In the Nineties, Sean Scully began his Wall of Light series. Among the most lyrically potent is Wall of Light Desert Night (1999). The inspiration for this painting came from a night-time drive into the Nevada desert. Having been invited with his partner, the painter Liliane Tomasko, to watch the boxing in Las Vegas, he began to feel trapped by the architecture of the hotels, which are built in a sort of wheel, all leading to the casino. Finding himself in Egypt one minute and in medieval England the next, he needed to escape from this discombobulating experience.
So they drove out into the desert, to the Valley of Fire. As they drove back in the dusk the colours seemed extraordinary. The shadows cast on the desert floor by the rocks appeared to be made of sand, dust and light. Scully held these – the blues, the greys and pinks, the blacks and blue-blacks – in his mind’s eye until he returned to the studio. There, a large canvas just happened to be waiting and he painted the work virtually in one hit.
Scully’s bricks of colour are connected to people and places. Though an abstract painter, his paintings convey the real world. Deceptively simple, they seem to have been laid down quickly, with great ease, while, in fact, their relationships are complex, unsettling and full of potent emotion. Scully is a Romantic in Modernist clothing, a painter who is profoundly connected to the tradition of European painting while being wedded to the expansion of painting’s contemporary vocabulary.
What he has captured in Wall of Light Desert Night is that unique atmosphere in the wilderness when the shadows grow long and the air suddenly cools so that, for a moment, one feels connected to something ineffable. It is a painterly translation of an epiphany. There are no figures and no ground – nothing is set behind anything else. It is an intensely democratic work for there is no visual hierarchy; each element holds its own weight. In the mid-Eighties and early-Nineties Scully’s paintings told stories, mostly about love and failed relationships. But here he moves out from the self to reaffirm his relationship to the painterly tradition.
In 1983, while in Mexico, he was taken by the abandoned architecture of the Yucatan and the play of light on the walls and made a small watercolour called Wall of Light that was to become the genesis of this series. Usually the paintings from this group are associated with specific places and times in Scully’s life, such as Chelsea Wall I, 1999, which was made in his Manhattan studio and captures something of the shabby urban grime of Chelsea, while Wall of Light, 1999 takes its pinks and cream blues from a De Kooning painting, whose source was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In Wall of Light Desert Night the monochromatic tonalities seem almost bled of colour like those in a photo taken as the sun is beginning to set.
As a young man Scully travelled to Morocco and Mexico, which changed his visual thinking. Photography, urban topography and the practice of karate added to his aesthetic lexicon. In the Seventies his work was very austere. The formal arrangement of lines was based on the Modernist grid created by using masking tape within a restricted palette. The perfect Zen beauty excluded the viewer and seemed to veil the artist’s emotions. In Wall of Light Desert Night, by contrast, there is a strong sense of the artist’s presence, and a robust sensuality.
The silver-greys abutted with areas of black speak of creeping twilight shadows. There is a sense of things both illuminated by the fading light, of being hidden by the encroaching dark and buried beneath a blanket of night sky where the only trace of colour left is that of the pale sand. In the end the darkness wins out over the sand so that we are left with a sense of the desert’s infinity, the weight of its silence and the mystery of the night.
For many religions the desert represents a place in which to confront the self. Christ spent 40 days and 40 nights there wrestling with his demons. The purity of the desert, untouched by the human ego, provides a place detached from the self and from desire, or, as Mondrian sought, an environment in which to search for the mystical Absolute.
In this painting, both artist and viewer come face to face with the human spirit, with love, despair, beauty and death but most of all with what is mysterious and unknowable. For the experience of travelling through the desert at night is, in fact, very much like that of the journey made by the Romantic painter. All these elements combine in Wall of Light Desert Night to give it its lyrical force.
The work is full of pathos. Like the Old Masters, Scully is concerned with the brush stroke and the touch of the human hand that reveals the artist’s hesitations, his thought processes and vulnerabilities. The desire to make marks is connected to man’s atavistic need to record his presence. Both potent with hope and, because it is the result of human activity, riddled with doubt and potential failure, such a painting is an act of faith.
Yet it affirms the struggle of the human spirit in a world overloaded with technology and mechanisation for it has been painted with the body and heart and not just the head. As with Mondrian, who spoke of his restricted forms as a mystical pursuit of the Absolute, which he justified in terms of his theosophical beliefs, Scully’s painting has its own profound spirituality. To paint a painting such as this is a way of discovering how to be in the world. It is an affirmation of life. Cogito ergo sum. I paint therefore I am. As Mondrian wrote of Mark Rothko, “a great abstract painting offers one the possibility to travel without having to endure the tedium of a journey.”
Although apparently completely abstract, like a Chardin still life, Scully’s Wall of Light Desert Night evokes the experience of mood and touch. But instead of the tactile experience of a bowl of fruit or the glint of silver tableware, it suggests, not only the physical presence of an actual wall, but also of being enveloped by moonlight in an empty landscape. As with Rothko we are presented with a sensation of awe and a confrontation with the Sublime. Scully has said that he paints to reassure himself that he is not alone in the universe. With this painting he has produced a religious masterwork for a secular age.
About the Artist
Sean Scully was born in Dublin on 30 June 1945. In 1949 his family moved to London, where in the early 1960s he worked as a messenger in a graphic design studio and as a plasterer’s labourer. He then became apprenticed to a typesetter and attended evening classes at Central School of Art, London. From there he went on to Croydon College of Art and Newcastle University.
In 1971 he won the John Moore’s. He taught at Chelsea School of Art and moved to the US, where he received the Harkness Fellowship. He became Visiting Arts Professor at Princeton and Professor at Parsons School NY. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983 and became a US citizen. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1989. He lives in New York, Barcelona and Munich.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Image © Sean Scully
Published in The Independent