On the Line: Conversations with Sean Scully
(Thames & Hudson , 2021)
An Irish painter and an American art critic form a bond that generates more than 10 years of engagement, culminating in a handsome book of tightly edited conversation. The book moves in places you expect it to, but there are narrative surprises and plays of cleverness built into the design that keep your attention. There is also great humor and the witty intelligence of two canny observers. Somewhere in the middle section, Sean Scully recalls a painting built with floorboards that he salvaged from his studio in an old textile warehouse, and how one adroit critic—Kelly Grovier—made an intuitive connection in a review of the work. To Grovier, Scully looked “like someone interrupted burying bodies under floorboards,” and from this image of the artist as a kind of surreptitious gravedigger the relationship between writer and painter was established, and it’s a tremendous benefit to Scully’s legacy that it was nurtured with such evident care and appreciation.
The book is titled On the Line, which refers to the myriad phone calls between Scully and Grovier that provide the lion’s share of material and which took place over the spring and summer of 2020. Grovier describes their relative isolation in terms of place, but the psychological weight of absence and uncertainty and the sense of daily trauma are just beneath the surface of their discussion. Scully is in New York City. He’s painting and living with his wife and young son, Oisin. Grovier is in Ireland, also with his wife and young son. The book is firmly rooted in the contemporary moment and circles back to it often, allowing the stories of Scully’s life to accumulate like layers as Grovier deftly leads the conversation from one painting to another.
Each chapter is named for a particular painting and the book follows a basic chronology from older to newer. The title paintings—Blame, Backs and Fronts, Mexico Malloy, Language of Light, to name a few—anchor the conversation and allow Scully to reflect on his material choices, aesthetic principles, and politics without ever drifting into hyperbole or imprecision. Thankfully the book is well illustrated, though the reader suffers the classic conundrum of looking at colorful little images when the conversation is about muscular and uncompromising works of art.
Wisely, Grovier exercised a tight edit on the dialogue and set each exchange within a narrative frame. The double rhythm of Grovier’s elegant prose counterpointing the episodes of conversation works well, and sets up opportunities to create layers of depth and meaning. Grovier’s narrative is attentive to the psychological connection between the artwork and the journey of the artist’s life. The painter’s relationship to color comes through as a particularly heavily trafficked connection. This is not to say Scully or Grovier pin anything down; the point seems to be expansion of perspective rather than any attempt to establish a singular vision. Scully connects certain colors to moments and expressions of emotion, sure, but he also muses that an artist’s sense of color is as natural as a singer’s voice. “It comes out of your spirit,” he says.
Another aspect Grovier handles with supreme tastefulness is the sense of time, which comes across as multivalent and fluid. There are essentially three timelines woven together: the arc of their friendship over the last decade, the journey of Scully’s life, and the crisis experience of COVID in the spring and summer of 2020. Grovier will open a passage of dialogue with a line like, “I’ve been meaning to ask for years,” that demonstrates the depth of the critic’s commitment to this back and forth. Grovier paraphrases often and tells a number of stories himself to keep the pace moving, but he uses those tactics as a way to open larger zones for Scully to recount specific moments and particular people who are important to him including David Carrier, Agnes Gund, Charles Choset, and Robert Ryman, among others. The result is a text with clear immediacy imbued with the distance of memory, of thoughts recalled over long durations.
I was surprised to learn about the artist’s affection for animals and his efforts as a young person to care for wounded birds and street dogs. I had also not fully appreciated the fact that Scully emerged as an artist at the young age of 25, selling out his inaugural solo show at a highly renowned London gallery. The tenacity of his will and determination over decades is something shared by only a few peers: people like Jasper Johns, Bob Dylan, and Joyce Carol Oates. I was happy to be reminded of the artist’s appreciation and disdain for Minimalism—he appreciates the severity; dislikes the lack of humanity and aristocratic pretense—and for his belief in the power of culture as a bulwark against the tendencies of fascism. What comes through most profoundly is the devotion that is necessary to achieve such longevity, to sustain a high level of artistic creativity through the peaks and plateaus one crosses over a lifetime. In the landscape of Scully’s life Grovier proves a remarkable guide, exploring the terrain through careful attention to specific artworks, identifying and examining the energies and influences of the moment with the evident pleasure of a curious and captivated mind.