mastery of the anxiety it arouses. Soulages's blackness is the complete abstraction from reality that represents the unreality it has become, and thus allows the subject a certain reality, a certain right to exist, without guaranteeing it concrete existence, a home in the world, an end to its feeling that it is unreal, an empty abstraction.16 Soulages may seem to reify blackness, but he uses it to re-radicalize abstract painting, to make it, once again, non-accommodating and heroically homeless--a refusal to play the decorative game of symbiotic belonging, the imaginary return to a world that gives one the illusion of being a significant part of it, and as such a radical statement of the nonidentity that is the only identity in a reality full of ready-made, abstract identities. The architecture of identity that Soulages constructs with his blackness--an architecture that changes the moment it stabilizes into self-identity, for it must maintain "the proportions of the interior,"17 and to be completely self- identical is to become an exterior--is always on the verge of collapse, always risks declaring its own nothingness, which confirms its subjective power as nonidentity and self-absence. In displacing his identity to art--it was "the only thing worth spending one's life on" he discovered early in life--he acknowledged the slipperiness of both, and the fact that life is only worth living when one does not try to earn one's identity the way one earns a living.18 3 Soulages has said that "there was nothing negative in [his] choice" of black,19 but in origin his choice was not without a certain unconscious melancholy, as his remark that his first paintings were of "trees in winter, without their leaves"-- "trees...painted in black on a brown background"20 --suggests. Black remains "a very violent color" for Soulages, a "very intense color, more intense than yellow, capable of giving rise to violent reactions and contrasts,"21 like a dead winter landscape. In fact, it is incandescent yellow that mitigates the futility of blackness in many of the early brown gouaches and paintings--they are to my mind an adult, abstract transposition of his bleak adolescent landscapes--along with Soulages's ambiguous attempt to architect blackness into an enigmatic emblem, an almost picturesque pictograph. While Soulages seems to agree with Matisse that "black is a color"--that it is "absurd" to make a distinction between black and color, that in choosing black one is "not rejecting the other colors"22 --unlike Matisse he disinters it from nature, as though to render it as a nonobjective feeling, to use Malevich's term. In fact, Soulages discovered Malevich's desert in the barren winter landscape, and Soulages's subsequent abstract paintings are the esthetic equivalent of both, or rather abstract the emotionally rich barrenness of both. In the history of modernist painting, blackness has two faces--a split identity. On the one side, it serves symbolism-- emotional realism. Kandinsky described it as
a totally dead silence...a silence with no possibilities...Black is something burnt out, like the ashes of a funeral pyre, something motionless like a corpse. The silence of black is the silence of death. Outwardly black is the colour with least harmony of all, a kind of neutral background against which the minutest shades of other colours stand clearly forward.23
At the other extreme, the non-color of black epitomized art-as-art for Ad Reinhardt--the ultimate non- representational purity.24 Art-as-art--art as only itself, with a certain grand if perverse simplicity--is pure negation, pure absence. It is totally inexpressive-- untranslatable. Reinhardt's radical abstract black paintings cancel the mundane and herald transcendence, without giving it a content, for it has none. Their polished blackness shuts the world out, and makes them hermetically true to themselves. But that self--art--is unnameable; their blackness signifies that art is "selfless" as well as nonworldly. It does not mime internal or external reality (symbolism and realism). They are certainly not informed by any signs of Reinhardt's everyday self and desire, and in fact represent his personal achievement of selflessness and repudiation of desire. They are beyond experience and history, personal and collective, and as such timeless and spaceless. Thus his abstract black paintings convey art's unintelligibility to itself as well as its incomprehensibility to ordinary worldly, "realistic" consciousness. His irreducible blackness is the blank such consciousness draws on art's transcendence as well as the "form" of that transcendence. It establishes meaninglessness, but also a kind of alternate meaning. Reinhardt has been called the ultimate artist mystic: a kind of "anesthetic"--self-anesthetized-- fundamentalist.25 Soulages's development can be understood as a movement from Kandinsky's evocative use of blackness to Reinhardt's exhibition of it, in all its presentational immediacy, to use Alfred North Whitehead's concept, as a cul de sac absolute. But there is a crucial difference between Soulages and both Kandinsky and Reinhardt: the exquisite sensitivity of Soulages's brushwork, which he never stops refining, and the austerity of his constructions, which, unlike those of Reinhardt and the later Kandinsky, depend not on ready-made geometry, but on "powerful buttresses," Soulages's basic invention. They are "heavy bars" and "elementary gestures" in one, as Werner Haftmann says.26 The result is "a complete, self-contained monumental icon" composed of "ponderous movements" and conveying "archaic strength," even when, in the later works, the movement becomes more systematic, repetitive, suave--ritualized, and thus intensified. Soulages does not fall between Kandinsky and Reinhardt, he ultimately transcends both, however much, initially, he may have been tempted by their methods and perhaps had similar ideas: the hypersensitive--ultrasensuous-- surface of his later paintings is neither altogether expressive nor simply an assertion of art-as-art, but radically esthetic. If Kandinsky's surfaces tend to be manic, and Reinhardt's surfaces look anesthetized, then Soulages's surfaces are unabashedly esthetic. For they offer sensory elements that seem too intense to contain, and thus seem to spread infinitely, yet are self-contained: a self- grounding architecture of sensation. Soulages's later paintings architect their own containment--this is what his earlier paintings were struggling toward--without sacrificing their sensitivity, indeed, while growing in sensitivity, that is, incommunicado sensory quality. One might say, in Wilfred Bion's terms, that they have learned to perform the alpha function for themselves, which they could not initially do, however much they tried, for they were too full of tragedy, willingly or not.27 However much Soulages might deny it, his early gestures are explosive traces of the tragedy that World War II was for France-- residues of a belated, risky action as well as a mourning for its failure, and the loss of self-respect or narcissistic wound this failure brought in its postwar wake. Soulages's early paintings are informed by an existentialist mentality if not existentialist doctrine, and like French existentialism they are an all too delayed and muted assertion of autonomy and declaration of freedom--a gestural emblem of the action and self-assertion that might have been. The subtle morbidity of Soulages's abstract black paintings of the late 1940's is evidence, as Bernard Ceysson writes, of "the profound effect" that "the moral and intellectual shock caused by the French defeat in 1940 and the German occupation of France" had on "the conscience of the individual."28 They are works of conscience, and, as I will argue, conscience never left Soulages's work. 4 Soulages's account of the formative influences on his development is brief but telling. Two moments seem of particular importance. When he was about ten, he drew a "snow landscape," as he called it: "a series of lines in black ink on white paper," in effect an abstract "landscape under snow." He "was trying to recapture the brightness of light. The white paper began to shine like snow by contrast to the black lines." A few years later, he "learned to look at Romanesque art, the cathedral of Conques for example, where [he] was overwhelmed by the proportions of the interior."29 The Romanesque aspect of Soulages's paintings is unmistakable. They convey a very Romanesque sense of strength, solidity, and solemnity--of an inexhaustible reserve of titanic power waiting to be released--in their architecture. They have the same enclosed appearance as a Romanesque interior. They are, I suggest, an abstraction of it. At the same time, bright light informs Soulages's black planes--as it does the dark Romanesque interior--and struggles to break through them, as well as to purify itself, to become more like the brilliant white light of the stars or freshly fallen snow than the yellow light of the sun or the reddish light of sunset. In fact, the black planes overlay and obscure the light, the way the black ink lines of his youthful snowscape overlaid the white paper. Is it simplifying Soulages's abstract paintings to say that their whole point is to find light in the dark--more particularly, the light that dwells in the darkness, and that, at the moment of revelation, is secreted by it, as it were? Soulages is a Gnostic, however unwittingly: he searches for the saving revelation of light, which seeps out of the darkness like sap out of bark.30 I am suggesting that the Romanesque interior is the model of self for Soulages, and that what he paints is the self at its most extreme and emaciated, to use Adorno's term again, and desperate for the light that can transfigure it. Again and again, in innumerable ways, light breaks through, onto the surface of Soulages's paintings, transfiguring it. The light that is always latent in the self, concealed within its blackness, suddenly becomes manifest--a kind of grace. Soulages paints this moment of breakthrough--of unexpected revelation, this sudden contradiction of darkness by light--again and again. He tries to recover his feeling of being overwhelmed by the abstract architecture of the Romanesque interior, and to architect esoteric abstract paintings that overwhelm us the same way. But he also offers us the same relief he experienced: light suddenly seems to invade the oppressive, massive black space, giving us a new sense of interiority. In his later paintings Soulages seems to have descended to the very crypt of the self, where the darkness is complete, and yet even there a certain thin, fragile light filters through the gloom. The dark lines he added to his youthful snowscape came from within him: the light was already there, outside him, in nature's snow, symbolized by the plane of white paper. In a sense, he taints it with his own interiority. That was not a given; it was something he had to discover. But in his later painting the black is already there, omnipresent, engulfing: he adds the lines of light. Soulages's dialectic--interior--has changed: blackness is now no longer the end that must be urgently expressed, but the starting point for subtle, almost inexpressible light. 5 In such works as 1948-2, 1948-4, and 1948-6 Soulages struggles to organize his blackness, to give it shape, as though he could reconstruct a world out of its cinders. He is not entirely successful--the result looks more like a tattered emblem than a grand architecture, the fragment of an idea of form rather than a solid content--but he doesn't want to be successful. The sense of wreckage, the ironical incompleteness of a ruin, the feeling of a fragment that is a structure in itself, is more important than any rebuilding. The grid of 1948-2 is unresolved however self-enclosing, the curved gesture of 1948-4 is inconclusive however mysterious and cabalistic, and the firm verticals and decisive curves of 1948-4 do not add up to a stable architecture. Everywhere there is light, but it is unrecognized--a secondary and atmospheric rather a primary presence. Indeed, through the early `50s, structure remains unstable however dramatic--a zone of conflict and contradiction, in which thick bar-gestures, of various densities of black (a broad, thinly painted, atmospheric underlayer, a more, thickly painted overlayer), tend to shoot off in opposite directions, at odds with each other, however much they seem like blocks from the same building, as in 1951-14. There is more conspicuous organization to this forceful painting than the earlier ones mentioned--it seems to be an enigmatic, aggressive escutcheon, the mandala of a defiant self--but the resulting construction has no ground to stand on, however self-grounding it may be. In all these works the abstract black figure floats on a ground of impure light, which sometimes informs the figure as a kind of gesture, giving its blackness a reddish brown or dark orange cast, adding to its dimensionality and negative sublimity. It is as though Soulages is trying to give shape to the feeling of death that has infected him, in an attempt to exorcise it by making it "definite," but the forcefulness of the black suggests that it cannot be expunged. 2 June 1953 has a similar asymmetrical, opaque black, cross-like structure in its center, dividing the work into four atmospheric quadrants of less intense black. The vertical and horizontal borders of the central structure are marked by streaks--outbursts--of light that form a kind of broken halo. The sophisticated, nuanced handling of the surface contrasts oddly with the stark, weirdly primitive icon in the center. 20 November 1956 is a grid of bar-gestures, not unlike 1948-2, but arranged in tiers on a white ground, with strong elements of orange in the central tier. One of the most dramatic of Soulages's disturbing, eccentric "crosses" is the climactic 6 January 1957: the intense, confrontational black structure that seems to project beyond--hover above-- the yellow ground it rests on, has an uncanny resemblance to the so-called papal cross. Its "finials," and the "panels" on the ends of several of the horizontals, give it a "medieval" look. All these works, to my mind, have, however obliquely, a reluctant, peculiarly angry, even bitter religiosity. Soulages suddenly smashes the structural mold he has struggled to establish: the pieces scatter, if still taking the shape of a grid-frame, in 27 August 1958, and 28 December 1959 is a kind of pile-up of the bar-gesture fragments. Figure and ground already began to integrate into a single, ominous plane in 22 May 1959, and the works grow larger and larger, as 24 November 1963 and 5 February 1964 indicate. They become oppressively black environments, if with startling "interruptions"--ruptures or rips--of light. Blackness seems to lose its footing on a plane of light in 6 November 1964, but in general dominates, filling the canvas, as in 22 November 1967, the light lapping around its edges, sometimes biting at its corners, as in 25 May 1967, and sometimes filled with an inner orange illumination, made of similar bar-gestures, as in 20 October 1967. In other works, such as 21 September 1967, 25 September 1967, and 29 September 1967, it becomes more calligraphic than iconic--a kind of dense, incomprehensible glyph, twisted in on itself. Broadly painted, mural-sized works such as 14 May 1968 and 4 January 1974, with their trans-human scale and eloquent vertical cleavages or seams of light-fragments--in 17 January 1970 the broad, softly curved black and white verticals balance each other--can undoubtedly be compared to the similar, uniformly colored field paintings of Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who also use a residual gesturalism, but Soulages remains much more economical in his means, leading to a more concentrated result. Soulages's field, however broad, seems more focused and, simultaneously, more ingeniously constructed. Also, he does not make transcendental claims for it; his field is not the product of a God-like "Act" of creation, as Still grandiosely thought his field paintings were--a mystification of the artist as well as the work of art--nor is each bar-gesture, however narrow or broad, thick or thin, a metaphysical signifier, as Newman's zips are supposed to be. Soulages's abstract painting is not a form of preaching, an attempt to save our souls, like that of Newman and Still. His paintings are not philosophy and religion in simplistic disguise--a disguise that simplifies them-- as Still's and Newman's are. Soulages, then, does not pretend to be dividing the Red Sea when he divides his canvas, only creating a certain tension of light and darkness, sometimes with a mediating zone of primary (yellow, red, blue) or complementary (orange) color between. Mind (but not God) exists in the concreteness of this tension--a precarious if self- conscious balancing act between black and white, in which the former claims to have priority and all the power, a claim the latter subtly refutes--not as a deus ex machina supervising the tension, as in Still's and Newman's paintings. The tension of black and white may have a Gnostic dimension, as I think, but Soulages has no intention of intellectually or for that matter emotionally and rhetorically exploiting their difference--whatever its evocative, persuasive power--only of exploring its possibilities. Still and Newman want to rewrite the Gospel with their painting, but Soulages is simply purifying his experience of radical contrast until it becomes epiphanic. There is no anthropomorphic or picturesque residue in Soulages's paintings, as there is in those of Newman and Still, only a pure tension. As though to insist on this point, Soulages simplifies--radicalizes--his paintings even further in the late `70s and `80s. The process can be studied in three works made around the same time: 27 February 1979, 19 March 1979, and 14 April 1979. An opaque black bar and a uniform gesture of luminous lines--a reversal of the black lines of Soulages's early snowscape--oppose each other, like substance and luminous shadow, even though they constitute the same plane. The grand triptych 30 May 1979 is a climactic statement of this mode, with the gestural field more luminous, and the bar more resistant, than before. In the equally gigantic 7 February 1985 the luminous linear gesture has made a clean sweep of the field, with the black bar now reduced to a thin divider, as light once was. In a number of other 1985 and 1986 works Soulages integrates the black bar and luminous gesture in what might be called an intuitive seriality. These works are peculiarly ritualistic as well as driven. March 1986 is a particularly striking example. The severity yet strange vitality of this work--opaque bar and luminous gesture alternate vigorously in an irregular rhythm, sometimes stumbling over each other yet maintaining their dignity-- achieves a remarkable sense of nonidentity within self-sameness. In 18 February 1990 white re-appears, a rectangle that takes the measure of the vertical work, which can be intuitively divided into rectangles of the same size. Its pendant, 23 February 1990, has black in the same place. Proportion is crucial in both these "classical" works. Like 28 December 1990, 30 December 1990, 5 January 1991, 14 January 1991, 29 January 1991, 7 February 1991 and 19 February 1991, they are modular constructions, however irregular--diagonal-- their divisions. The diagonal becomes dominant in 11 December 1991, but the same principle holds. Adorno has argued that expression and construction are the poles of 20th-century avant-garde production, and that each makes the most radical esthetic sense when it has nothing to do with and in fact makes nonsense of the other. But Soulages's late constructions, at once uncannily "Minimalist" and emotionally insinuating, suggest that in the current decadent, so- called postmodernist situation of art, in which both expression and construction have become reified and exhausted their possibilities, only a crafty hybrid of the two can make fresh esthetic sense. Indeed, the split between expression and construction must be healed for art to grow, and Soulages attempts to accomplish it on the most fundamental level: that of gesture and geometry, figure and ground. In the late paintings they seem to converge and constitute each other, an achievement that was Soulages's ambition from the beginning. But even though figure and ground and geometry and gesture become identified with each other--form a subliminal unity or at least a concordance-- they maintain their autonomy, and thus remain nonidentical, even subtly discordant. Thus the paintings of the `80s and `90s are Soulages' most radical, daring works, for they carry his ambition to its logical, and simultaneously illogical, conclusion. They are also radical because black and white radiate with equal intensity and brilliance in them--in his youthful snowscape he wanted to capture the total "brilliance" of the scene--however different their textures and form, which in fact they repeatedly exchange. It is as though they have become the same substance. To call Soulages's late paintings abstract seems a misnomer, in view of the fact that black and white, and expression and construction, line and space, have become irreducibly concrete. Each has become unmistakably itself, while remaining inseparable and contradictory of each other. Thus the late paintings establish an irreducible solitude: a peculiarly agonizing solitude, for despite their determined attempt to heal the primitive splits in the self they never succeed in doing so, however much they actually seem to. For the splits are too deep, being the very fundament of the self, and yet there are few artists who have articulated them, and the self's core unity, as incisively and consistently as Soulages.31 "Soulages: The Black, the Light" was organized by Jean-Louis Andral, curator of the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where it appeared Apr. 11-June 25, 1996. The show subsequently traveled to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, July 17-Sept. 15, 1996. The above essay was originally published in French in the exhibition catalogue ($89.95, Paris Musees/Amis du Musee d'Art Moderne). This is its first appearance in English. DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. Footnotes 1 T.W. Adorno,Aesthetic Theory (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 45 BACK 2 D.W. Winnicott, "Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites,"The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York, International Universities Press, 1965) p. 187. BACK 3 T.W. Adorno,Negative Dialectics (New York, Seabury, 1973), p. 5. BACK 4 Adorno,Aesthetic Theory, p. 324. BACK 5 Clement Greenberg, "The Crisis of the Easel Picture,"Partisan Review, 15 (April 1948): 484. BACK 6 Adorno,Aesthetic Theory, p. 328. BACK 7 Ibid. Kasimir Malevich made a similar point when he remarked that "objectivity, in itself, is meaningless...feeling is the determining factor." In his "desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity" he "took refuge in the square form"--the "desert" of geometry, "where nothing is real except feeling." Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp,Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 1968), pp. 341-42. BACK 8 Ibid., p. 325. BACK 9 Ibid. BACK 10 Winnicott, pp. 183-84, argues that "at the centre of each person is an incommunicado element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation." The "abstract picture" can concretize it, that is, can function as a "cul-de-sac communication (communication with subjective objects)" that "carries all the sense of the real." I think that Soulages paints this rare kind of abstract picture: his paintings articulate the isolated, sacred, incommunicado "secret self," "core self" or "true self," as Winnicott variously calls it. Only a desperate inner necessity could produce such radical abstract painting: for Soulages, it was the only means of psychic survival, that is, of feeling real and concrete in a world that made him feel unreal and abstract, of being true to himself in a world that made him feel false--a world in fact that constantly invites all of us to falsify ourselves, supposedly to survive. Ironically, radical abstract painting uses the world's abstractness against it, that is, redeems the world's objective abstractness by making it subjectively resonant--a dialectical feat that is an essential aspect of its radicality. To fully grasp Soulages's negation of the world's negation of the self (which is a kind of self-assertion), one must sharply distinguish it from Duchamp's negation, which is negation for the sake of negation-- a reification of negation--and as such an ironical embodiment of the worldly pseudoself (and thus a kind of self- negation). Duchamp's negation was a deliberate "joke" and "lie"--a deliberate falseness, as he said. (Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp[New York, Viking, 1977], p. 24.) The result is not simply anti-art, but pseudoart. He not only negated art, but woman, with whom he unconsciously identified art, that is, she personified the truth of art, which is falseness. Woman is thus the ideal symbol of art, for she is as inherently false as art (as well as false to man): both are false ideals (idols) that Duchamp falsifies in order to make their basic falseness manifest. He plays a joke on both, making them seem lies--betrayers of the truth. But in fact he has falsified them by refusing to see their truth--their other side. In a dubious Solomon's wisdom, he has split them, and thrown away one half. Duchamp displaces his misogyny--his refusal to see the truth of woman--onto art. Or is it that he displaces his hatred and distrust of art--his sense of its disgusting falseness- -onto woman? In either case, he has betrayed both, for he has told only half their story. BACK 11 Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason (New York, Continuum, 1974), p. 99. BACK 12 Joseph Sandler,From Safety to Superego (New York and London, Guilford, 1987), p. 5 notes that "perhaps the most convenient way of heightening safety feeling is through the modification and control of perception." To turn radically subjective abstract painting into decoration is to modify and control its perception--to make it recognizable in terms of everyday objective perception, and, more crucially, to deny its inconvenient incommunicado character, which is a threat to ordinary emotional safety. BACK 13 Adorno,Aesthetic Theory, p. 45. BACK 14 Ibid., p. 46. BACK 15 Marshall McLuhan thought that "On television colors rush at you as in a picture by Soulages." Quoted in Bernard Ceysson, "Interview with Pierre Soulages," Soulages (New York, Crown, 1979), p. 60. Soulages comments: "McLuhan must have been thinking about the pictures where the colors hidden underneath the black are revealed by scraping so that they take on a brilliance that does not come from the light received and reflected by the canvas, but seems to emanate from the canvas itself." BACK 16 Joyce McDougall, Theaters of the Mind (New York, Brunner/Mazel, 1991|; Paris, Gallimard, 1982, as Theatres du Je), p. 9 writes that "the psychotic plot turns around the unceasing struggle for the right to exist, against the subject's deep conviction....that the right to an independent life, or even to existence itself, was not desired." I think that Soulages's abstract black paintings, in affirming the isolated incommunicado sacred true self, are a defiant last ditch attempt to assert his right to exist despite society's psychotic plot against his existence, that it, its indifference to whether he--or any one of us--exists or not. It is his assertion of his independence from society, for all his--and everyone's--dependence on it, however much it has become an unfacillitative, abstract environment, as Adorno says. BACK 17 I am playing on Soulages's remark (Ceysson, p. 57) that he was "overwhelmed by the proportions of the interior" of the Romanesque cathedral of Conques. I will return to this remark later, for it is basic to an understanding of the sensibility involved in Soulages's abstract paintings, and as such helps explain their radicality. BACK 18 Ibid. BACK 19 Ibid., p. 60. BACK 20 Ibid., p. 57. Soulages: "Was my childhood fondness for bare trees due to my love of black as a color? Or was it the other way round? Did I begin to love black because of the trees in winter without their leaves; because of the way the black trunks and branches stood out against the background of sky or snow, making them look brighter by contrast; or was it because of my love for the texture of the wet bark? I shall never know" (Ibid. p. 50). Also: "What interested me when I was painting trees was the tracery of the twigs against the sky-- the way in which the background became brighter between the black branches." Slowly but surely Soulages realized that he was looking at the tree "in terms of an abstract sculpture, an interacting series of forms, tensions and colors." This was confirmed by his discovery of Mondrian's series of tree paintings. Soulages also notes (ibid. p. 84) his fascination with a "patch of tar," made by "the roadmaker's brush as he tarred the street," and also seen on a hospital wall. He was taken with "the viscosity, the transparency and opaqueness of the tar, the force with which it had been splashed onto the surface, and the way it had run as a result of the slope of the wall and the laws of gravity." It had been "abandoned," but remained "uncompromising" in its blackness, and evoked "the geological folds to which [it] had once belonged." Again, a certain experience of abandoned nature is Soulages's abstract point of departure. It is also his unconscious acknowledgment of his annihilation anxiety--his latent death wish, evoked by the society that has failed him, and thus traumatized him. In this context, it is hard not to think of Winnicott's remark that "a great deal is known, and is waiting to be harvested....about the meaning of black in the unconscious. Soulages is one of the great harvesters of black--one of the few not afraid to look steadily into its abyss." (D.W.Winnicott, "The Price of Disregarding Psychoanalytic Research," Home Is Where We Start From [London, Penguin, 1986], p. 174.) BACK 21 Ibid., p. 60. BACK 22 Ibid. BACK 23 Wassily Kandinsky,Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York, Dover, 1977), p. 39. BACK 24 See Ad Reinhardt, "Black as Symbol and Concept," Barbara rose, Ed.,Art As Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York, Viking, 1975, Documents of 20th- Century Art), pp. 86-88. "Black is negation," Reinhardt wrote (p. 101), and his black paintings were a "chain of negations," "ideogram[s] for what is beyond utterance," statements of the "Buddhist `theology of negation'" (p. 93). This means that they are "trans-subjective" (p. 114). Nonetheless, very subjectively and self- contradictorily, Reinhardt identifies their "self-sufficiency" with that of the "original part-object, [the] breast" (p. 74), that is, the primordial subjective object (according to Melanie Klein). Thus, if "the one object of fifty years of abstract art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only, separating and defining it more and more, making it purer and emptier" (p. 63), then the object of abstract art is to restore us to our original incommunicado subjectivity, which is inseparable from our identification with the breast. BACK 25 Winnicott, p. 185-86, writes of "the mystic's withdrawal into a personal world of sophisticated introjects...the loss of contact with the world of shared reality being counterbalanced by a gain in terms of feeling real." The mystic anesthetizes himself to the world, blanking it out, in order to become sensitive to the deepest layers of himself, which, in Soulages's case, are articulated as autonomous sensory experiences, experienced by the viewer as inordinately intense sensory stimuli. BACK 26 Werner Haftmann,Painting in the Twentieth Century (New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1961), vol. 1, p. 345. James Johnson Sweeney,Soulages: Paintings Since 1963 (New York, M. Knoedler, 1968), p. 7 also notes Soulages's "Interest in architecture...particularly Romanesque architecture." BACK 27 Hanna Segal, "The Function of Dreams," The Dream Discourse Today, ed. Sara Flanders (London, Routledge, 1993), p. 103 writes that "beta elements are raw perceptions and emotions suitable only for projective identification. These raw elements of experience are to be gotten rid of. Beta elements are transformed by the alpha function [of a mother capable of containing projective identification, that is, of being a good breast] into alpha elements. Those are elements which can be stored in memory, which can be repressed and worked through. They are suitable for symbolization and formation of dream thoughts....Alpha function is also linked with mental space." I am arguing that the disturbing tragedy of France's fall, which could first be worked through after its liberation, aroused primitive feelings of tragedy in Soulages. He used art to contain them, as though in an abstract dream. BACK 28 Ceysson, Soulages, p. 27. One might say that Soulages conveys the feeling of being let down by France--the rapidity of its collapse in World War 11, which was moral as well as military--that he experienced as a youth. BACK 29 Quoted in ibid., p. 57. BACK 30 Hans Jonas, "Gnosis, Existentialismus und Nihilismus,"Zwischen Nichts und Ewigkeit: Zur Lehre von Menschen (Gottingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963), pp. 5-25 shows how mysticism and existentialism correlate. Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis:The Nature and History of Gnosticism (New York, Harper & Row, 1983), p. 55 writes that "gnosis," insight into the light of God while falling in the darkness of the world, is "a knowledge which has at the same time a liberating and redeeming effect....It is a knowledge given by revelation, which has been made available only to the elect who are capable of receiving it, and therefore has an esoteric character....All gnostic teachings are in some form a part of the redeeming knowledge which gathers together the object of knowledge (the divine nature), the means of knowledge (the redeeming gnosis) and the knower himself," at his most unequivocally subjective, that is, in his mystical identity. BACK 31 Splitting--into good and bad (light and dark, satisfying and frustrating, secure and threatening)--is a fundamental mechanism of defense, discussed in particular detail by Melanie Klein and Otto Kernberg. W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, "Synopsis of an Object-Relations Theory of the Personality,"International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44 (1963): 224 describes the splitting of the "original ego" as the "basic schizoid position." The mature ego synthesizes the opposites in ambivalence, but the split has done its damage: the ego remains susceptible to rupture from within. BACK