Sean Scully is undoubtedly a major master of abstraction, largely geometrical but not without gestural touches, as the often brushy painterliness that informs the geometrical bands of many of his works, giving them a moody expressiveness, indicates. Landline Pink, 2013 and Landline North Blue, 2014 are two among many such subliminally expressionist geomorphic works, contrasting sharply with his smoother, more finished looking works, such as Blue and Precious, both 1981, or the earlier, even more static, ingenious grid paintings, such as Harvard Frame Painting, 1972 and Green Light, 1972-1973. All of these works, along with many others, are on display at the huge retrospective of Scully’s works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The catalogue has a number of art historical essays that exhaustively analyze Scully’s works, convincingly arguing he is the grand, climactic master of geometrical abstraction. His art is about the eternal return of eternal geometry, geometry being “knowledge of the eternally existent,” as Pythagoras said. Whatever existentializing touches give his geometrical forms auratic presence, they remain Platonically autonomous and transcendent—transcend the gestural vicissitudes that seem to mar them but that in fact underline their perfection by giving it sensuous presence. However profaned—sullied, perversely informed--by gestural touches, Scully’s geometry remains peculiarly intact, numinously present, implicitly pure, a hierophanic revelation. Each and every one of his paintings is an aesthetic masterpiece, seemingly beautiful and sublime, inviting and intimidating at once.
But however much the bands and rectangles in Scully’s Heart of Darkness, 1982 are conspicuously geometrical, the title of the painting alludes to Joseph Conrad’s morbid novel Heart of Darkness, 1899, suggesting that Scully’s abstraction is not pure art, art unmarked and uninformed—unsullied--by human experience. Conrad’s novel tells an existential story, the all too human story of Charles Marlow, a sailor tasked with finding Kurtz, an ivory trader who has “gone native,” that is, become a “savage,” that is, rejected civilization. Kurtz is a kind of outlaw and outlier, estranged from society, not to say a misfit. For Gauguin, also alienated from and rejecting so-called civilized society, artists had “lost all their savagery,” had “no more instincts,” as he wrote in 1903. He chose to live among “savages” in Tahiti to recover his. Writing about “Symbolism in Painting” in 1891, the great critic G.-Albert Aurier—he gave the name to the movement--singled out Gauguin as the exemplary Symbolist, for he had “the gift of emotivity,” not banal “sentimentality” but “transcendental emotivity,” that is, emotions as ends in themselves rather than as responses to objects. They became evident in “the pulsing drama of the abstractions”—Gauguin’s abstractions, as Gauguin called his paintings, in the form of “symbols—that is, Ideas—that arise from the darkness”—dare one say the unconscious, the “formidable unknown,” as Aurier called it. Scully’s paintings are fraught with transcendental emotivity, more particularly they have a certain sullen grace that bespeaks muted suffering, a sort of tragic sense of life managed, contained, and controlled by his geometrical forms, one steadily building upon and connected to each other, their integration and unification in an often complex pattern indicative of what Freud called ego strength—the ego strength necessary to manage instincts, not to say the feelings that the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg says are their foundation.