Sean Scully’s abstract paintings have stories to tell

PHILADELPHIA – Some great artists develop quickly. Others need time to find themselves. If we only knew the figurative works of Mark Rothko from the 1930s, if we only had the abstractions of Philip Guston from the 1950s, then they could be considered minor masters. And if we only had Sean Scully’s work created before 1981, he would be a distinguished, somewhat idiosyncratic minimalist. He was born in Dublin in 1945 in abject poverty; Recently he said: “We wanted to be poor. Our aim was to be poor and not starve.” His family soon moved to England where, after real struggles, he attended art school. “When you’re born poor, you have to overcome incredible social barriers to get a higher education…” he has said. (All Scully quotes are from Abstract painting, art history and politics. Sean Scully and David Carrier in conversationHatje Cantz, 2021.)

He was a fast learner – his first London show sold out when he was just 30. But knowing that an aspiring abstract painter had to be in the United States, he uprooted himself again and moved to New York, where he spent a difficult few years painting austere, narrow-striped minimalist paintings. Initially, Scully had to protect herself in this challenging new environment where painting was beset. These narrow bars functioned as protection in the truest sense of the word, like the bars on windows. Gray Red (1975) is a perfect example – its thin, narrow gray and red horizontals suggest a protective grid. Such grids, wrote an influential art historian at the time, are “what art looks like when it turns its back on nature”.

Sean Scully, “1.21.89” (1989), watercolor and pencil on paper, 15 x 18 in. Artist’s Collection (Image courtesy of the artist, photo by Brian Buckley, © Sean Scully)

Then in 1981 he painted Backs and Fronts, a 20-foot-wide manifesto. In this massive painting, 12 striped panels of varying widths and colors are clamped together. No bars here. Normally, when describing such dramatic artistic transitions, I have to speculate about the impetus. But in Scully’s case, I was lucky enough to be there right from the start. I saw Backs and Fronts when it was first displayed at PS1 in Queens in 1982. I immediately realized that it was unlike any contemporary painting I had ever seen. Minimalism sought the emptying of narrative image content. Sean’s goal, starting with “Backs and Fronts,” was to reset it. He wanted to tell stories about politics; stories about his life, joys and sorrows; and to respond to Old Masters and contemporary art.

Figurative art presents many different themes. Abstraction, he discovered, can be just as rich. Scully loves to tell stories, so it was liberating that abstraction could do the same. For example, Heart of Darkness (1982) refers to Joseph Conrad’s novel. A Bedroom in Venice (1988) is based on a drawing by Turner. Scully discovered that windows, stripes of various colors and widths, could be inserted into his background panels to compose a narrative. He also created small and large light walls that make the changing natural light visible in many places he works or visits. “It couldn’t be easier,” he said. A wall of light is “a painting of a wall”. And since the light on these walls is very different, so are these paintings. “Mooseurach” (2002) is a wall of light from near his German studio and “Wall of Light Roma” (2013) is an Italian wall.

Sean Scully, “Uist” (1991), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Private Collection (courtesy Beaumont Nathan Art Advisory, image courtesy artist, © Sean Scully)

Scully demonstrated that the traditional genres of European figurative art can be recreated in the abstract and used to tell very different stories. A group of Scully’s small paintings from 1982 (“Swan Island”, “Ridge”, and several others from the period) are his painterly equivalent of Old Master still life paintings. Works like “Landline Pink” (2013) with wide horizontal stripes are his abstractions of landscapes. Finally, to complete Scully’s journey through European art history, the Doric series painted on aluminum is his homage to the columns of ancient Greek temples. Based on its title, the commentary in the excellent catalog for his current exhibition, The form of ideas in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the colors and shapes of the works themselves allow viewers to identify his subjects.

The setting of The Shape of Ideas encourages reflection on Scully’s themes. Go from Rogier van der Weyden’s two-part The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning (c. 1460), in which red fabrics hang behind the figures, to Scully’s Vita Duplex (1991), in which The white and black stripes on both sides are interrupted by a vertical insert. Almost a self-portrait, it represents a broken facade. The interlude throughout refers to WB Yeats’ idea of ​​a divided soul. Here, Scully says in the catalog, “he broke a streak down the center of the surface.”

Sean Scully, “With” (1988), color woodcut, 29 7/8 x 30 in. Acquired with the Edgar Viguers Seeler Fund, 2019 (Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2020, © Sean Scully)

Like van der Weyden, Scully creates visual energy through striking juxtapositions. See Bob Thompson’s The Deposition (1961) in the exhibition Elegy: Lamentation in the Twentieth Century (on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 24) and then Scully’s Precious (1981), which shows him being taken as an infant from Ireland by his loving parents, their “precious cargo” (Scully’s term). to the relative safety of London. Like Thompson, Scully evokes difficult moments of lived experience. Or see Allegory of Seeing (Venus and Cupid in a Picture Gallery) (1660) by Jan Brueghel the Younger (in the concurrent exhibition pictures in pictures). Like Brueghel’s painting, Scully’s Pale Fire (1988) features a window in the picture to open up the pictorial space. But where Brueghel’s images focus on the power of sight, as the catalog explains, “this image captures both the spirit and structure of Nabokov’s masterpiece and the compelling interrelationships – intimately connected and at the same time distant – that exist between fact and fantasy , reason, describes and madness, and the world and its reflection.”

The influential critic whose account of grids I quoted earlier is Rosalind Krauss. “To wall the visual arts in a realm of exclusive visuality,” she wrote in her essay “Grids,” is a drastic limitation, “because the fortress they built on the foundations of the grid has increasingly become a ghetto.” This is a “ghetto” that Scully escaped from. From Gray Red to his majestically large Landline North Blue (2014), with its broad, vertical whites, blues and blacks, it’s obvious how far he’s come. The line on land is the horizon. In this respect, this work differs greatly from the art of Abstract Expressionism. She has affinities with the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Abstract painting has changed.

Sean Scully, “Union Yellow” (1994), oil on canvas, 7 x 8 ft (Image courtesy of the artist, © Sean Scully)

Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas continues through July 31 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). The exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and curated by Timothy Rub, Director Emeritus; and Amanda Sroka, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art.

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