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Painter Pierre Soulages, French master of black, dies at 102

French abstract artist Pierre Soulages, who has died aged 102, was the Henry Ford of painting: for him there was just one colour, black, and he spent a lifetime exploring the light within it.

“I love the authority of black, its severity, its obviousness, its radicalism,” declared the tall painter who was himself always clad in black.

“It’s a very active colour. It lights up when you put it next to a dark colour,” he told AFP in an interview in February 2019.

Soulages’s death was confirmed to AFP on Wednesday by his longtime friend Alfred Pacquement, who is also president of the Soulages museum in southern France.

Works by the best-selling French artist have commanded seven-figure sums, with a 1960 canvas of thick black stripes selling at auction at the Louvre for $10.5 million in 2019.

A household name in France but less known internationally, his paintings hung in more than 110 museums around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York and London’s Tate Gallery, with hundreds more housed in the Musee Soulages in his southern hometown of Rodez.

For his 100th birthday in December 2019, he was treated with a retrospective at the Louvre — a rare honour for a living artist.

“Beyond the black, his works are vivid metaphors from which each of us draws hope,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter.

– Beyond black –

Soulages titled all his pieces “Peinture”, or “Painting” in English, distinguishing them afterwards by their size and date of production.

One, called “Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 2 mai 1963”, sold for almost six million euros on Wednesday, auctioneers Sotheby’s said.

When he was around 60, Soulages shifted from black to the reflection of light from black — a technique he called “outrenoir” or “beyond black” in English.

It involved scraping, digging and etching thick layers of paint with rubber, spoons or tiny rakes to create different textures that absorb or reject light, taking him to what he called a “different country” from plain black.

Standing 1.9 metres (six foot two inches) tall, “his body language is often described in the same terms as his paintings: strong, vital, powerful,” the New York Times noted in 2014.

Hollywood celebrities including Alfred Hitchcock reportedly snapped up his works.

– Dark obsession –

Born on December 24, 1919, he was even as a child obsessed by the dark sheen of ink.

With all his “black marks on paper”, his mother would tease him that he “was already mourning her death”, he said in the AFP interview.

He showed his first works shortly after World War II in 1947.

While contemporaries and friends, such as Hans Hartung and Francis Picabia, were dabbling in colour, he opted for the walnut stain used on furniture to create geometric works on paper or canvas.

For a while he even tried daubing dark tar on glass.

At 33, Soulages showed at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1954 and held his first solo New York exhibition just two years later.

Black was not just his own obsession, he said, wondering: “Why did people in prehistoric times draw in black inside dark black caves when they could have used chalk?”

Soulages was also known for perfectionism: if he was not 100 percent happy with a painting, “I burn the canvas outside. If it is mediocre, it goes,” he told AFP.

He is survived by his wife of 80 years, Colette.