‘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
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
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
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.
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
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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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
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
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