‘When I finish a painting, I’m usually sad’ — Sean Scully

Scully’s ‘Wall of Light’ and ‘Landline’ series have led to his being hailed as one of the most important artists of the 21st century. As an exhibition of his new works opens in London, we profile a painter regarded as a successor to the Abstract Expressionists


Sean Scully in his studio

Who is Sean Scully?

Born in Dublin in 1945, Sean Scully emigrated with his parents in 1949, when he was four. He grew up in London, and describes his childhood as ‘immensely unhappy. I’ve known a lot of suffering in my life. A lot of grief. It was a very dense experience.’ His father was frequently unemployed, and Scully has said that he himself needed ‘the determination of Hannibal’ to emerge with a successful career.

After studying at Croydon School of Art and Newcastle University in the UK, Scully was awarded a graduate fellowship at Harvard University. He went on to teach art at Princeton University between 1977 and 1982, but soon afterwards gave up in order to devote himself to painting full-time. In 1983, he became an American citizen. Today, Scully is widely regarded as one of the giants of contemporary painting: a natural heir to the Abstract Expressionists.

‘He creates mood in a way that no other painter has since Rothko,’ says Nick Orchard, Head of Modern British Art at Christie’s. ‘In terms of structure, Scully’s work can sometimes look simple… but through his nuanced combinations of layering colour, it dictates [the ambience of] whatever’s around it.’

‘There’s a huge sense of tragedy in me,’ Scully told Spectator Life magazine in 2018. ‘Unlike Rothko, who I have been compared to, I’m not passive. He was a sedentary person. If you are inhabited by sorrow in some way, which he was, I think then you have to do something about it, and I’ve done something about it by making my work more aggressive.’

Where is he based?

Scully still calls America home, but he spends a lot of time in Europe. ‘I have had a place in Barcelona for more than 10 years,’ he told Christie's Magazine in 2015. ‘I’ve got a base in Munich; and my wife [the artist Liliane Tomasko] is from Switzerland. She speaks fluent German and French also, and I speak Spanish and really bad German, but enough to get around.’ After America, Germany is the country in which Scully exhibits most often and is most revered.

Scully’s ‘Grid’ paintings

Scully actually started out as a figurative painter, but soon switched to abstraction — and has been refining his work in that style ever since.

In the 1970s, he came of age with his so-called ‘Grid’ paintings, which featured a dense (often disorienting) intersection of lines of many colours. The influence of Op art is clear — with some of the lines seeming to jump out of the painting into real space — although Scully himself has come to refer to the Grids as ‘computer paintings before computers really existed’. The artist made a number of examples on shaped canvas, such as 1973’s East Coast Light 2.

How has Scully’s art developed?

In the early 1980s, Scully turned his back on the Grids, adopting simpler structures and a more expressive style. Paint was now applied in a gestural manner. Over time, much like Mark Rothko, he became known for fluid blocks of individual colour, the boundaries between which are often blurred. In Wall of Light Orange Grey, one can follow a patchwork of horizontal and vertical brushstrokes, which convey a lavish sense of movement within the canvas.

No human figures ever appear in Scully’s art, but the overall effect still tends to be one of pathos. ‘The whole point of painting is that it has the potential to be humanistic,’ he says. ‘I want my brushstrokes to be full of feeling. When I finish a painting, I’m usually extremely sad.’

Scully’s paint is often so thin that the canvas (or other support) is visible underneath — as is the case with the white passages on the left- and right-hand sides of Caress  (1987).

Major exhibitions and awards

Scully has exhibited across the world, one standout show being that of his ‘Wall of Light’ paintings (see below) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006.

In the summer of 2015, he had a major show in Venice running concurrently with exhibitions in São Paulo; in Neuhaus, Austria, where he was the subject of the inaugural show at the new Museum Liaunig; in Cork, at the Crawford Art Gallery; and in Dublin, at the National Gallery of Ireland.

A retrospective, featuring more than 100 works, also toured various venues in China — including the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing — between 2015 and 2017. It was the first such show in China by a living, Western artist.

This year, Scully has an exhibition at the National Gallery, featuring new pieces inspired by the institution’s Old Masters collection.

He has won numerous awards over his 50-year career, starting with the John Moores Painting Prize in 1972 and 1974. He has also been nominated twice for the Turner Prize — in 1989 and 1993 — but has never won it. Scully was elected a Royal Academician in 2013.

Sean Scully, Wall of Light Reef, 2012. Oil on canvas laid down on board. 63 x 63 in (160 x 160 cm). Sold for £554,500 on 11 February 2015 at Christie’s in London. © Sean Scully

Scully’s ‘Wall of Light’ and ‘Landline’ series?

Perhaps his best-known works are his ongoing ‘Wall of Light’ paintings. Begun in the late 1990s, these architectonic configurations of colour were inspired by trips Scully took to Mexico: specifically, by the patterns of light and shadow he saw on the stacked stones of ancient Maya walls.

One of the larger examples — at seven feet high — is 2011’s Wall of Light Pink Pink, a rhythmic field of colour in which cool pools of deep-black and grey coexist with warmer pigments of crimson and umber.

Another series of note is ‘Landline’ (2013-2015), its paintings marked by broad stripes of horizontal colour on top of one another. They emanate a sense of stillness and calm, exemplified by Landline Blue, with its stripes of muted colours that seem to flow into each other. Scully says his aim was ‘to paint horizon lines endlessly beginning and ending’.

Experiments and the ‘Inset’ paintings

‘Over the years, his art has largely undergone subtle evolutions rather than startling revolutions,’ says Nick Orchard of Christie’s. These include his painting experiments on supports that aren’t canvas — such as the aforementioned Wall of Light Pink Pink  on aluminium, and 2002’s Vincent on linen.

Scully has expressed his fondness for metal support in particular, because it ‘doesn’t absorb. It just pushes the paint back at you, giving the impression that the paint is still wet.’

Then there are his ‘Inset’ paintings, which are essentially pictures within pictures. Here, a small piece of canvas or two is set into a larger canvas, to create a multi-dimensional structure, almost like a piece of architecture. Eve  (1992) consists of a black and white background, on top of which two small panels (one of them in stripes of red and amber) rest like inlaid jewels.

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Sean Scully, Elder, 1982. Oil on panel. 17¾ x 14½ x 2¼ in (45 x 36.8 x 5.7 cm). Sold for $271,500 on 16 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York. © Sean Scully

The market for Scully’s work

‘In the mid-2000s, Sean Scully was very popular,’ says Orchard. ‘Like a great number of artists, his prices suffered after the economic downturn in 2008; but, unlike a great number of artists, his prices — in 2018 — are higher than ever. He is in his seventies, and there’s an appreciation that he has had a long, distinguished career and ranks as one of the most important painters of the late-20th and early-21st centuries.’

As Scully himself told Christie's Magazine, ‘I’ve never been in demand like this. Even in the 1980s when I was kind of a zeitgeist — the acceptable face of abstraction — it wasn’t like this. I think it’s a question of accumulated credibility. With painting, you have a kind of slower ascent. Lucian Freud, for example, was very famous in his eighties, and like him I’ve kept at it.’

And which particular works do best?

The ‘Wall of Light’ paintings are probably the most popular and have been for a while — they account for four of the top 10 Scully prices at auction. The market values the artist’s studied dedication, reworking the same theme — in variation after variation — over the course of what’s now 20 years.

‘Having said that,’ says Orchard, ‘the “Landline” paintings have also become extremely popular lately.’ Scully’s top two prices at auction are from the ‘Landline’ series, and both sales have been in the past 18 months.

And for those wanting to buy a Sean Scully at a lower price-point?

‘I’d recommend his works in pastel,’ says Orchard. ‘They tend to be smaller and more affordable than his works in oils, but arguably have a greater intimacy to them. The market for his pastels is strong, too: this summer, M.18.04  achieved an auction-record for a work in the medium, selling at Christie’s London for £488,750.’

Sea Star: Sean Scully at the National Gallery, an exhibition of new works by Sean Scully inspired by the National Gallery Collection and Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Evening Star, runs from 13 April to 11 August 2019

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