Sean Scully’s abstract paintings have stories to tell
PHILADELPHIA — Some great artists grow quickly. Others take 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 works by Sean Scully made before 1981, he would be a distinguished, somewhat idiosyncratic minimalist. He was born in 1945 in Dublin in abject poverty; recently he said, “We wanted to be poor. Our aspiration was to be poor, not hungry. His family soon moved to England where, after real struggles, he entered the school of fine arts. “When you are born poor, you have to cross incredible social barriers to access higher education…”, he declared. (All Scully quotes are from Abstract painting, art history and politics. Sean Scully and David Carrier in conversationHatje Cantz, 2021.)
He proved he was a quick learner – when he was just 30, he sold out his first show in London. But because he knew that an ambitious abstract painter must be in the United States, he uprooted himself again and settled in New York, where he spent difficult years producing stark, pinstriped minimalist paintings. Initially, Scully had to protect herself in this harsh new environment, where painting was under siege. Quite literally, these tight gratings functioned as protective devices, like window bars. ‘Grey 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”.
Then, in 1981, he painted “Backs and Fronts,” a 20-foot-wide manifesto. In this massive painting, 12 striped panels of different widths and colors are put together. No grids here. Usually, when describing such dramatic artistic transitions, I have to speculate on the momentum. But in Scully’s case, I was lucky to be there from the start. I saw “Backs and Fronts” when it was first exhibited in 1982 at PS1 in Queens. I recognized immediately that it was like no contemporary painting I had ever seen. Minimalism sought to empty the pictorial narrative content. Sean’s goal, starting with “Backs and Fronts”, was to put it back together. He wanted to tell stories about politics; stories of his life, his pleasures and his sorrows; and respond to ancient and contemporary art.
Figurative art features many diverse subjects. Abstraction, he discovered, can be just as rich. Scully likes to tell stories and so it was liberating to discover that abstraction could achieve that too. “Heart of Darkness” (1982), for example, refers to the novel by Joseph Conrad. “A Bedroom in Venice” (1988) is based on a drawing by Turner. Scully discovered that windows, stripes of different colors and widths, could be inserted into his background panels to compose a narrative. He has also created large and small walls of light, revealing the changing natural light in many of the places he works or visits. “It couldn’t be simpler,” he said. A wall of light is “the painting of a wall”. And since the light on these walls is very varied, so are these paintings. Thus “Mooseurach” (2002) is a wall of light close to his German studio, and “Wall of Light Roma” (2013) is an Italian wall.
Scully showed that traditional genres of European figurative art could be recreated in an abstract way and used to tell a wide variety of stories. A group of small paintings by Scully from 1982 (“Swan Island”, “Ridge” and a few others from this period) are his pictorial equivalent to Old Masters still life paintings. Works like “Landline Pink” (2013), with wide horizontal stripes, are his abstractions of landscapes. Finally, to complete Scully’s journey through the history of European art, the Doric series, painted on aluminum, his homage to the columns of ancient Greek temples. Using its titles, the commentary provided by the excellent catalog of its current exhibition, The form of ideas at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the colors and shapes of the works themselves, viewers can identify his subjects.
The staging of “The Shape of Ideas” encourages reflection on Scully’s subjects. Walk from Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist in Mourning” (c. 1460), in which red fabrics hang behind the figures, to Scully’s “Vita Duplex” (1991), in which the panels of white and black bands on either side are interrupted by a vertical insert. Almost a self-portrait, it represents a split facade. The insert running through it refers to WB Yeats’ idea of a divided soul. Here, Scully says in the catalog, he “broken a strip in the middle of the surface.”
Like van der Weyden, Scully creates visual energy through striking juxtapositions. Watch “The Deposition” (1961) by Bob Thompson, in the exhibition Elegy: Complaint in the Twentieth Century (on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until July 24), then watch Scully’s “Precious” (1981), which features him being taken away as a child by his loving parents, their “precious cargo” (expression de Scully), from Ireland to the relative safety of London. Like Thompson, Scully commemorates difficult moments of lived experience. Or consider “Allegory of Sight (Venus and Cupid in a Picture Gallery)” (1660), by Jan Brueghel the Younger (in the concurrent exhibition Pictures within pictures). Like Brueghel’s painting, Scully’s “Pale Fire” (1988) presents a window into the image to open up 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 – to both closely linked and distant – which she delimits between reality and fantasy, reason and madness, and the world and its reflection.
The influential critic whose account of the grids I quoted earlier is Rosalind Krauss. “Walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality,” she writes in her essay “Grids,” was a drastic restriction, “because the fortress they built on the foundation of the grid became increasingly a ghetto”. It’s a “ghetto” from which Scully escaped. From “Grey Red” to his majestic “Landline North Blue” (2014), with its wide and vertical whites, blues and blacks, we see how far we have come. The line on the earth is the horizon. In this, this work is very different from abstract expressionist art. It has affinities with the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Abstract painting has transformed.
Sean Scully: the shape of ideas continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA) through July 31. The exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and curated by Timothy Rub, Director Emeritus; and Amanda Sroka, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art.