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Portrait of Sean Scully, 2022. Photo by Andrew Quinn, © Sean Scully, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Sean Scully

There and Here Then and Now

 

by Peter Frank 

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Sean Scully, Guadalupe, 10., 2022Oil on aluminum,85 x 150 x 2 1/8 inches © Sean Scully, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The discourse around painting has been a fundament of Western art since – at least since – paintings became discrete objects. The invention of panel painting made God portable, but also made the qualities of paint material and the size and scale of the picture plane factors central to the conception as well as process of picture-making. Ever since pigment and medium climbed down from the fresco, painting has become an almost cultish, even religious act, establishing an enduring tradition of investigation – and an ongoing investigation of tradition. All art forms, even the extinct, have their advocates and devotees; but painting boasts an especially imposing army of adherents.

 

Ever since photography released painting from its indexical (and propagandistic) duties over the course of the 19th century, the pursuit of painting as an art – that is, as a self-reflexive practice capable of sustaining discourse a priori – has become a prime subject of engagement among artists and their audiences, distinct from (and arguably more than) any other discipline, even those emerging in the digital age. Even artists who do not paint engage in this dialogue; even viewers who do not know how to make art heed what painters say about painting. To varying degrees, other modes – sculpture, printmaking, photography –  enjoy such intellectual intimacy; but painting’s discourse can reach mythic proportion. In practice, at least, painting’s is a highly conservative context.

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Sean Scully, Wall Landline Triptych, 2022, Oil on aluminum, Installed: 85 x 269 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches each © Sean Scully, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Precisely because of its relative fixity, however, painting offers radical thinkers a readymade ground on which to figure. The history of painting acts as a foil to those who would challenge or add to it. Those who would make a dramatic statement or posit an unanticipated thought in paint have at their disposal centuries of iconic apparitions, and technical inventions, to react against and disrupt. But ultimately such reaction happens in camera; the challenge occurs within the Church of Painting, never (only) at its doors.

 

This awareness of painting as a meta-practice, a condition for much more than just the fabrication of artwork, was articulated in the modern era with increasing emphasis until it became a point of survival, not just discourse, for painters after Abstract Expressionism and its extra-American equivalents. The art world Sean Scully entered in the 1960s had just grown out of the postwar era’s existential angst, preferring instead to articulate consumer imagery on the one hand, phenomenological neutrality on the other. Committed to abstraction, but also to the practice – and by extension the “Church” – of Painting, Scully heeded the presence and proposals of Pop and Minimalism, in particular the reductivist approach they shared, but threw his lot in with neither.

In the wake of Pop and Minimalism, though, Scully’s generation of painters retreated (tactically) into painting itself, searching for a relevant way to paint without disappearing their beloved medium into fashionable and fleeting modes. The early 1970s saw an explosion of post-minimalist/post-pop painting, in Scully’s London, in New York where he relocated, and even in Los Angeles, where he visited several times. Like his fellow post-minimalist painters, Scully resorted to the grid as a universal armature, a regard that has become a core characteristic of his work. Unlike so many of his peers, however, Scully made the grid not the subject of his practice but its given matrix, the lattice on which everything grows. In this respect he was speaking to and with slightly older geometric abstract painters such as Brice Marden and Robert Mangold, manifesting at once a minimalist aesthetic and a vibrant visual presence. As well, the dense crosshatchings of color comprising Scully’s work from the first half of the ‘70s display characteristics that came to be associated with pattern painting – not the florid celebration of decoration embodied in the work of (among others) Miriam Schapiro and Robert Kushner, but the crisp, vibrating linear compositions of abstract patterners such as Jennifer Bartlett and Robert Swain.

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Sean Scully, Blaze, 1971, Acrylic on canvas, 85 x 152 3/4 x 1 3/8 inches © Sean Scully, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Above all, Scully had brought with him from London the examples of Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley, and other British abstract painters who had figured prominently in the recent Op Art movement. Scully’s own latticework canvases produced in London and New York buzz with the same kind of retinal vibration, but their visual components come across as more emphatic, less fugitive than those of, say, Riley’s. While her compositions engage their components entirely in a through-conceived optical field, Scully’s bars and stripes, for all their motivic repetition, each insist on a singular presence equal to the overall structure. Riley’s works are unified fields; Scully’s, by contrast, are sums of parts, interlaced into congruent wholes.

 

Scully moved to New York (after a previous extended stay) in 1975. His first one-person show in the United States, however, was that March in California, at La Tortue, a prominent gallery in Los Angeles (specifically Santa Monica). He came out to California to open the show and to lecture at universities throughout the state. Scully drove cross-country, one of several continent-spanning trips he took in that decade, discovering the nation he was adopting as home (the Irish native took US citizenship in 1983). Scully took to Los Angeles in particular, finding a very different kind of metropolis than he had in New York, and has professed a fondness for the region ever since. The warm reception given his show (and a subsequent one of works on paper the next year) added to Scully’s enthusiasm for southern California, as did his discovery of an active and sophisticated art scene.

 

In fact, abstract painting in mid-1970s Los Angeles bore a striking visual and practical resemblance to Scully’s own work at this time. Among painters in particular there was deepening experimentation with eccentric materials, growing out of the Finish/Fetish movement, and, at the same time, a proliferation of approaches to the grid, by the likes of Ed Moses, Max Cole, John M. Miller, Charles Hill, Jay McCafferty, Tom Wudl, Charles Arnoldi, Margit Omar, and many others. The rhythmic, colorful, yet all-over, compositionally neutral paintings Scully presented to L.A. found themselves at home.

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Sean Scully, Dark In, 2023, Oil on aluminum, 85 x 75 x 2 1/8 inches © Sean Scully, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Since then, of course, Scully’s painting has evolved in a distinctive and universally recognized manner. He has allowed the grid structure to soften, even partially decay, and infused it with a painterly tactility and earthy, soulful palette. The grid now supports an organic, breathing presence, a kind of animal whose stripes are vital organs. But to see recent work of Scully’s juxtaposed with examples of the paintings he showed here half a century ago is to observe continuity as much as change. Scully has always imparted an organic pulse to even the leanest, most mechanistic of his gridworks, and the 1973 paintings seen here harmonize readily with their descendants. Scully’s decision here to show old work with new is not simply an exercise in sentiment (although it does honor his ties to L.A. and memorialize the American wanderlust of his youth); it is an acknowledgment that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Or, perhaps, that one can’t go on, but one must go on, as Samuel Beckett wrote. Scully has long expressed a pointed affinity for fellow Irish expatriate Beckett, finding in his writing a brooding romantic existentialism that Scully wants to diffuse throughout his breathing grids – and has gone to great pains to do so ever since a crisis of spirit at the end of the 1970s nearly drove the painter from abstraction altogether. To this day he is still wont to paint the figure from time to time, but his devotion to a non-depictive expression remains paramount, certainly as it might reflect Beckett’s cosmic absurdism. 

 

It is not Beckett’s meander along the rim of the void that Scully manifests in works like these from the recent Guadalupe series, however; this is not your Abstract Expressionist grandparents’ existentialism. The abyss into which Scully faces is the abyss – the myriad abysses -- into which the James Webb Space Telescope stares even as the human race counts its days. Scully directs our gaze into the void(s) left by receding glaciers and decimated forests here on earth, and at the same time into the eternal infinitude that dwarfs us. As Jackson Pollock averred, we are nature, to which Scully adds, yes, and nothing but.

Sean Scully, Wall Landline Tappan November, 2022, Oil on aluminum, 85 x 75 x 2 1/8 inches

© Sean Scully, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

So, Sean Scully can do all this with some reasonably large canvases covered in rough-hewn stone- and straw-colored bars? What prevents such a formula from burdening these Guadalupe paintings? Freighted with such passion and ambition – and further complicated by the relatively new compositional device of embedding paintings within paintings -- how do these canvases bloom rather than wilt? Through a slow, even ponderous dynamic that echoes the longer rhythms and the bass notes of the biosphere. The Guadalupe paintings unfold like nighttime skies, never quite coming into focus, always on the apparent edge of change but diffusing that energy through the entirety of the painting. Our comprehension of these compositions is, well, comprehensive, or seems that way, floating as they do on a bed of micro-motions and micro-emotions, tiny decisions – on the painter’s part and the paint’s – that comprise a geologically paced drama.

 

Scully’s commitment is, finally, not to a signature style (although he evinces as much) but to a world view that escapes the earth but stays faithful to the studio. Painting can be a transcendent act, a way of seeing into the soul and the universe, a lesson in patience and acceptance, if painter and viewer alike agree to such possibility – the world in a granular brushstroke.

 

This contained but uncontainable universe, a Beckettian paradox, is what Scully has found again and again in various forms and to varying extents – certainly since his artistic crise some four decades ago, but demonstrably, if perhaps incompletely, in his early work as well. This reintroduction of Scully’s art to Los Angeles, prompted by the artist’s own nostalgia, provides us a foreshortened chance to see his painting up close. Beyond that, however, this centrifugal microspective reaffirms for artist and audience alike the profundity of painting, its uniqueness among creative endeavors and expressive means. For a painter like Sean Scully, the Beckettian void is as much mindful conjuration as black hole, a discovery in the shed as well as in outer space. Painting, it would seem, will outlast us all.

Peter Frank

Los Angeles, CA

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Peter Frank is Associate Editor for Visual Art Sourc. He is former critic for Angeleno magazine and L. A. Weekly, served as Editor for THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and contributes to publications around the world. Frank received a B.A. and M.A. in art history from Columbia University and was art critic for The Village Voice and the SoHo Weekly News before he moved to Los Angeles. He has served as Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and has organized shows for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museo Reina Sofia, the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and others. His published works include Something Else Press: An Annotated BibliographyThe Travelogues; and New, Used & Improved. Frank has written many artist monographs and catalogues, and has taught and lectured extensively throughout North America and Europe.

Peter Frank

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