Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas
On ViewThe Modern Art Museum Of Fort Worth
June 20 – October 10, 2021
The Irish-born, London-educated, American artist Sean Scully has held to his aesthetic convictions despite both the rancor and the praise that have accompanied a brilliant, if somewhat controversial, five-decade career. While there are those who regard Scully’s work as a major revival in the recent history of abstract painting, others are critical of the high esteem in which he is held. Given his readily identifiable style—he focuses on stripes and “bricks” of color—Scully’s work has a Neo-Constructivist underpinning that combines irregularity with modular forms. While the term “minimalist” has often been used to describe his work, it is not only inaccurate, but its connotations of impersonality have led to misleading assumptions regarding the meaning of his work. In fact, Scully’s paintings emerge from experiences and events in his background, and not from the desire to conform to the critical categories of others. Scully has always worked in accordance with his own point of view, adhering to no collective agenda or system of aesthetic values.
Well-known writings on “Minimal Art” in the 1960s, by artists Donald Judd and Robert Morris, are typically quite hostile to painting, privileging instead the construction of three-dimensional form. Despite this, painters such as Ad Reinhardt and Robert Ryman have also been subjected to “minimalist painting” by critics seemingly oblivious to the contradictions implied. Coming from a more recent generation of painters, Scully has denied any association with this term, insisting on a more personal understanding of abstraction that includes sources of inspiration in ancient Greek architecture. Scully does not give in to the temptation of engaging trends or theories that serve only to generate attention.
Sean Scully’s work has a consistency that gives it a heightened level of energy reflected in both its convincing visual impact and the artist’s diligent production. To see The Shape of Ideas, the retrospective currently on view at the the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in a building designed by the architect Tadao Ando is an experience with a resounding impact. Although it is curated by Timothy Rub, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the exhibition will travel in the spring of 2022, the current installation in Texas consists of 49 paintings and 42 works on paper, brilliantly laid out in Ando’s majestic chambers by Director Marla Price of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. As I traversed the various galleries, apprehending Scully’s magnetic paintings, it was clear that Price’s insight had influenced the manner in which I perceived and contemplated these works.
Upon encountering the multi-paneled, ultra-majestic Backs and Fronts (1981), an extensive work of 11 panels, alternating between vertical and horizontal stripes, I recall visiting the artist’s studio on Duane Street in lower Manhattan as this work was being painted. As I understand it, the painting began as an homage to Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921) and was later transformed into one of the major abstract paintings of the late 20th century. It was shown the following year at MoMA PS1. This painting took the exhibition by storm. Nothing like it had been done before: 11 panels moving horizontally across an open field, an infinity of colored stripes, optically moving up, down, and sideways as if they were the notations for a musical score. Then, in the same year, we were given Precious (1981), considered by many to be Scully’s premiere paneled painting, both an observation deck and a launching pad for his developing career.
In another space within the galleries, we are shown early paintings that are not often seen, made prior to Scully’s move to New York in 1975. They include Harvard Frame Painting (1972), Green Light (1972–73), and Inset #2 (1973). Of the three paintings, Inset #2, with its diagonal grid pattern painted in a hard-edge style, is the most intellectually challenging and visually striking. There is an intrusion in this painting: two square panels are situated side-by-side at the bottom edge, painted in a loose expressionist style. One might conclude that the two squares allude to the painterly structure that was initially beneath Scully’s diagonal grid. Inset #2 is the kind of painting that retains a degree of mystery in terms of how it came to be. However, the searching quality in each of these early paintings is confident and exhilarating. They require careful attention. Although they are experimental—naturally given the time period in Scully’s career—the artist never lost sight of the fact that he was painting, and that painting commands our attention.
We find more recent works in another gallery where the later Doric paintings are shown—works based on Scully’s travels to Greece more than a decade before their inception. These multidimensional paneled works are being shown together for the first time. They include the masterful Iona (2004–06), Doric Pink Light (2012), and Doric Hermes (2012). The Classical pulse runs high in these works. But they open the door to another source as well, suggesting that perhaps the origin of art is a reality that defines itself, and that acknowledges the fact that the present, too, will eventually belong to the past. These paintings—each in their own way—assert the desire to achieve an actual, sustained perception that functions in total contrast to the immediacy of the gaze.
Despite the common threads found throughout Scully’s work, the artist’s ability to stretch the parameters of his painterly style are made profoundly clear in this exhibition. Whether early or recent, Sean Scully’s paintings hold their own. For several years, he has been spending time in an area of Bavaria called Mooseurach for which he has named several paintings. One, in particular, Mooseurach (2002), included in this exhibition, is an extraordinary painting. It is not a landscape but there is the feeling of a landscape, which is normally the direction that Scully takes his work—not towards the thing, but towards the feeling of the thing. For some artists, this point of view is confined to gestural painting that tends toward expressionism. This is not the case for Scully. Committed to his own approach, he found the means to stay on track well before his paintings started to become known in the late 1970s. Since then, he has rarely wavered.