By Carter B. Horsley
Sean Scully (b. 1945) picks up the abstract
torch laid down by Mark Rothko (see The
City Review article of a Rothko exhibition) and carries it
Rothko's mature style consisted of relatively
simple geometric compositions of only a few elements, usually
horizontal, with a limited but luminous palette.
Scully's oeuvre is also limited in subject
matter, but considerably more complex in composition and palette.
His signature style consists of blocks of color arranged vertically
and horizontally, as if masonry.
Both artists are very painterly.
In his catalogue essay, "Becoming Sean
Scully," Stephen Bennett Phillips provides the following
"Rothko's mature abstractions foreshadow
Scully's Wall of Light paintings in both form and intention,
although his relationship is somewhat obscured by their respective
use of unprimed and primed canvas. Rothko painted on unprimed
canvas, so the paint permeates and stains the raw linen, giving
his atmospheric works an amorphousness that is foreign to Scully's.
The primed canvas that Scully paints on gives his paintings a
solidity that Rothko's work lacks. Where Rothko's blocks never
reach the edge of the canvas, Scully's generally do, in keeping
with the three-dimensionality of his wall. Scully was ispired
by Rothko's atmospheric use of layered color, the way the separations
between his blocks of color reveal the layer underneath. Scully
injected Pieter Mondrian's strict grid-like arhitecture into Rothko,
animating his quiet meditations and giving earthy body and weight
to his vaporous clouds of color. Where Rothko's blocks float on
the picture plane, Scully's are tied into it and tightly integrated
with one another. They are also more revealing of figure/ground
relationships. Describing his relationship to Rothko, Scully says;
'Rothko was an open-armed romantic with a big belly. My work is
much more agile and intellectual in a sense, more masculine and
muscular than Rothko's.'"
Although at first glance, especially in reproductions,
Scully's work might seems a bit trite and repetitious, in reality
they are very large works that envelop the viewer with their nuanced
and rich palettes and strong spatial sense and have a much stronger
and bolder dynamic than much of Rothko's oeuvre.
As in many great works of art, there is a sense
of simplicity and clarity that gives birth to endless variations.
Parts of compositions seem interchangeable yet it is to Scully's
great credit and art that the specificity of each work enhances
rather than belittles the overall theme and the key to that strength
is Scully's painterliness and great color sense.
In his catalogue essay, "No Longer a Wall,"
Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort
Worth," makes the following observations about Scully and
"Certainly, the most striking aspect of
Scully's work of the past decade or so is its emotional resonance.
These are abstractions with content, and Scully provides oblique
glimpses of this content in his titles. Many abstract artists
have avoided language in an effort to keep their imagery 'pure'
and nonreferential, "Untitled' being one of the more unfortunate
legacies of western abstracton. Scully's ambition has always been
to reanimate abstraction, to inject it with the awkwardly beautiful
impurities of life. His designation Wall of Light is often
accomplanied by a subtitle that refers to a place, person, or
condition. These titles are seldom just a convenient means of
identifying a painting within a series. More often than not, the
subject inspires the making of the image, either from the outside
or in the middle of the process, a kind of recognition of what
these colors and marks might mean. Obviously they are not specific
landscapes or portaits but effects that suggest emotional conditions."
"Scully," observed Phillips in his
essay, "prides himself on his complex palette. In this connection
he regards Pierrre Bonnard, Gustave Courbet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent
van Gogh, and Claude Monet as painters to whom he feels indebted.
For Scully, their use of color brings up the same issues of opacity
and transparency that he himself wrestles with. He has always
loved Edouard Vuillard for 'the way his spaces open up and forms
break down, because they were never totally filled in.' From Vuillard
he acquired the painterly edges that we see at the sides of rhe
rectangles of paint in the Wall of Light." (See The City Review article on an exhibition on
The "Wall of Light" series stems
from the artist's travels he made during 1983 and 1984 to the
Yucatan in Mexico and his observation of the play of light and
shadow on ancient ruins.
This major traveling exhibition originated
at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which also "organized
an installation of Scully‘s early paintings, pastels, watercolors,
and photographs to place the large-scale Wall of Light
paintings in a larger context and demonstrate Scully‘s great
proficiency in varied media."
"A selection of the artist's pattern paintings
and minimalist works from the 1970s and inset and stripe paintings
from the 1980s and early 1990s represent the wide range of Scully's
work. Works featured include Red and Red (1986), acquired
by the Phillips in 1986 and the second of the artist‘s paintings
to enter a museum collection, and Because of the Other (1997),
a transitional work in the artist's oeuvre that sets the stage
for the Wall of Light series," a press release from
the Phillips stated.
"For 30 years Sean Scully's work has been
synonymous with a kind of humanist abstraction," comments
Jay Gates, director of The Phillips Collection. "He is universally
regarded as the current dean of the abstract tradition. It is
fitting that The Phillips Collection, with its history of close
relationships with the most significant artists of the day, has
organized and will premiere this extraordinary series by a contemporary
artist whom we championed early on. The Phillips was among the
first American museums to acquire Sean Scully's work, in 1986,
so we feel it is especially appropriate that we are the first
to bring this extraordinary series to the American public."
The Phillips Collection is one of the nation's greatest small
museums and has with nearly 2,500 works by such artists including
Daumier, Renoir, Bonnard, Matisse, Monet, Degas, van Gogh, CÚzanne,
Picasso, Braque, Klee, O‘Keeffe, Lawrence, Dove, Ryder, Avery,
Diebenkorn, and Rothko. America‘s first museum of modern
art, it was founded by visionary collector Duncan Phillips and
opened in 1921. The museum comprises Phillips‘ 1897 Georgian
Revival home and similarly scaled additions, retaining the intimacy
of a private residence. The museum is located at 1600 21st Street,
N.W., at Q Street, in the historic Dupont Circle neighborhood
of Washington, D.C.
In his catalogue essay, "Toward the Light,"
Mr. Phillips notes that the Wall of Light series now numbers
over 100 works that the paintings "transform Scully's familar
stripes and straps into masonry stacks of two to four 'bricks'
placed in alternating vertical and hoizontal rows. Early in his
carreer, Scully was a tape-and-spray minimalist who cared about
precision. There is no precision in his pictorial bricklaying:
the uniformity of the stacks is only approximate and nothing really
lines up. The blocks themselves, differing in size within each
painting and from painting to painting, tending to clunkiness
as the series advances, are built up in layers of varying color
applied in a deliberately crude way so that every brushstroke
shows. Indeed, the points of non-abutment and the chinks in the
mortar, so to speak, at the critical places in the paintings where
light seeps through from a plane behind the picture plane. These
are not 'allover' pattern paintings; in fact, Scully regards them
"Scully," Phillips continued, "often
speaks in terms of longing and regret and the Wall of Light
paintings are permeated with sadness nd melancholy. Fittingly,
the music playing his studio as he works is often by Brahms, the
composer he loves above all others. Scully responds to the sense
of yearning he hears in Brahms, the result of subliminating emotions
and form, and believes that same sonorous yearning is what viewers
respond to in his paintings. He describes his work as both classical
and romantic. The combination, in Scully's view, is more affecting
than the overt, declarative expressionism of, for example, Willem
de Kooning." (See The City Review article
on a de Kooning exhibition.)
Born in Dublin, Scully was raised in a working-class
district of South London where he apprenticed as a typesetter
at a commercial printing shop. At 20, he enrolled at Croydon College
of Art, later studying at Newcastle University. During his studies,
he discovered the paintings of Mark Rothko and Bridget Riley and
switched to abstraction. According to the catalogue, "his
technically flawless paintings from this period consist of complicated
grid systems of intersecting bands and lines, pulsing with a richly
dense optical field. Later, on a visit to Morocco in 1969, he
was deeply impressed by the stripes and colors of local fabrics
as well as the intense southern light. His work has retained these
influences ever since." Scully came to the United States
in 1972 for a year-long graduate fellowship at Harvard and settled
in New York three years later where his work consisted mostly
of minimal, monochromatic paintings with seamless surfaces. He
would eventually change his style. The Museum of Modern Art included
his work in An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture
in 1984 and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh organized the
first major solo exhibition of his work in America in 1985, which
traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Four years later,
Scully had a major solo exhibition in Europe, which originated
at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, and traveled to Madrid
The catalogue, co-published by The Phillips
Collection and Rizzoli International Publications, contains more
than 100 color reproductions and in addition to the above-mentioned
essays has an essay on Scully's works on paper by Anne L. Strauss,
associate curator, Department of 19th-Century, Modern, and Contemporary
Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Wall of Light series is majestic
and very luscious.
which is sponsored by UBS, delivers a snowballing knockout.