By Raphy Sarkissian
More and less, neither more nor less. Perhaps an entirely other question.1
Nothing could shed light more eloquently on Sean Scully’s oeuvre of the past five decades than the subtitle of the riveting retrospective that is currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Shape of Ideas. Mirroring a primary definition of art as a form of representation and echoing the Platonic and Aristotelian debate on form and content, the rhetoric of the title takes on a Beckettian quality in light of the primarily abstract pictorial language of Scully’s work. Here the boundaries of form and content dissipate, as medium and message are rendered interchangeable, undermining the closure of meaning and anticipating those interpretations that emerge from the perception and intuition of the observing subject.
Expertly curated by Timothy Rub and Amanda Sroka, this impressively presented exhibition methodically unravels Scully’s lifelong formulation of a set of geometric motifs, often organized within gridded configurations as blocks of color. Over one hundred works by Scully, spanning from 1972 to 2021, are on view in the Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries and Korman Galleries. They encompass paintings, watercolors, drawings, aquatints, woodcuts, etchings, color lithographs, and a digitally-printed suite. Presented chronologically to a great extent, Scully’s work also unfolds thematically, a progression marked by the section titles “Variations on the Grid,” “A Stripe Like No One Else’s,” “Multipanel Paintings,” “Insets and Checkerboards,” “Wall of Light,” “Doric,” “Landlines and Windows” and “Sean Scully as Printmaker.” In the preface of the superb catalogue of the exhibition, Marla Price aptly notes, “The systematic elements of [Scully’s] early works have never really disappeared as he continues to explore different combinations of building units or motifs and then pair them with emotion and content.”2
“A friend of mine asked me if paintings spoke. If it was possible,” recounts Scully. “I said yes: but with the language of light.”3 As vertical and horizontal delineations in Scully’s visual fields celebrate abstraction’s autoreferentiality by inviting the viewer to reflect upon the optical and haptic properties of a given work, geometric segments of color impart rhythmic interchanges of shading and luminosity. Scully’s “language of light” operates through brush-marked surfaces with multiple strata of tonal variations, where primary geometric forms and topographies explore the experience of sameness and difference, the relation of the image to the framing edge, closure and openness of forms, optical movement and stasis, limitation and extension of shapes, and the function of parts in relation to the whole.
A “pioneer of a new kind of abstract painting” has been Deborah Solomon’s succinct verdict of Scully, deeming his achievement as a bridge between the utopian model of modernism and the works of such contemporary practitioners of abstraction as Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, and Mark Bradford.4 Donald Kuspit has described Scully’s “Wall of Light” series as having “a self-enclosed Romanesque rather than an open Gothic look,” characterizing them as evocations of walls, rather than windows, through which light appears to stream.5 The late philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto has described the artist’s own poetic intent by claiming, “Scully is far from a formalist artist, and expects his work to transmit metaphors of the widest human relevance.”6
Scully’s output, since its outset, has been a relentless conjugation of the formalist properties of abstract painting, proposing the work as a physical manifestation of an “idea” in and of itself, a self-contained visual realm that nonetheless remains in conversation with the contemporary status and history of abstract painting. The Shape of Ideas demonstrates Scully’s desire to investigate and reinvent geometric abstraction with an expressive virtuosity that pays homage to the formalist logic of modernism, simultaneously expanding its aesthetic and hermeneutic possibilities.
The titles of these paintings may perform as subtexts, threatening to breach the bounds of abstraction’s autonomy. Similarly, the writings and interviews of Scully reveal his conviction in abstract painting as a conduit for narrative, emotion, poetry, idea and thought. Nevertheless, as Scully has offhandedly stated, “I’m not trying to make paintings that are decipherable and ‘understood,’ because I don’t think that’s what is needed; that becomes a dead thing. I try to make paintings that are not conquerable, that can be reused over and over again, that are not merely designs. … My paintings are about flaws and about life (street life).”7 In 1989, reading his paintings as “fierce, concrete and obsessive, with a grandeur shaded by awkwardness,” art critic Robert Hughes would assess Scully’s recurring leitmotif as “a stripe like no one else’s.” Indeed, Scully’s self-interrogative dialectic runs throughout this survey: throughout, the spectator confronts a formalist language probing itself from within.
Upon entering the section titled “Variations of the Grid,” the first painting the visitor confronts reveals itself as a latticed abyss, an optical quandary, an unmistakable embodiment of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that addresses reality as opposed to perception. Inset #2 (1973) is an eight-foot square acrylic painting Scully executed in response to the geometric patterns of Hard-Edge painting and Op Art, only to pair the objectivity of geometry with the amorphousness of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler are a few of the paradigmatic names that Inset #2 evokes, except here Scully addresses the discrepancies of reality and appearance by inventively integrating the formalist contraries of linearity and painterliness, flatness and shading, surface and depth.
In hindsight, Inset #2 now registers as a formative example of Scully’s distinctive pictorial language, espousing a geometry that is more carnal than cerebral, more visceral than rational, more elusive than Stella’s famous “what you see is what you see.” That carnal geometry can now be read as a revelation of subjectivity, despite the distinctly objectivist associations of its ordered series of horizontal and vertical lines. In Scully’s hands, abscissas and ordinates become approximations that structure pictorial space as a dialogue between the rational and irrational, the ideal and real, essence and appearance, the logical and lyrical. “This is my way of making the paintings human,” Scully has stated, claiming that a painting “represents the flesh of the body.”8