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Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas’ Review Gridlocked Beauty

26 July 2021

At the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, an exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art surveys the development of the artist’s signature abstract geometric style.

By Lance Esplund

Fort Worth, Texas

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, designed by Tadao Ando, includes massive interior concrete walls and ceilings and exterior walls of glass, overlooking a large reflecting pool. Natural light, enlivened by rippling water, bathes the gray cement planes in flickering, steely blues, silvers, greens, yellows and violets. This is the environment—architecture transformed into painting—in which I saw the approximately 100 paintings and works on paper in “Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas,” a nearly five-decade survey of Mr. Scully’s abstractions, co-curated by Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and PMA assistant curator Amanda Sroka.

Mr. Ando’s impressionistic, concrete rectangles are stiff competition for any artist. But even more so for a painter such as Mr. Scully, a sensualist who makes photographs, figurative paintings and abstract sculptures, but whose flag is planted firmly in rectangular geometric abstraction, and whose palette favors variously hued grays.

Borrowing chiefly from Paul Klee’s gridded, magic-square paintings, Mr. Scully’s signature works consist of flat, checkerboard compositions divided into bars and squares (predominantly black, gray and white, mixed with and adjacent to primary and secondary colors). Many of these paintings—8 or 9 feet tall—are mural-scale. “Backs and Fronts” (1981)—encompassing 12 attached canvases of various heights painted with stripes—spans 20 feet. The detached triptych “Iona” (2004-06), comprising black, gray, cream and ruddy bars, overall is more than 40 feet across. Mr. Scully refers to his compositions’ individual bars and squares as “bricks” that build his “walls of light”—painting transformed into architecture.

Born in Dublin in 1945, Mr. Scully was reared and trained in London, then moved permanently to New York in 1975. Besides Klee, his evident sources include ancient monumental architecture, primitive textiles, Greek temples, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Howard Hodgkin, American Minimalism and Mexican light. But what’s abundantly clear is that Mr. Scully, the abstract painter, has oscillated between making images and something more, pictures that aspire to be physical objects (especially in his 1980s stepped, bas-relief constructions, which jut out several inches from the wall). 

In the 1970s, Mr. Scully created striped, Minimalist pictures suggesting patterned textiles and trompel’oeil spatial effects. Unusual here is the enigmatic, mixed-media “Harvard Frame Painting” (1972)—an open weaving of brown, blue and blood-red strips. Existing somewhere among painting, ritualistic object and stretched hide, it’s the most daring and transformative of his initial abstractions.

During the ’70s, Mr. Scully also inaugurated his hallmark “painting within a painting” practice, in which he disrupts the picture’s pattern by overlaying one or more dissonant paintings, as in the unconvincing “Inset #2” (1973) and “Untitled (Window)” (2017). Or, in paintings suggesting Advent calendars, he physically inserts one or more smaller paintings within cutout openings in the larger canvas, as in “Between You and Me” (1988), whose interior paintings feel parasitically other; and the large, predominantly black-and-white “Vita Duplex” (1993)—whose wedged alternating rectangles of hot yellow and striated brown and blue punch to the surface yet remain integrated within the whole.

To my eyes, Mr. Scully’s abstractions are generally most compelling at small-to-easel scale and while utilizing pure colors; when he engages with the mediums of watercolor, printmaking and pastel; and when his grays are mixed from unadulterated primaries—as opposed to black, which tends to muddy his palette.

Within the two striking watercolors “2.20.88” (1988) and “9.7.89 #3” (1989), the “painting within a painting” conjures knots, columns, portals and keystones. Also included are velvety pastels with shimmering edges—the “Untitled (Blue Union)” (1994-96), “4.2.02” (2002) and, over 7 feet tall, the mysterious “Wall of Light Roma 20.3.13” (2013)—glowing pictures whose saturated rectangles are in tension with their encroaching neutral borders and grounds. Likewise, an icy light and start-and-stop urgency infuse “Place 4.20.94” (1994), an oil-on-paper comprising scumbled white and scumbled black bars over a visible pink ground, seemingly seeping upward.

In the 32-by-24-inch oil painting “Pink Blue” (2005), cream, ocher, black and blue rectangles—as if liquefied—jiggle over a russet field. The gorgeous blue, gray and black shapes in “Doric Blue and Blue” (2015)—radiating dusk light—shift and stride forward. And in a lush series of small color aquatints, juxtaposed with the poetry of Federico García Lorca, verse harmonizes with the metaphoric color, tone, rhythm and weight of Mr. Scully’s ethereal forms with indistinct edges.

By contrast, Mr. Scully’s large works can seem sprawling, even decorative; and they’re less likely to maintain that dynamic, essential frontal pressure in the picture plane. (His walls—spread too far—begin to fall away.)

Notable exceptions exist, however. “Wall of Light Desert Night” (1999)—interlocking bars of black, blue, tan and gray, and 11 feet wide—shines like Sahara moonlight. In the sumptuous oil “Black Winter Robe” (2004)—inspired by the portraits of Titian and Diego Velázquez, and over 7 feet tall—vibrating black, gray and brown rectangles, advancing toward us, hover over a crimson ground, suggesting Venetian light. These and other abstractions by Mr. Scully, in dialogue with Mr. Ando’s lambent, gray planes, transcend mere “bricks” and “walls.” If not actually painting transformed into architecture, they dazzle in their own right.


Appeared in the July 26, 2021, print edition as 'Sean Scully’s Gridlocked Beauty.'

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