‘Abstraction is the art of our age it’s a breaking down of certain structures, an opening up. It allows you to think without making obsessively specific references, so that the viewer is free to identify with the work. Abstract art has the possibility of being incredibly generous, really out there for everybody. It’s a non-denominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time’ (S. Scully, ‘Some Basic Principles,’ in B. Kennedy, Sean Scully: The Art of the Stripe, Hanover 2008, p. 13).
Painted in 2012, Wall of Light Reef forms part of Sean Scully’s celebrated ‘Wall of Light’ series that explores the quality of light through an architectural composition of gestural blocks of colour. Scully’s geometric style combines the minimalist aesthetic that prevailed throughout his early years as a painter, with the abstract sublime inherited from key figures from the New York School of colour-field abstractionists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Bold rectangles of deep red burn through the canvas, tempered by uneven bricks of ochre, saffron and brown infected black, resulting in a colour scheme of overwhelming warmth. The artist’s engagement with the act of painting is tangible in the textured, expressive brushstrokes that sweep each block of colour in juxtaposed vertical and horizontal directions, his hand clearly visible in the layering of paint. Scully’s ‘Wall of Light’ series is characterised by its lack of visual hierarchy and narrative structure. Each block of colour is realized both as a self-contained unit and in balance with the composition as a whole. Scully presents his viewer with a soft geometry in which, despite their clearly articulated shapes, painted edges overlap and colours filter through one another. What seems, at first, a simple configuration of interlocked shapes is, in fact, a profound cavern of light and shade, the dark elements of the canvas, like black holes, absorb light, while the lighter sections radiate and reflect. Other examples from this series are held in significant international museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York (A Wall of Light White, 1998) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Wall of Light Brown, 2000), as well as being the subject of a major touring exhibition in 2005-2006 around America. Scully is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai, which will travel to the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, Beijing in March 2015.
In the late 1960s Scully visited Morocco where he was struck by the geometry of his surroundings: local colour-dyed woolen cloth hanging in strips to dry, the dilapidated façades of faded buildings. Scully turned to abstraction, initially following minimalism’s lead, but eventually came to the conclusion that it was reductive to the point of non-communication. Influenced by the abstract expressionists Scully aimed to bring poetry into abstraction, developing his own unique artistic language, illuminated by the spiritual: ‘Newman tried to make a space that was spiritually charged, and that is what I try to do in my work too. I basically believe the world is filled with spiritual energy and am very involved with things that attract it’ (S. Scully, ‘On Mythology, Abstraction and Mystery’ in F. Ingleby (ed.), Sean Scully: Resistance and Persistence: Selected Writings, London 2006, p. 90.) The ‘Wall of Light’ series was inspired by a trip to Mexico in 1983-1984 where Scully was fascinated by the spectacular effect of light and shadow on the ancient Mayan ruins of Yucatan. From this point onwards he began to explore a less formal geometry than in previous work. As Danilo Eccher notes: ‘The result was a geometry that was less precise, less self-confident, less presumptuous, becoming instead more poetic, more mysterious, more intimate and more truthful’ (D. Eccher, ‘Sean Scully’ in Sean Scully: A Retrospective, London 2007, p. 13). Scully’s art, with its complex, transcendental depth, communicates a vitality connected with both a natural and an otherworldly light.