SEAN SCULLY (b. 1945)
SEAN SCULLY (b. 1945)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
SEAN SCULLY (b. 1945)


SEAN SCULLY (b. 1945)
signed, titled and dated 'Sean Scully 93 'HELENA'' (on the reverse)
oil on three attached canvases
80 x 70in. (203.2 x 177.8cm.)
Painted in 1993
Waddington Gallery, London.
Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, USA.
Antony Meier Fine Art, California.
Private Collection, California.
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2014.
Sean Scully, exh. cat., Bologna, Galerie d'Arte Moderna, 1996, p. 102 (illustrated in colour).
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Lot Essay

A towering, luminous vision spanning two metres in height, Helena is an exquisite example of Sean Scully’s iconic ‘inset’ paintings. Two rectangular striped panels hover amid glowing bands of orange and black, each rendered with loose, layered brushwork. Pursued for more than two decades, these works lie at the very heart of Scully’s practice, embodying his mission to liberate abstraction from the clinical purity of Minimal and Conceptual art, and to return it to the realm of poetry, allusion and metaphor. Functioning like paintings within paintings, the insets create a sense of external reference, like windows onto another world. Executed in 1993, Helena belongs to a small subset of these paintings named after women, in which the vertical arrangement of the inlaid panels takes on a haunting, near-figural quality. The work’s title refers to Scully’s grandmother, Helen: other examples from this cycle include Lucia (BAWAG Foundation, Vienna), Anna (Sammlung Würth, Künzelsau) and the Catherine series (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas), named after his wife.

It was while living in New York during the late 1970s that Scully began to contemplate a ‘divorce’, as he put it, between abstract and conceptual art. Though initially influenced by American Minimalism—partly through his friendship with Robert Ryman—as well as European Op Art, he began to align his concerns more closely with those of his Abstract Expressionist forebears. Like artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, both of whom sought to elicit emotional transcendence through their art, Scully reconceived abstraction as a vehicle for comprehending the experiences, feelings and sensations that make up human existence. The insets, which transformed the canvas into a living, near-architectural apparition, were part and parcel of this mission. Citing Velázquez and Matisse as precedents, Scully compared his panels to windows within figurative compositions: devices that—as in Matisse’s The Three OClock Sitting (1924)—draw the viewer into the world of the painting. At the same time, he explained, his insets were intended to harbour an almost corporeal quality, like ‘figures, cut in or cut out of their context … bodies that linger’ (S. Scully, quoted in J. Holmes, ‘Sean Scully: Illuminated Manuscripts’, Brooklyn Rail, September 2018).

The present work also bears witness to the influence of Morocco upon Scully’s visual imagination. He had first visited during the 1960s, and was struck by the country’s rich colours and geometries: from its striped fabric tent coverings and decorative tiles to the dilapidated facades of local buildings. In 1992, the year before the present work, Scully had the opportunity to return—this time with the BBC, to film a documentary entitled Artists Journey: Sean Scully on Henri Matisse. The latter’s connection with the country is particularly pertinent in light of Scully’s admiration for his work: perhaps something of Matisse’s sunkissed palette and lavishly patterned surfaces can be glimpsed in Helena, whose inlaid panels might even be compared to the aesthetic of the artist’s celebrated cut-outs. Just as in these works, a quivering sense of figural reality shines through the painting’s geometric composition—a shimmering feeling of light, movement and presence that speaks, however momentarily, in strikingly human terms.

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