With its glimmering spectrum of red, blue and ochre, Sean Scully’s Landline Red Horizon deftly straddles the boundary between abstraction and landscape painting. Painted on an aluminium panel measuring nearly four square metres, its horizontal bands of quivering, layered impasto conjure the meeting of land, sea and sky. Executed in 2016, the work belongs to the acclaimed Landline series that Scully began in 2013. Among the highlights of the 2015 Venice Biennale, and subsequently the subject of a major exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D. C., this extraordinary cycle of works marked a profound shift in Scully’s practice. Moving away from the abstract geometric rigour of his previous oeuvre, the artist dispensed with vertical lines, creating shimmering strips of colour that spoke directly to the rhythms of the natural world. Evocative of Mark Rothko’s colour fields, these works demonstrate a newly emotive dimension to Scully’s work, infused with a sense of nostalgia and longing. ‘I think of land, sea, sky. And they always make a massive connection’, he explains. ‘I try to paint [this] sense of the elemental coming together of land and sea, sky and land, of blocks coming together side by side, stacked in horizon lines endlessly beginning and ending – the way the blocks of the world hug each other and brush up against each other, their weight, their air, their colour, and the soft uncertain space between them’ (S. Scully, quoted in Sean Scully: Landline, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D. C., 2018, pp. 11-12).
The initial inspiration for the Landline series came from a photograph taken by Scully on a cliff edge in Norfolk in 1999, capturing the interaction between the grassy earth, the North Sea and the leaden sky above. Elsewhere, he has spoken of the elemental power he experienced gazing across the Atlantic in his native Ireland, looking towards the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. For Scully, who by 2013 had travelled widely across the globe, the idea of shifting horizon lines took on increasingly personal significance. The previous year he had suffered a devastating back injury, and found great therapeutic comfort in the act of conjuring the landscape, taking pleasure in the broad, sweeping motion of the brush. ‘Horizontal stripes are like the horizon – resting, in repose’, he explained. ‘They are tranquil’ (S. Scully, ibid., p. 12). In keeping with this aesthetic, Scully adopted a warm, rich palette, borrowing hues from the work of Courbet, Titian and Veronese: ‘I’ve looked at them adoringly for so many hours, and I’ve absorbed all their lessons’, he said (S. Scully, quoted in R. Catlin, ‘Sean Scully’s Artworks are a Study in Colour, Horizon and Life’s Sorrows’, Smithsonian Magazine, 20 September 2018). The varied blue tones of the present work, meanwhile, testify to his time in Venice during the 2015 Biennale, where he found fresh inspiration in the city’s glittering confluence of water, light and ancient stone. Hovering between lived reality and abstract memory, Landline Red Horizon takes Scully’s geometric language into thrillingly evocative territory.