Sean Scully may, in the words of the late philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, be ‘an artist whose name belongs to the shortest of the short lists of major painters of our time,’ but he has never exhibited at the Venice Biennale. ‘Not so much as a postage stamp,’ he says.
Born in Ireland, raised in England and a US citizen since 1983 who is ‘loved by the Germans and now the Chinese’, Scully has, he says, ‘a national identity so hard to fix in people’s minds’ that it would be difficult for him to represent any one nation.
But his friend Danilo Eccher, director of the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin, wanted to do something with him in Venice this year. ‘He said: “Let’s get a palace and do a show”,’ Scully tells me at his gallery, Timothy Taylor, in London, which he is visiting en route to Beijing. ‘So he found one, and we went to look at it, and it was crazy it was so ornate. Danilo said: “You have to remember, you are in Venice.” But I didn’t want to remember. So someone else found another palace. And this one was just beautiful, on the Grand Canal, with big, spare rooms.’ Scully’s speech, usually robust, slow and deliberate, his accent essentially English except when he says ‘aluminum’ and ‘pain’ing’, falls theatrically to a drawn-out whisper. ‘It’s just wonderful!’ he says.
‘I have never made paintings that declare themselves as defenders of abstraction. They are all metaphorical’
The space in question is the 15th-century Palazzo Falier, close to the Accademia, and in it will hang Scully’s recent Landline paintings, composed of broad horizontal bands of muted colour painted on metal (aluminium, stainless steel or copper) which ‘doesn’t absorb anything like canvas or paper,’ says Scully, ‘it just pushes the paint back out at you’ — giving the impression that the paint is still wet. ‘Copper is the slipperiest,’ he adds. ‘It’s like ice-skating as opposed to walking. The surface is very responsive to every movement you make, so the brush moves a lot faster.’
He thinks the paintings will resonate well in Venice. ‘They look as though they’re influenced by water and related to seascapes, with lots of blues,’ he says. ‘There is a sort of side-to-side rocking motion in some of them, like the water in the canals as it heaves up against a building and then returns to flop against the wall opposite.’ For although he describes his work as abstract, he takes what he calls a ‘very associational’ approach: ‘I have never made paintings that declare themselves as defenders of abstraction. They’re all metaphorical.’
Left: Sean Scully, Landline Blue Black Cream, 2014.
Right: Sean Scully, Landline Green Sea, 2014. © Sean Scully, courtesy the artist.
This promises to be quite a summer for Scully. Running concurrently with the Venice show are exhibitions in São Paulo, at the Pinacoteca do Estado; in Neuhaus, Austria, where he is the subject of the inaugural show at the new Museum Liaunig; in Cork, at the Crawford Art Gallery; and in Dublin, where the National Gallery of Ireland will be exhibiting five major paintings from the collection of 40 works held by Tate in London, as well as recent photographs. Exhibitions in Rostock and Beijing have just come to an end.
‘I’ve never been in demand like this,’ he says. ‘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.’
The artist’s most enduring project of 2015, however, will be within the recently restored 10th-century Romanesque church of Santa Cecília on Montserrat, the mountain 40km north-west of Barcelona, which is scheduled to open on 30 June, Scully’s 70th birthday. Here, the Benedictine monks of the neighbouring abbey have given him carte blanche to make work for the church: a series of large oil-on-metal panels — essentially abstract, although some allude to the patron saint of music, to whom the church is dedicated, with small insets of exposed metal scored with lines reminiscent of a stave — and one ‘kick-ass painting on Cor-Ten steel that’s about six metres long and had to be welded together inside the church so it can never leave; it’ll be there for 1,000 years’. There is nothing obviously religious in any of it; but, says Scully, ‘I’d say there was still a very profound aspect of the spiritual. That’s where abstraction dominates, I think. It expresses what cannot be described anecdotally.’
Sketch for Santa Cecília © Sean Scully, courtesy the artist
In addition, he has designed the stained glass for both a panel to go behind the altar and the windows, not to mention the candleholders and torchères for the altar. ‘I’m still thinking about doing some frescoes,’ he adds. ‘But I’ll have to go to fresco classes before I can do that.’
Scully’s parents emigrated from Dublin in 1949, when Scully was four, and he grew up in London, a childhood he describes as ‘immensely unhappy. I’ve known a lot of suffering in my life. A lot of grief. It was a very dense experience.’ That said, he has been trying to buy back one of the houses his extended family lived in on Highbury Hill, near the pub where his ‘granny used to sing for drinks’ and the old Arsenal football stadium. (‘Everything was centred on that,’ says Scully. ‘My father [later a barber] played for Arsenal juniors.’)
Having lived in the USA for 40 years, he is planning to move back to North London. ‘I left England because I had to,’ he tells me. ‘I didn’t want to. But conceptualism was so omnipresent that it suffocated everything else. It took all the oxygen out of the air. So I went where the work was. Like Rubens came to London, or Holbein when he worked for Henry VIII, you have to go where people want you. You can’t impose yourself on a culture.’
Having moved upstate from lower Manhattan to swish Sneden’s Landing for the sake of his young son’s education, Scully has now decided he would rather bring him up in Europe. He sees himself as ‘having gone to America and been very successful there’, but it’s time for a new chapter. ‘And Europe is fabulous, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘It’s fantastic. I have had a place in Barcelona for more than 10 years; 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. ‘It’s because my work expresses the Nietzschean ideal of maximum emotion and maximum structure, expressed simultaneously but not finding a truce,’ he says, deadpan.
Scully is also popular with the picture editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. ‘They use my work all the time,’ he says.‘They have these long pieces about the European Union, and they always illustrate them with a painting of mine. I think they see them as a metaphor for Europe, because they’re about things that fit and things that don’t, blocks that come together or compete for space. They have a sort of energy about them as they push together or come apart.’
Sean Scully, Horizontal Soul, 2014, oil on aluminium. © Sean Scully, courtesy the artist
But it is London that interests him most at the moment. Especially since he was elected to the Royal Academy three years ago. ‘That kind of made a difference. It’s connected me in a way that I wasn’t before, more than I realised it would.’ His pride in the fact that one of his paintings, Doric Night, now hangs in the Academicians’ Room, is plain. ‘It just looks amazing! It takes up the whole end wall!’
Before he goes to Venice this summer, however, Scully is off to China. Last year, he became the first Western artist to have a career-length retrospective there, when the Shanghai Himalayas Museum was given over to Follow the Heart: The Art of Sean Scully 1964–2014, featuring more than 100 paintings as
well as his monumental sculpture, China Piled Up, a massive structure of interlocking metal beams commissioned for the exhibition.
The show inspired almost 150 press reviews as well as television coverage. Scully was especially chuffed when Gillian Wearing singled it out as one of her top five shows of 2015, not least for its inclusion of his large-scale ‘manifesto‘ polyptych, Backs and Fronts (1981) – ‘the work,’ she wrote, ‘that broke the logjam of American minimalist painting’. The exhibition moved to Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in March.
‘They do seem to love me in China,’ says Scully. ‘It took everyone by surprise, but there seems to be some profound connection between what I do and what they want. They’ve got a lot of art, but they don’t have the sort of painting I do, and the artists who are obviously hot in the West aren’t the people who are hot in the East.’
‘My son is six years old and he’s already showing his work. It’s like Mozart. I hope I don’t destroy him’
The Chinese know about and produce pop art, performance art and conceptualism, he says, but there’s no real tradition of abstract painting, even though, as a student at the Parsons School in New York in the early 1980s, Ai Weiwei focused on minimalism. ‘I taught him what I was doing myself at that time,’ says Scully, who was a professor there, ‘which was to emotionalise your work without giving up the strength of its structure.’ He pauses. ‘Though I also told him not to make paintings at all, but to concentrate on conceptual art and to make it more emotional. It needed to become less pure because the mother of creativity is impurity. I was right on both counts, it turns out: right about his painting, which was terrible, and right about what he should do instead.’ He and Ai remain in touch. In Shanghai last year, their sons had play dates together.
Whatever direction the conversation takes with Scully, sooner or later it comes back to his son. He shows me paintings of him ‘in the style that I used to paint in the 1960s, a rejigging of a kind of German Expressionism, I suppose’ (it’s a style reminiscent of the Blaue Reiter painters and even of Schiele at his most benign — beautiful, affecting and, after half a century of grids and blocks, surprising). Then there are his son’s drawings, and pictures the two of them have done together, some of which featured in the show at Kunsthalle Rostock in Germany earlier this year, others intended for a terrific-looking children’s book about a wolf. ‘He’s six years old and he’s already showing his work,’ he says. ‘It’s like Mozart. I hope I don’t destroy him, poor little boy.’
And then, just as all this proud paternal emotion threatens to tip into sentimentality, Scully reverts to his bluff public face. ‘But, as I like to say, any idiot can be famous. For 10 minutes. If you have been to art school, you ought to be able to manage a blip. The question is, can you keep coming back? That’s the test.’
Main image: the artist photographed in his Barcelona studio with (from left) Wall of light Pink Grey Sky, 2011, Red and Black, 2013 and Barcelona Red Black Pink, 2013. © Sean Scully, courtesy the artist. Photograph by Nick Ballon. This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine. Subscribe here
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