Sean Scully (*1945 in Dublin) and his family moved to London in 1949; today he lives in New York, Barcelona, and in Mooseurach, near Munich. 1960–1962: trained as a printer; worked in a graphic design studio. 1962–1965: night school at the Central School of Art, London. 1965–1968: studied painting at the Croydon Collegon of Art, London. 1968–1972: BFA with honors in painting at the Newcastle University. 1972/73: first residency in the United States as a recipient of the John Knox grant, Harvard University, Cambridge. 1975: immigrated to the USA, 1983: takes on American citizenship. 1973 onward: various teaching positions, numerous exhibitions worldwide, including large retrospectives at the Kunstsammlungen Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2001), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2006), the Kunstmuseum Bern (2012), the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, and the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden (2018).
Between the Figurative and the Abstract
“Scully is a painter who creates from the heart, to the heart.” (Josep de C. Laplana)
He’s been nominated twice for the Turner Prize, and his paintings are in the collections of around 120 of the most renowned museums in the world. Sean Scully is considered one of the most prominent painters of our time, and hardly any other painter has pursued the exploration of contemporary abstract painting as he has. Large audiences know Scully for his often very large compositions of colorful vertical and horizontal stripes, which possess an enormous sensual power, a “depth of soul,” as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung put it, which “only rarely appertains” to art that employs a repertoire of minimalist colors and shapes.
Less well-known, however, are the figurative works from Scully’s early days: at the start of his career, Scully drew, as he said, “almost obsessively”—representational drawings in graphite or colored pencils, charcoal, and oil pastels. His preference was for the figure and the portrait. Toward the mid-1960s he also produced some figurative paintings, although few of those canvases have survived. Around 1964 he was strongly influenced by Fauvism and German Expressionism; the classic modern painters André Derain, Henri Matisse, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were particularly inspiring to Scully. “I’m not one of those painters who only references the history of abstract painting. I’ve always tried to create windows on the world, often associatively,” Scully once said. His paintings, as he states, reflect impressions and voices he remembers, while condensing things he has experienced, seen, and felt. Abstraction, says the artist, is based “in a certain way on memories of obejcts.”
From his figurative beginnings, his work gradually moved toward the abstract by 1969, and was closely related to the American Minimal Art by Donald Judd, Ad Reinhardt, and Agnes Martin. The transition was marked by constructive risks such as emotional energy: “After Minimalism, I wanted to give back emotional and spiritual power to abstract painting, which was lost during the ‘cool’ decade of Minimalism.” Also the oriental influences he absorbed in the early 1970s in Morocco became determinants.
Over the ensuing decades Scully wrung a wealth of fascinating variations from his core themes of lines, stripes, and blocks, as if involved in a lifelong experiment in painting with blended European and American influences. In his early works he used tape to set precise boundaries for his stripes, but in the 1980s he abandoned this precision and allowed his brushstroke and signature to appear in the now-soft, lively edges of his colored stripes, as in his 1998 series Wall of Light, inspired by Scully’s trips to Mexico. He overlaid impasto layers of paint or added wet on wet with large bristle brushes, so that the viewer can also imagine the process of making the paintings: “perfect paintings are dead paintings.” Scully assembled some of his works by putting together separately painted panels, and also integrated into some paintings (such as his Passenger series from the late 1990s) a so-called inset, a piece of painted canvas set into a larger canvas after it is finished. The paintings became almost object-like, such as his experiments with paintings on metal: his Floating Paintings, made in the mid-1990s, are three-dimensional paintings on aluminum blocks; they are painted on three sides, with the narrow side being attached to the wall. “The history of my work is naturally very sculptural . . . For me, metal is a very dynamic partner, thanks to its surface, which, in contrast to canvas, is quite sculptural. It’s also a twentieth-century material. This creates a kind of counterbalance between the romanticism of painting and its history and this hard, entirely unsentimental material,” says the artist. For his paintings, as well as for his photographs, etchings, lithographs, pastels, and watercolors, he often chooses highly contrasting colors; dark or muted hues also frequently predominate. In the nearly monochromatic Black Paintings phase in the late 1970s, his palette was limited entirely to gray and black. “I think,” explained Scully in an interview, “there is a great deal of melancholy in my paintings. A sense of loss.”
26.08.2015, updated 23.5.2018 Stefanie Gommel