Kind of Red: An Ode to Jazz in the Paintings of Sean Scully
Throughout his career, Scully has developed an artistic language that fuses spontaneous abstraction with premeditated geometric repetition. Born in Ireland, he and his family immigrated to England when he was four years old. His experiences in both places translate into a body of work produced over thirty years. His obsessive use of line and color allude to his fascination with architectural elements such as windows, walls and doorways. Scully's oeuvre embodies a theme of geometric repetition, and its evolution redefined the realm of artistic spontaneity. In Scully's work two different aspects coexist, tension and harmony, to convey an emotional and powerful message to the viewer. Scully calls this a "re-emotionalization" of painting, which has become an integral part of his creative process. In his early work during the 1970's, Scully develops a formal structure of intertwining geometric planes, compositional lines, and chromatic shapes to explore space and perception. In Overlay, 1973 (fig. 1) Scully overlaps orthogonal lines of vibrant yellow, orange and blue hues, interweaving them to create a complex array of spatial depth and perception. Scully structures his canvas with a narrative, "moving from a geometry that is lyrical, aesthetical and immediate, towards one that is poetical, sophisticated and conceptual (Sean Scully: A Retrospective, p.10). In the 1980's, Scully's compositions move towards the swift, narrative gestures of abstract art while simultaneously imposing a balanced harmony of colors. Inspired by the works of Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, Scully shied away from geometric precision and rigidity, placing emphasis on broader brushwork and earthy hues. Like Rothko, Scully strove to attain a sense of monumentality and emotion among his work. He stated, "I don't want to make things just to look at; I want to make things that make people react, act" (Sean Scully, Twenty Years, p. 36). His work from 1984, Narcissus (fig. 2) is a perfect example of Rothko's influence on him. Scully's stylistic transformation is evident; the vibrant colors are now more subdued, the interweaving lines become an intersection of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes, and most importantly, the canvas is now instilled with a subtle romantic spirituality. Here, Scully strips the canvas to a minimalistic form, revealing an abstract essence that admires the Greenbergian concept of purity. With a dynamic effect on the eye, Scully's works from this era produce not only an illusory effect, but also manifest an emotional and psychological experience for the viewer. While his early works introduced a pictorial arrangement of vigorous chromatism, spatial viscosity, and poetic narrative, Scully's more recent work reveal a fascination with architectural elements and checkerboard structures. It is in these works that Scully expands his boundaries of geometric spirituality, creating a dialogue with minimalism. In the 1990's, Scully created a series of compositions known as the Barcelona paintings, where he developed a close relationship with the city that he built his studio in. The present example, Barcelona 10.5.99 (1999) epitomizes Scully's new technique of the grid and checkerboard pattern. The figure-ground relationship is now reduced to squares, condensed to a simplicity of form. However, the juxtaposition of uneven squares and the intensity of the color blocks keep the viewer's eye oscillating, allowing one to travel through his painting. His combination of muted and radiant colors offers a sense of spirituality and enigma. Scully's childhood memories of Ireland's landscape and its people were shapes of squares, mirroring them in his canvases. Scully constantly aimed to create "art in which the concrete and the romantic competed against each other," Scully's paintings force the viewer to move beyond static observation, to fully feel the emotional intensity that his works entice (Ibid, p. 30).
Signature: Signed, titled, and dated verso: Sean Scully / Barcelona / 10.5.99
Image rights: Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich, "Sean Scully, Ten Barcelona Paintings," December 14, 1999-February 14, 2000.
Sean Scully, Ten Barcelona Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich, 1999, p. 31, illustrated in color; Sean Scully Barcelona Paintings, Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich, 1999.
The artist; Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich; Private collection, acquired from the above, 2000.
Demonstrating an unwavering commitment to abstraction, Sean Scully’s paintings and works on paper combine an underlying geometric structure with soft edges and uneven application of pigment. Scully’s compositions often employ stripes, grids, and dark, earthy tones, as seen in early watercolors where Scully allowed the paint to puddle and overlap with a larger stripe motif. This integration of structured composition with the idiosyncrasies of the chosen medium is typical of Scully’s work; the artist has described this duality as a “battle between system and emotion.”
Irish, b. 1945, Dublin, Ireland