Sean Scully: Illuminated Manuscripts

Sean Scully Painting an Inset, Ardbeg Road, 1989. Photograph courtesy the Artist
Sean Scully Painting an Inset, Ardbeg Road, 1989. Photograph courtesy the Artist

“I don’t actually keep a diary but sometimes I write things down on A4, and I sort of faintly hope they survive,” says Sean Scully. “I like to write by hand and I like to accompany it with a drawing. It’s almost like an illuminated manuscript.” Over a nearly fifty-year career, the ritual has accounted for an untold number of illustrated thoughts, many of which have been stored into shoeboxes for safekeeping, though occasionally the custom goes awry. “Some perish of course, because they get left in hotels, or whatever.”

“I always thought of the insets in my paintings as figures, cut in or cut out of their context, their personal landscape. Bodies that linger,” reads a survivor of Scully’s filing practice, dated August 18, 1989. One of the artist’s iconic “insets” is drawn below. Scully embeds paintings, usually striped abstractions, into other striped abstractions, constructing them together so that the resulting work becomes a small architectural marvel as much as it is a painting. “I thought of these paintings with insets as being very metaphorical and I thought of the insets as being separate creatures. I sometimes made the body of the painting in one room and the inset in another room so that I wasn’t unconsciously looking for harmony. I was looking for a new kind of relationship.”

Figures. Bodies that linger. New kinds of relationships. So much of the body, not just the corporeal but the human essential, is intrinsic to the work. “In 1980 I thought that conceptual art and abstract painting were in a relationship that was detrimental to abstract painting, because of the amount of territory abstract painting had to cede in order to stay in that relationship. So I thought it was time for a divorce,” Scully says, extending the metaphor. “I immediately thought about the history of painting, and windows, which give two views in a single painting. Matisse was a great exponent of that, and so were the painters of the Renaissance. So was Velázquez.” The initial geometry of Scully’s insets—the windows—soon give way to his lush and emotional stripes of color, which sometimes unite and other times do battle with each other. So very human. So much like life. “I was attacking the whole concept of planar abstraction and making abstraction figurative, referential, and metaphorical all over again.” A lot can be packed into a scrawled note to oneself.

(And oh, to open the desk drawer of a hotel room somewhere in the world, and uncover one of those long-lost illuminated manuscripts.)

<i>A Note on Insets. Dated August 18, 1989. Courtesy the Artist.</i>
A Note on Insets. Dated August 18, 1989. Courtesy the Artist.


Jessica Holmes

Jessica Holmes is a New York based writer and critic who contributes regularly to Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.