Spanning nearly two metres in both height and width, the present work is an absorbing vision from Sean Scully’s celebrated Wall of Light series. Shimmering bricks of red, ochre, russet, blue and black intersect in vertical and horizontal rows, creating a glowing abstract cavern of light and shade. Initiated in 1998, and pursued as a centerpiece of his oeuvre ever since, the series was inspired by a trip to Mexico in 1983, where Scully was fascinated by the play of light on the Yucatan ruins. Their stone surfaces, scorched by the rays of the sun, seemed saturated with tales of the past: he would later describe the Maya as a ‘culture of walls and light’. The large-scale paintings grew out of a series of watercolours that Scully produced at the time, and seek to capture the artist’s emotive response to his memory of these spectacular phenomena. Moving away from the long stripes that had previously characterised his oeuvre, he surrendered to loose blocks of colour that interlocked in arbitrary patterns. Rejecting all sense of narrative or geometric hierarchy, they glimmer before the viewer like disembodied specks of light, rendered with fluid, gestural layers of colour. In 2006, the series was the subject of a major touring exhibition organised by the Phillips Collection, Washington D. C., which travelled to various locations across America. Today, examples from the series are held in institutions worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
It was around the time of his trip to Mexico that Scully’s work began to gain international recognition, following his permanent move to America during the early 1980s. His fundamental artistic outlook, however, owed much to an earlier trip abroad: to Morocco in the late 1960s, where he was struck by the vibrant North African light and the ubiquity of brightly-coloured striped textiles that dominated local neighbourhoods. Though his style was abstract in appearance, he rejected the rigorous perceptual concerns of Minimalism and Op Art, instead embracing the spiritual chromatic poetry espoused by artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Unlike the meticulous striped paintings of Bridget Riley, for example, his works consciously emphasised the trace of his own hand, rejoicing in the physical, tactile properties of paint. ‘The light in the paintings has to be opened up, pulled out’, he has explained. ‘And it is exactly this difficulty that gives the work its interior life. It is an incarnation, not an explanation’ (S. Scully, quoted in F. Ingleby (ed.), Sean Scully. Resistance and Persistence: Selected Writings, London 2006, p. 36). In the Wall of Light paintings, this approach took on a new sense of urgency: the bricks of colour quiver as if held together by some ancient, mystical force, powered by the light that appears to seep through the cracks between them. In the present work, the memory of the Mayan ruins is conjured afresh, as vivid and potent as it had been to Scully thirty years previously.