Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Sean Scully Photo

Sean Scully

Irish-American Painter and Sculptor

Born: June 30, 1945 - Dublin, Ireland
Sean Scully Timeline
I do believe abstraction is and was meant to embody deep emotion. I believe that's its job, in the history of art.
Sean Scully

Summary of Sean Scully

Scully came to international prominence as a painter of abstract works featuring combinations of squares and stripes. Having abandoned figurativism in the mid-1960s, and a series of precise line paintings in the early 1970s, he turned to "sculptural" canvases that got their name because they featured heavy, tangible, stretches of paint and abutted panels that impose themselves on the viewer. These signature works left behind the almost technical precision of his line compositions in favor of a freer application of paint that gave rise to an expressive translation of color, light, and texture. Scully's paintings appear to have no referent but thematically they often deal with metaphorical ideas that touch on the artist's own spirituality and memories of people, places and objects. In more recent years Scully has focused more on sculpture, working with Corten and stainless steel to produce imposing, stripped back, monuments that celebrate, rather than disguise, their grid-like structure.

Accomplishments

  • Inspired initially by the optical effects of Bridget Riley's stripped patterns, Scully's early 1970s works presented a series of supergrid paintings featuring tight overlapping and precise linear patterns that revelled in their "musical" combination of color and light. The idea of marrying symmetry with expression went a long way to revive the fortunes of abstraction after a decade in which Pop Art had dominated.
  • Once Scully had encountered Conceptual Art and Minimalism, he moved on from his aesthetic grid paintings to a more stripped-back style. He describes taking his work back to "ground zero" by which he meant a focus on the perfectly rendered stripe. The result was a unique series of works that aimed to use the stripe to stimulate in the viewer a pure spiritual experience. Even though Scully referred to the works as romantic and quasi-religious, his line paintings were very highly prized amongst the elite New York Minimalists who saw him as one of their own.
  • Following a personal tragedy, Scully abandoned his meticulous line paintings for a style that featured a series of colored blocks and panels, applied through the thick application of paint. These melancholic works related more to the physical world and alluding (albeit obliquely) to the challenges and frailties of human relationships. Nick Orchard, Head of Modern British Art at Christie's, suggested that these works "create [a sombre] mood in a way that no other painter has since Rothko".
  • Scully's larger scale canvases, such as those featured in his Landline series, evoke in the viewer the idea of the sublime. The concept of the sublime is used to explain a picture quality that generates such physical, moral, aesthetic and/or spiritual intensity the viewer's ability to comprehend the work is temporarily overwhelmed. This series, produced during a period of debilitating physical suffering, carry within their fluid lines an intense emotional experience.
  • Scully is associated with the concept of "floating paintings" which feature hand painted (imperfect) vertical stripes. Attached to the gallery wall by one edge, these works assume a middle ground somewhere between sculpture and painting. Refuting the idea that these pieces might be considered pure sculptures, Scully likened them rather to architectural illusions in that they asked the viewer to consider both the painting and the space that surrounded it. Indeed, these non-traditional, site-specific, "sculptures" saw the artist associated with the rise of Post-Minimalism.

Biography of Sean Scully

Sean Scully Life and Legacy

The eldest of two boys, Sean Scully was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1945. When he was just four years old, his family emigrated to London, travelling by boat across the Irish Sea in search of a new life (Scully later dedicated his painting Precious (1985) to this perilous journey during which the boat was lost at sea for over eight hours). Once in London, the Scully family settled in an Irish community in Islington, before moving to the suburbs of Sydenham. Though he considered himself an adopted son of London, Scully was proud of his Irish heritage stating "I'm Irish in the mythic, romantic sense but, in the living sense, I'm a Londoner".

Important Art by Sean Scully

Shadow (1970)

A series of precise, horizontal bands run across the surface of this painting, while in the background vertical black strips and wavering colors appear to be moving. The combination of distortion and focus creates depth and movement, as if we are viewing something rushing past us through a slatted screen.

Scully made this painting while he was still a student at Newcastle University. He was drawn to the visual effects of Op Art, particularly the "low optical hum" and all-over striped patterns in Bridget Riley's heat haze paintings. He called his paintings his "supergrids" since they were tightly woven networks charged with electrical energy and momentum. Precise lines were made using masking tape as a ruler, producing a razor-sharp edge.

The industrial landscape of Newcastle filtered through into these paintings, particularly the layered, moving views seen from the train ride in and out of the city. As Scully explained, "When I made these paintings I was living in Newcastle, which is a shipbuilding town dissected by a river. The river is crossed by nine bridges made of overlapping steel girders, and as you look out you see overlapping grids as you go across". The "supergrids" can also be read more generally as reflections on urban living, combining structure, energy and movement into a dizzying, frenetic display of color and light. Scully likened these paintings to music producer Phil Spector's idea of a "wall of sound", where layers are built on top of one another to create a deep, rich complexity. The relationships between order, expression and layering here are ongoing concerns in Scully's practice, which he continues to explore in his artworks to this day.

Diptych (1975)

The canvas here is divided into two halves, each with a tightly woven series of white and grey bands running horizontally across the surface, like light filtering through a blind. Colors are soft and muted; when seen so close together they create the effect of quiet vibrations or movement. There are little to no traces of brushwork here, thereby facilitating an aura of purity and calm.

This painting typifies the work Scully was producing in the mid-1970s having received a Harkness Fellowship to study in New York for two years. While in the city he encountered Conceptualism and Minimalism. He duly abandoned his grid paintings in favour of meticulously painted stripes in the spirit of Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella and Francois Morellet. Scully stripped his paintings back to basics, saying "I took out of my work all triviality or everything that could possibly be described as decorative or ornamental [...] I got rid of everything in my work except the one thing that was just before ground zero, and that was a stripe".

Scully aimed to lift his paintings onto a higher intellectual plane by filling them with a poetic, spiritual energy beyond the realms of the real world and making them akin to religious icons: "I was searching for some form of deep pathos, a form of poetic expression that went somehow below the surface of appearances [...] on a rigorous quest for some kind of deep, pure, religious, or quasi-religious meaning". Much like Piet Mondrian, he invested significant meaning in the structure of the work, with the diptych format referencing religious iconography, while his horizontal and vertical bands were loaded with symbolism. As he explained, "The horizon embodies the permanent, the eternal, while the vertical stands for our human position". Although Scully insisted such paintings were predominantly romantic and religious, they brought him considerable recognition as a New York Minimalist.

Paul (1984)

Paul is a triptych made from three painted panels joined together with each containing its own stripe pattern. Two larger, muted panels sit at the back, while on top a bold black and white strip draws the eye in, creating a strong focal point. Scully invites us to consider the intimate relationships between the panels, while also reading them together as a whole.

By 1984 Scully had abandoned the masking tape precision of his earlier paintings, searching instead for a style which connected back to the real world. The paintings that came out of this period, including Paul, were earthy and battered looking, with bold slabs and stripes of brooding, intensely worked areas of color, containing what art critic Arthur C Danto called, "walls of light". Unlike his earlier grid paintings, horizontal and vertical lines do not intersect, instead they sit side-by-side creating an almost solid form sculpted from paint. Danto wrote, "what one cannot help but be attracted to, in front of one of these surfaces, is the way the paint is laid on [it] makes us conscious of the brushes made up of bristles, which leave traces of their physical interaction with the viscosity of paint".

This painting is dedicated to the artist's son, Paul, who died in a car crash a year before the work was made. Through his grief Scully continued to paint, but emotions spilled over into his paintings, which took on deeply melancholic colors, As he explained, "From 1983, you can see that someone came in and kind of [...] dimmed the lights in my paintings. They went dark and they stayed that way for a long time".

The spiritual, symbolic quality of Scully's earlier Minimalist paintings continues to play an important role here, with the triptych format referencing religious iconography. The intimacy of human relationships are often explored in Scully's paintings through the interaction of colored blocks and panels; there is a suggestion of the family trio of father, mother and son here, with Paul placed at the centre. With bright white paint brushed over black, the panel seems to emit light from darkness, suggesting hope through the eternal.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Sean Scully
Influenced by Artist
Artists
  • No image available
    Calum Innes
  • No image available
    Bernard Frize
  • No image available
    Angela De La Cruz
  • No image available
    Adrian Schiess
  • No image available
    Phyllida Barlow
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Sean Scully

websites
articles
video clips
articles
Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Sean Scully Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 06 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]