SEAN SCULLY Different Placesby David Carrier
CHÂTEAU LA COSTE | JULY 4 – OCTOBER 31, 2015
Driving along narrow country roads eighteen kilometers north of Aix-en-Provence one comes to Château la Coste, an art center designed by Tadao Ando in 2011. Its grounds include a sculpture park and an art gallery—a very tall white cube eighty feet long and thirty-five wide—housed partly underground in what was formerly the vineyard’s wine storehouse. Scully’s two sculptures are outside on the grounds: Wall of Light Cubed (2007), a massive granite structure, 13 by 65 by 26 feet, and Boxes Full of Air (2015), an open construction, 12 by 50 by 20 feet. Inside the gallery there are twelve large paintings on display, completed between 2002 and 2015, in addition to works on paper.
In the gallery you see Scully’s signature-style stripe paintings: Figure in Blue (2003) and his triptych Arles-Nacht-Vincent (2015) are good examples. There are plaids like Union Blue (2004) and walls of light, like Wall of Light Green Blue Black (2008) and Landline Inwards (2015), which—in a new stylistic development—takes the stripes across to the picture’s edge. Most of the paintings are oil on linen, but four are painted on aluminum. Some of the works on paper are drawings showing the sculptures—others, like Vence (2007) (charcoal on paper), and Stack (2015) (watercolor and charcoal), are autonomous works of art.
The exhibition, curated by Kelly Grovier, provides a good overview of Scully’s recent interests and makes a compelling case for Scully’s ability to imbue life into what too often seems to be a tired modernist tradition. One sees how he uses simple-seeming panels of color to achieve varied effects in works like König der Nacht (2003); the joy of the plaid in Big Yellow Robe 2.06 (2006); and the darkly expressive Wall of Light Green Blue Black. And it is easy to enjoy the spidery drawing of his works on paper, of which there are twenty-five on view. One must exit the gallery to see the pair of large sculptures and their relationship to the landscape encourages reflection on the different ways Scully employs three-dimensional media. For a relatively small retrospective, there is an awfully lot to see.
In a recent book, Kelly Grovier presents what he identifies as 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age. Doric Sky (2011), a painting by Scully that is not in this show, is included. Amongst Grovier’s selection of installation artists, photographers and video artists Scully is very much the odd man out. If art by such figures as Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Sophie Calle, Marlene Dumas, and Nan Goldin, who are in 100 Works of Art,defines our age, then what relationship does Scully’s art have to our era? The painters who most matter to him, he has often said, are Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, and Mark Rothko. Because he builds upon this heritage, it’s natural to think that Scully is the last great Abstract Expressionist. But in essential ways his paintings look quite different from those of his acknowledged precursors. His stripes mimic the rhythms of the modern urban world—his walls of light are painted walls of color. And his sculptures complexify this story.
As the drawings for it show, Wall of Light Cubed is a physical realization in three dimensions of a wall of light, a very dense-looking construction that is very dense. Boxes Full of Air, on the other hand, is an airy lattice structure we can look through but not enter. And where Wall of Light Cubed shows shades of gray and pink stone, cut with horizontal and vertical lines marking stripes, Boxes Full of Air, which has only the natural color of Cor-Ten steel, is a gigantic physical realization of the drawings. Many of Richard Serra’s best known recent sculptures, also made of this material, are walls that constrict one’s movements and vision. As its title signals, Boxes Full of Air is transparently open to the gaze.
Scully is a great artist because, constructing a great variety of two and three-dimensional works from a narrowly restricted choice of forms and media, he shows, in opposition to almost all other contemporary painters and sculptors and, also, to most art writers, that there is life, still, in this now seemingly distant modernist tradition. In his fine, marvelously elliptical description of Doric, Grovier speaks of how “Scully’s paintings absorb the world, then move us beyond it.”Here is what I think he means: grounding his art—and here I would include the drawings and sculptures as well as the paintings with very literal references to physical appearance—Scully creates works that possess the extreme expressive qualities which belong to the best traditional figurative art by virtue, in part, of its depicted subjects.
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next book is The Contemporary Art Gallery.