It must have felt insulting at the time but now Sean Scully must surely be grateful that he got away. For he was one of the artists unceremoniously offloaded by Saatchi when he sold off his collection before homing in on the yBAs. It is almost impossible to imagine this humanistic work, this lyrical, painterly painting sitting amidst some of the slosh and tosh, the glib solipsistic daubings owned by Saatchi. For Scully is not a fashionable or postmodern painter in the sense that he puts ego, theory, irony, systems, pastiche or even language before the poetic mystery of being a painter. What is more his abstract paintings, with their vertical and horizontal rectangles of complex colour and nervy ‘bled’ edges express a deep sense of both morality and human frailty. As well as being physical objects they are quests, in an age of deconstruction, to find and construct an affirmative, even spiritual voice in the etiolated grammar of so much contemporary culture.
Born in Dublin in 1945, his family left, taking a boat across the Irish Sea still filled with wartime mines, to find work in England. His childhood memories are of being Irish in the impoverished Irish community of South London rather than in Ireland. His boyhood experiences of the Catholic Church left him with a deep ambivalence for organised religion but, nevertheless, a hunger for something to fill its place. Early on he looked at Cézanne, who also came from a humble background, and identified with the technique and structure of his paintings that convey both a deep commitment to the problems of paintings along with strong emotion. The London in which Scully grew up was full of post war mess and filth; some of the streets were still lit by gas lamp so that the urban landscape often seemed to resemble a Turner painting. His was a wild youth. He worked as a messenger, a plasterer, ran a discotheque, sang in a band with his brother and got into trouble with the police for brawling and burglary before going to Croydon College and then on to art school in Newcastle.
Scully was deeply marked by the 60s, for as Wordsworth might have said: bliss was it that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven. Something of that youthful idealism and romanticism has stayed with him ever since. He is, in a way, an expressionist; his paintings a means of creating visual metaphors for human emotion and experience. He often works in diptychs. It is as if this pairing, this coupling reflects an obsession with the relational – both with the interior self and the other. He unashamedly follows in the wake of painters such as Newman and Rothko in whose work there is an existential acknowledgement that both pain and pathos lie in close proximity to beauty at the heart of the human condition. In 1969 after a summer of travelling he made his first true stripe painting, Morocco, from glued blue, black and yellow stripes of dyed cloth cut to hang down against the white wall. This ‘window’ was to be the precursor to the inserted panels found in many of his later paintings. In other works from this period, such as Blackcloth, 1970 or Red Light, 1971, he used masking tape to create taut grids, cages of horizontal and vertical lines that created tight spatial fields of woven colour and complex depths of field that owed something to Mondrian, as well as, no doubt, to the endlessly repeated patterns of the Moroccan rugs and carpets he must recently have seen on his travels. Soon, though, he began to feel isolated in the artistic provincialism of London and moved to New York. For him America was about defining the future. It may have produced crackpot extremists but it also allowed for experiments in living and searching that didn’t, he felt, exist elsewhere.
He took some time to come to terms with the “gridded jungle of stones whose deeply radiant colour is so dark” but soon became enamoured by going out into the night- time city. He wanted to make something deeper, less decorative than the complex tartan webs which had been preoccupying him. So, as he puts it, “he burnt down his own house” and what was left was the colour of ash. It was like beginning again. As a natural colourist the restraint was hard. The paintings that resulted during the 70s, which are now on show at Timothy Taylor’s gallery, were in the strictest sense classical minimalism, reminiscent in their stillness and spiritual quietitude of the work of Agnes Martin. All that was extraneous had been swept away. The basic motif in these paintings is a stripe of pigment. Using masking tape he painted flat and raised bars of, say, black on black, to create subtly luminous surfaces that vibrate with a meditative intensity that owes something to the spirituality and aestheticism of Zen Buddhism. This reductionism was very much a characteristic of American painting of the time; of the Minimalism of Ryman and Reinhardt. There was, too, about the grid, an implicit lack of hierarchy that must have appealed to this old Communist. The absence of narrative and lack of possibility for the projection of language into the visual domain resulted in a space of aesthetic purity. The predominant mode of these works is one of attentive silence. It is as if the peeling back of all representation, this return to ground zero, to the ‘spiritual’ essence of the act of painting allowed for a process of discovery, a journey, a ‘coming into being’. The very act of repetition involved in the making of these paintings was what was important. The aesthetic economy mirrored the repetitive physical acts of, say, breathing or washing; which when done with due awareness have long been the basis of spiritual exercises and the rituals of meditation. To stand in front of Blue, 1979 or Blue Blue, 1980 is to be forced to slow down, to look with real attention at the interrelationships between the blue, ochres and blacks, the subtle monochromatic shifts, almost like the minute changes that occur in the sound of wind or within a phrase of music. Thin bands of matt pigment highlight the weave of the linen beneath the paint, to create both spatial planes and as well as veils. Stripped back to the essence, it was from this space that things could be built anew.
But eventually Scully was to reject these constraints. For it no longer felt as if he was working within a transformative space but rather was trapped in one that was too empty, controlled, elegant and remote for his engaged nature, rather like the confines of orthodox religion. Moving away from pure minimalism must have seemed like his childhood rejection of Catholicism all over again. It was at that point that he reconnected to the form of abstraction that had come immediately before what he saw as a “formulaic decline”. That point was Abstract Expressionism. It is ironic, that perhaps the last exponent of this great American movement should be an Englishman.
Working on converting loft spaces in New York and understanding how the space could be divided architecturally, along with an exclusive use of oils, encouraged him to experiment with the structure of his paintings. The volatility of oil paint allowed for a fluidity, a mysterious alchemy. A new roughness, a new physicality and sensuousness was about to enter his work. Colour was to return. It was as if he had turned up the volume on all that silence. His paintings became more expressive. Impatient with all that minimalist perfection, he began to paint panels freehand, enjoying the ensuing collisions, erasures, mistakes and imperfections. He realised that he wanted to paint human paintings; those that expressed vulnerability and the pathos of relationships. Where the surfaces had been smooth they now became rough, inserts of horizontal lines sat against fields of broader bands of rich earthen colours. He began to let the world around him into his paintings to echo the relationships between doorways and windows in buildings, the colour of walls, the rhythms of jazz. Time spent in Europe, in Barcelona and Munich, also fed into his work. Colours suggested locations or seasons. As a student he had been struck by Gauguin’s notion that you can make colour that is equivalent to nature. Like good songs his colours and ragged rectangles create harmonies and counterpoints; what they sing of is a lust for life, an erotic sensibility that acknowledges the impossibility of attaining perfection, yet understands the human need and compulsion to connect and express.
The minimal work of the 70s shown in this exhibition marks a turning point in Scully’s work. From this place of restraint he goes on to close the classic Cartesian gap between mind and body. Whilst appropriating the language of minimalism and abstraction and turning it to his own ends, he makes paintings as sensuous as skin, yet his work is also an attempt to release the spirit through formal strength and very direct painting. These are not fashionable ideas in an age when fracture, surface, ironic reference all form a barrier to shield both viewer and artist from the authentic. But what Scully seems to have understood is that important art is not achieved simply by making something which is perfect, something which is beautiful; but in making that which is true.
A monograph on the work of Sean Scully by David Carrier, published by Thames and Hudson, price £39.95 has just been published.
Sean Scully Paintings from the 70s at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London from 30 March to 8 April 2004
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004
Images © Sean Scully 2004. Coutesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery
Published in The Independent