The Irish-born American painter Sean Scully (Dublin, 1945) starts to work with Abstraction at the beginning of the Seventies. He becomes interested in the humanisation of painting in opposition to formalist parameters; according to Scully his work can be summed up in the move “from the object line to the subject line”. The directions, represented by horizontal and vertical lines and the tensions they create, are at the heart of his production. This new geometrical approach, which moves away from the idea of purity and appropriates errors, reflects the troublesome relationship between the individual and the collective and opens up a new field of reflection, previously unknown to abstract painting.
This exhibition in the Palacio de Velázquez originated in 1985 when Nicholas Serota, director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery at the time, begins to select Scully's works for the exhibit. His successor, Catherine Lampert, carries this on with visits to his New York and London studios, resulting in forty-four paintings and work on paper, all from the Eighties.
The exhibit is dedicated to one of the artist's friends, Charles Choset, a writer, composer and collector. It introduces Scully's usual working process based on the unification of a minimum of three panels and canvases to compose the final piece. Each panel has a series of bands where the colours alternate and Scully applies layers of paint without letting the previous layers dry, hence the reason why it isn't unusual to see various seemingly uniform colours in the same stripe.
Scully distinguishes layers of paint towards the end of the Seventies, alternating between matte acrylics and vibrant oils, and fully works the nuances that the colour and texture allow him, developing an interplay of reflexivity that continues until he lightens his palette. In 1970 purples and blues appear as Scully works solely with oils.
Acrylic facilitates the process of creating the grids as it dries quickly. At the beginning he also uses masking tape to erase the hand prints from his work, but in 1981 he makes certain changes to the canvas How It Is as he peels off the tape, and from then on he ceases to use it altogether. The piece Araby (1981), now painted without this technique, leads Scully to the period in which the paintings and etchings in the exhibition belong.
In the twenty-three canvases displayed, differences can be noted with regard to previous works since some of the bands widen to appear as monochrome fields. Others become thin lines, as is the case in Narcissus (1984) and Standing (1986).
In White Window (1988), one of his most recent paintings, the structural conception is clearly discerned and internally articulates Scully's work. The black and grey stripes set out the order on the simple and stable premise of a rectangle, although he does move away from symmetry as it already contains the point and counter-point and makes the tension tangible.
In Scully's work the bands also play an architectural role, for instance in White Window and Why and What (Yellow) (1988) they work as pictorial equivalents of posts and lintels. These same supports of certain lines on others, playing with balance and imbalance, can be observed in his work on paper. The selection of ten pastel paintings, three monotypes, five aquatints, two xylographs and one watercolour complete the exhibition and are testimony to the command of artistic principles in Sean Scully's work.
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (May 5 - June 25, 1989); Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (July 12 - August 27, 1989)