Coaxing infinite variation from a limited geometric vocabulary, Sean Scully's large-scale abstract canvases continue the rich legacy of Post-War abstraction in an age where the predominant focus is figurative subject-driven art. Since his arrival in New York in the early 70s, the Irish-born, English-educated artist has produced a compelling body of work that has evolved from hard-edge Minimalist- inspired works to a mature oeuvre, with virtuoso handling of paint and emotionally resonant palette propeling non-representational painting towards a decidedly humanistic end.
Scully views himself within a clear lineage when he states, "If you have Matisse, Mondrian and Rothko, then you've got my work". However, his work is too distinct for such easy attribution. Befitting his own transplanted personal history, he combines European formalism with American Abstract Expressionism to arrive at his own unmistakable style. Thus, aesthetic harmony, Utopian ideals and vigorous self-assertion come into delicate balance as Scully paints himself into the art historical canon.
The artist resists the art-for-art's-sake rigidity that could easily spring from his restricted arsenal of stripes, rectangles and squares through his laboured process that he characterizes as being "so much from the hand and intuition". Of decisive significance, the manner in which he works the paint imparts his pictures with rare poignancy and tangible power. Painting layer upon layer in dynamic, thoughtful and ritualized gestures, Scully lends pictorial elements an emotional charge that transcends their superficial form. His surfaces achieve the tactility of flesh and skin.
Moody subtleties are drawn from the calibrated colouration and through the exploration between figure and ground, rhythm and beat, structure and form, part and whole. The emphatic grasp of painterly corporality in rich surfaces and the experiential information located in slipped edges suggest a re-personalization of abstract painting that harks back to the depersonalization that took place during the time of Pop Art and Minimalism. Scully's painting is a strong reaction against the prevailing norm during his artistic formation.
If at the beginning of his career in the mid-late 1970s, his paintings comprised the cool, reductive look and geometric precision of his milieu, they gradually evolved in the 1980s, becoming freer and more painterly. Bearing marks of thick brushstrokes and broad gestures, these paintings manifested dense yet luminous surfaces. Progressing through the 1990s, paintings became even more open and fluid. In all of them, basic geometric forms retained their constant presence as both a pictorial device and as a means of re-ordering the perceptual world, as well as inner moods. However, they remained unfailingly human in their tactility, resembling flesh and skin and trapped physical energy and mental exertion that ossified within their tangible presence.
The anthropomorphic overtone in Scully's work is nowhere clearer than in his conception for the Passenger paintings series to which the present work belongs. Featuring a smaller inset - the 'Passenger' - which is placed within a larger structure, the artist states it "evokes a kind of mother-child association, something being protected or held by something bigger" (S. Scully cited in "Interview with Sean Scully in New York on December 13, 1998", Sean Scully, exh. cat., Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, 2001, p. 220). Scully does not take such a nurturing relationship lightly; indeed, a film Passenger A Video in Four Movements from 1997 documents the fraught birth of Passenger through trial and error until the perfect balance between guardian and ward are reached. Interestingly, the film shows Scully beginning with brightly coloured contrasting elements that gradually converge to values between white and black, as if connected through a shared genetic code.
One can assume that the same care has been taken with the present lot which features a black and white checkerboard pattern spread across an immense square format to which a vertical rectangular insert with striped grey modulations has been attached. The left edge of the 'Passenger' coincides with the imagined middle axis of the larger canvas so as to lend it a dynamic appearance, although it is vertically centered equidistant between the upper edge and lower edge of the sheltering composition. The result is chromatically harmonious but not without an edge. Already chiming between black and white, the checkerboard pulsates with the stripes of softer variegation and its slightly askew positioning only serves to heighten its dynamism. Scully states that his paintings are both melancholic on account of predominantly brooding palettes but also life-affirming in their energetic genesis. This dialectic is clearly evinced in the sombre colouring of the present work that bears a seemingly inconsolable psychic weight, but nonetheless manages to overcome it on account of both its optimistic visual beat and bounce. Its towering dimensions and vigorous surface escalates such impressions giving the work an undeniably potent physical presence.
In addition to their obvious architectonic scale, Scully intends for his work to be read intimately. Both literally and metaphorically, the present work can be said to have powerful and intimate counterparts.