For the second edition of Paris+ Perrotin’s 8 avenue Matignon gallery hosts Radical - A Pierre Soulages & Lee Ufan Dialogue, a presentation highlighting their diverging approaches to textured and monochrome painting. Pierre Soulages and Lee Ufan’s works challenge the viewer’s perception and take them on a unexpected journey into the radicalness of their practice.
As a founding figure of the Mono-ha (“School of Things”) movement which emerged in Japan in 1968, the Korean artist - Lee Ufan - takes part in a profound questioning of art and of its foundations, rejecting traditional notions of representation in favour of the exploration of materials, their properties and relationships.
Born in 1936, Lee Ufan’s formative years were shaped by traditional East Asian philosophy with emphasis on calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Extremely simple and minimalist in style, Lee Ufan’s process is methodically thought out. He aims to invest his thinking in half of his work while using the second half to reconcile the visible and the invisible, the exterior with the interior. In this sense, he considers “the blank space” to be the bridge between the dots, lines, or stones skilfully arranged with a steel plate and the outside world.
Lee Ufan’s Dialogue series began in 2006. It consists of large canvases featuring broad, minimalist brushstrokes on a white gesso background that reveals the artist’s recurrent application of the Japanese aesthetic principle of yohaku-no-bi 余白の美, or the beauty of the empty space–an extraordinary testament to the power of art to communicate in silence.
The series embodies the main concept of Mono-ha, which explores the interaction between things and their surroundings. The application of ink is limited so as to bring to the foreground the tension and the resonance between the parts that are painted and those left unpainted. Through these works, Lee Ufan hopes to establish a sort of “dialogue” between the pictorial matter and the space all around it. The artist aims to seize the idea of emptiness, allowing the viewer to lose themself in silent meditation. Lee Ufan holds his breath while swiping the surface with a broad brush to create the iconic “strokes”. This effort not only contributes to the creation of the painting itself but also to shape the viewer’s perception of it.
Over the years, the Dialogue series has continued to evolve while maintaining its essence as an “art of encounter” that builds bridges between the visible and the invisible, between man and the infinite space surrounding him, as opposed to having an idea or an image determine the essence of his practice.
'A work of art is a site where places of making and not making, painting and not painting, are linked so that they reverberate with one another.'
From Line series was mostly produced between 1971 and 1984, when Lee Ufan was living between Japan and France. These lines have their roots in the calligraphy apprenticeship he undertook when he was a student. He used crushed mineral pigments suspended in a kind of viscous animal-skin glue that is typical of the Japanese nihonga tradition he trained in. The composition represents a gestural, expressive extension of his earlier restrained language. Up until the powdery, crystalline substance runs out, the artist draws a series of cascading blue or orange lines down the canvas.
The line is meant to be contemplated by the observer, who is also encouraged to follow it with their gaze and consider how it relates to the surrounding area. Each brushstroke is deliberate and intentional, and this is reflected in the precise stroke and the dynamic tension of the line that becomes the undisputed protagonist. Every artwork in this series catches the viewer’s eye with its apparent simplicity. A pristine white background serves as the canvas on which the visual narrative unfolds. At the heart of each work is a single line, executed with mastery and precision, crossing the field. This line, which may seem mundane at first glance, is the focal point of each of Lee Ufan’s creations; its very existence defines the space around it.
‘When the artwork feels like a living thing, that's when I let it go’
Pierre Soulages has gained international recognition as a prominent figure of both art informel, which arose in France during World War II, and abstract expressionism, its American counterpart. From the 1940s to the 1970s, black progressively conquered the surface of Soulages’s calligraphic abstract paintings, which also incorporated subtle hints of color (mainly ocher and blue). His aesthetics radically shifted toward monochrome in 1979, when he initiated his lifelong series Outrenoir. He has been known as “the painter of black and light” ever since. Literally translating as “beyond black,” Outrenoir opens onto a new realm that transcends purely gestural and monochromatic abstraction. Systematically applied in thick layers on canvas, black paint is meticulously scraped, striated, and overall sculpted to create smooth or rough areas that reflect light in various ways. By masterfully turning black into a luminous color, Soulages powerfully evokes the genesis of the world, which came out of darkness.
The use of the colour black holds a central significance in Pierre Soulages’s work. In 1979, at Centre Georges Pompidou, the artist exhibited his first single-pigment paintings based on the reflection of light by the surface states of black. This pictorial light carries great emotional power and potential for development, a concept known as "outrenoir", a term he coined that translates to “beyond black”.
This series proves that black is not the absence of color but rather a multitude of shades reflected by light, an essential element of Pierre Soulages’s visual language. Black takes on different textures, levels of density, and shades, making the pictorial layer vibrate with energy. His approach to the color black is an inquiry into its essence, a quest to unveil its profound facets. With the term "outrenoir", the artist highlights the notion that black is never static or flat but can instead open doors to a more profound aspect of human existence. His black paintings encourage the observer to investigate light, shadows, and the seemingly unlimited possibilities expressed by this colour.
In Pierre Soulages’s work, the colour black represents a form of visual and spiritual meditation. It is a means through which the artist delves into the infinite complexity of the universe, light, and darkness, and invites the viewer to contemplate the depths of the human soul.
His contribution to contemporary art through black is an extraordinary example of how a somber colour can become a canvas for artistic creation and reflection.
"Painting isn't just pretty or pleasant; it is something that helps you to stand alone and face yourself."