“Abstraction is the art of our age…it’s a breaking down of certain structures, an opening up. It allows you to think without making obsessively specific references, so that the viewer is free to identify with the work. Abstract art has the possibility of being incredibly generous, really out there for everybody. It’s a non-denominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time”—Sean Scully
(S. Scully, ‘Some Basic Principles,’ in B. Kennedy, Sean Scully: The Art of the Stripe, Hanover 2008, p. 13).
Using a pictorial language of horizontal and vertical bands of color, Sean Scully’s compositions propel the legacy of post-war American abstract art into a markedly contemporary context. Inspired in part by Mark Rothko’s atmospheric paintings, Sean Scully has sought to re-explore the nature of abstraction. His creations are the direct descendants of Modernists like Mondrian and Malevich; his striking palette is the result of his studies of Giorgio Morandini and Rothko. This duality delivers, on one hand, geometrically complex subjects (as he divides his surfaces following a grid of sequential patterns), and also resonates as richly poetic and spiritual, with fluid brushwork transcending vibrant painterly surfaces.
Scully developed his mature style by intensively studying his predecessors, but also through personal experience. The artist painted Masai after a trip to North Africa where he witnessed members of the eponymous tribes adorned with their black and red tribal clothing. A family tragedy in 1983 led to the artist adapting his palette to include lighter and more sensual colors as can be seen in Passenger Black Red Red. Here, the colors are less saturated and the work’s surface appears smoother than the earlier works. In addition, his focus is no longer on the contradictions between two complementary colors as can be seen in works such as Elder, where orange and purple stripes engage sequentially.
To be a painterly traditionalist or purist in the 1980s–during the reign of Jeff Koons and Pop Surrealism–was rare, and Scully stood firm in his belief that it was necessary for abstract art to reach the spiritual domain. However, what differentiates Scully from other abstract painters like Josef Albers and Agnes Martin is his ability to capture narrative content and to give the viewer an esoteric experience. The importance of Sean Scully’s work derives from his ability to communicate to the viewer emotive content laden within a traditionally docile form of painting.