Thursday, February 24, 2011

Painter Sean Scully

I first had the privilege of seeing in one place a substantial number of paintings by the Dublin-born Sean Scully in 2005 at The Phillips Collection, which presented the marvelous "Wall of Light" exhibition.

Scully (b. 1945) is described by many as "painterly", by others as the guy who took up where Mark Rothko left off; former Phillips director Jay Gates has called him "the current dean of the abstract tradition". All of these statements are apt enough, I suppose. Scully himself simply calls his paintings grids, a word that explicates form only a tiny bit and hardly does justice in describing the knock-out palette the artist uses, the way he fills in space on his canvases with his trademark stripes and layered blocks of color, or even one's own responses to the work, which change the longer the time with the paintings. The paintings reward slow looking; take a drive-by approach, and you'll fail to appreciate how sculptural the panels together feel, you'll miss both the draw of their energy and the quiet their meditative quality commands. (The Phillips exhibition traveled to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art; a video of its installation there may be viewed here; additional information and images may be found here. A review of the show is here.)

Sean Scully, Red and Red, 1986
Oil on Canvas, 90-1/4" x 114-1/2"
The Phillips Collection

I was moved to recall my experience of the work in that Phillips show after watching recently the video below, produced by Laurence Topham, who works for The Guardian in the United Kingdom. In the film, Scully, now living in the countryside in southern Germany and with an exhibition currently at the Wilheim-Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, speaks articulately about his latest work, which he says has been influenced by "the color of the sky, and the color of the trees, and the land and the mist here has come into my paintings, so they're like grids that receive natural inspiration." While "extremely urban", the paintings, Scully offers, are "softening, they're becoming more metaphysical, . . . and more inspired by natural phenomena".

Scully notes that at about age 6 he became interested in being an artist but spent his youth as a "street gang member, a street fighter", which, he explains "squeezed out" the art. Fortunately for him and us, the "sense of art" he was blessed with "washed back in again, like a wave".

Of interest in his work, Scully posits that it comes because "I think I've combined intimacy with monumentality. And there's no certainty in my paintings."

An artist of wit and uncommon eloquence, Scully remarks, "Something like art is a little bit like the donkey and the carrot. And the artist never reaches the carrot. You never get to Nirvana. It's not possible, because your concept, your ambition, is always greater than what you're able to achieve. You're trying to, in a sense, imitate God, because you're trying to be creative." His greatest creation, Scully says, is his daughter Oisin. 

Scully goes on to remark that art-making should be "something that is happening all at once"; it's  "inhabiting you, and that you are doing, and you have, one way or another,  managed to get yourself into that space, and there's an angel on your shoulder. That's how you should make art. If you're plotting art, and trying to make something to get something, you're not in a state of creative innocence. You're not making art. You're doing something else."

Hesistent to state that he has any particular "destination" in mind, Scully concludes that he's "on a journey" but "doesn't expect to arrive"; quite simply, he says, he'll paint until he can paint no more.

Sean Scully: 'You never get to nirvana' from Laurence Topham on Vimeo.

Selected Resources

The Phillips Collection, among the first museums in the United States to acquire Scully's work, owns the paintings Niels (2001), Red and Red (1986), Horizontals: Grey Diptych #1 (1977), and Overlay 1 (1973); the pastel on paper Untitled (1996); and the etching Day (2006).

Scully's work also is found in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A biographical sketch, list of works in the SAAM collection, articles, a Webcast of a lecture by Scully, and a podcast about the artist's prints may be found here.

An excellent interview with Scully, conducted by R. Eric Davis and published in the Journal of Contemporary Art, is here.

Also see: "Sean Scully: Body of Light", National Gallery of Australia (59 images); "Sean Scully Examines His Evolution as an Artist", Big Think (video and text).


CERULEAN said...

This is a very complete post about Scully. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

i find these paintings to be very much like quilts, with the history and meaning behind the layering of his painting, in quilts comes through with the personal history, wear or touch of the fabric.

he even described the grey and black layer on the painting of night as a blanket covering the colours of the day.

Dianna Woolley said...


I can't begin to tell you what an impact Sean Scully has made on the inner workings of my feelings as an artist. The vimeo interview is incredibly close to how I'm feeling in my work these days - that is, the feeling of relief that I'm only painting for myself, that what I want to paint and what feels right is right for me, for now. I ordered two books about him this week. Thank you again for introducing him to me!


Maureen said...

Sunrise Sister, I am so pleased you stopped by to read this post. Scully is one of my favorite artists. If you haven't already, I hope you'll get a chance to see his work in person.

Nance, like a 3D quilt, yes.

odp said...

Excellent introduction to Scully. Thank you for all the references and resources.