Sean Scully Wall of Light Cubedby Jonathan Goodman
Cheim and Read | March 30 – May 20, 2017
Increasingly, the Irish-born, New York-based Sean Scully is viewed as one of the most gifted artists of his generation. Likely best known for the painting series “Wall of Light,” Scully has practiced a variation on the New York School, giving it a European sadness as well as continuing the American penchant for expressiveness. His work has always admirably addressed feeling, while additionally pushing forward an idiom notable for its intuitive hand. In his current show at Cheim and Read, Scully demonstrates once again that his style offers a view sustained by his treatment of Abstract Expressionism’s legacy and Minimalism’s more recent history. The paintings shown indicate that he remains at the top of his form, establishing continued variants on a style he originated decades ago. At the same time, the work makes clear his commitment to painting as completely contemporary, even as he references earlier generations of artists. Abstract painting now may be slightly marginalized, but its historical achievements remain alive and well in the artist’s versions, which transform the past into a lively present tense.
Over 26 feet long, Blue Note (2016) occupies the long wall facing the inner entrance of the gallery. Consisting of six striped panels—four horizontally patterned, one diagonally, and one vertically—it looks like a summation of the stylistic effects he’s been practicing for many years, an index of kinds. Beginning from the left, the viewer follows: broad, lateral bands of red-orange and yellow;s angled stripes of pinkish-white and black; thin vertical streaks of black and gray; thick red and blue horizontal panels; imprecise strips of black and gray; and broad bands of yellow and black. Scully brings together two art historical strains; European lyric abstraction has often proved insubstantial, but by coming to America, Scully merged this country’s predilection for emotion as a vivid, even structural, component of art with a muted pensiveness he brought from his origins. The combination is unique—and very hard to describe. Blue Note exemplifies Scully’s ability to invest his paintings with an atmospheric solitude suggestive of loneliness. It becomes clear that his view supports the idea that painting is a vehicle for passionate affect and a torn sublime.
Other paintings, such as Block Red (2016)—a large oil on aluminum—offer cubed forms whose volume suggests the three dimensions of sculpture. Consisting of color blocks and bricks that assemble the overall shape, Block Red’s bands of color—blues, pinkish whites, whites, and reds—build a gestalt that is massive and nearly architectonic in its weight. The painting maintains a dense structure, presenting seamless walls that imply mass without revealing it. Similarly, Wall of Light Cubed, 9.25.15 (2015) takes Scully’s same visual language and renders it in gray watercolor; like Block Red, it seems to hold a gravitas born of structure and tone. These works represent Scully’s ongoing concern that atmosphere in painting—its ability to convey feeling through form and color alone—can be established by combining simply delineated bands and mostly muted tones, colored or not. Doric Pale Blue (2016), an oil on copper, resembling paintings from the artist’s past, looks to a place where the different hues—red, yellow, blue, near black—become building blocks for a pattern as substantial as a Greek column. Its striped surface reveals the brushwork of the artist, the sometimes layered marks’ thin striations becoming an abstract palimpsest.
Two major sculptures in the gallery, Colored Stacked Frames (2017) and Brown Silver Tower (2016), reiterate the alternating-stripe motif found in Scully’s paintings. The colorful automotive-paint-covered frames of the first work stack on top of each other. Of varying dimensions, they present their edges in a way that each of the four facades of the work display a variegated exterior. Together, their height reaches 10 feet. The Cor-Ten and stainless steel second tower, displaying precise alternating bands of brown and silver, stands as a sentinel, both abstract and figurative. The staggering forms present both as flattened, two-dimensional façades—a kind of striped painting—and, from a distance, as three-dimensional abstract sculpture, filling the immediate space with an architectural presence.
Scully brings all his skills together in this show, which occasions the insight that painting and sculpture remain alive in abstraction. Given that abstract art has more than a one-hundred-year history, it has established a long, ongoing legacy. Contemporary art needs now to proceed further along lines established by artists like Scully, who keeps the past alive while vitalizing the present. It is remarkable to find an artist so determined to witness his generation’s creative drive as something greater than mere quotation, something larger than the ordinary.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.