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The name Pierre Soulages may not be familiar to current art aficionados, but a half century ago, the French painter exhibited regularly in New York at such places as the Betty Parsons Gallery, the Guggenheim and MoMA. His career, current and past, is being revisited in this engaging two-gallery survey uptown that’s certainly worth a look if you’re interested in rediscovering a piece of postwar art history.
Now 94, Soulages was part of a generation of European artists largely overshadowed by the Abstract Expressionists across the Atlantic. Soulages’s broad, painterly strokes appear far more restrained alongside Franz Kline’s, for instance, but then Soulages was more interested in methodological rigor than in psychological Sturm und Drang.
Indeed, the word that best sums up Soulages’s engagement with gestural abstraction is precision, a quality evidenced in his early work by cleanly delineated, zigzagging strokes—applied, it would seem, by something like a spackling knife. As his work evolved toward all-black compositions, brush marks gave way to gouges made in thick, plasterlike layers of acrylic.
This idea of the painting surface as a form in its own right arguably differentiated the Continental abstractionists from their AbEx counterparts. And while Soulages’s approach may seem more tempered than, say, the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, the results are surprisingly fresh. They’re arguably part of a important historical moment that created a bridge between painting and Conceptual Art.—Howard Halle