Whitehot Magazine

Sean Scully: Disembodied Embodiments

Sean Scully, Shadow Stack, 2018. Corten steel, 176 3/8 by 98 3/8 by 102 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.


Sean Scully: Pan will remain on view through June 8, 2019 at Lisson Gallery at 504 West 24th Street and 138 Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. www.lissongallery.com 

Austere, monumental and imposing, Shadow Stack of Sean Scully is a corten steel sculpture, just about fifteen feet high, audaciously confronting the visitor in Lisson Gallery on West 24th Street in Manhattan. With varying yet proximate lateral dimensions no larger than about eight by eight feet, twenty rows of roughly nine-inch high metal are horizontally stacked upon one another, rendering the viewer’s body Lilliputian. While inducing a sense of frailty of the perceiver’s corporeality, this industrial stack paradoxically transmits an aura of quietude, reassuring the visitor of the sculpture’s stability, as the seemingly obdurate mass conveys a sense of the immovable. 

The concrete floor upon which Shadow Stack rests extends to the supporting ground of the ambulant visitor, whose relationship to this architectonic edifice is transformed into a phenomenological dance: as the dormant stack conveys a sense of permanence, it prompts the viewer’s awareness of spatiality, gravity, motility and corporeity—an awareness initiated not only through the scale of the work but also through the rustic brown coloration of weathering steel and its commandeering sense of weight and materiality imparted within the observer’s field of vision and in relation to one’s corporeal presence. Through the sheer horizontality of its rows, Shadow Stack also sets a formal and perceptual tenet (or denouement) of Scully’s ten recent paintings that become grasped as transformations of aspects of the material world into the pictorial, as often suggested by their poetic titles.

Sean Scully, Landline Blue Dark, 2019 (second from left within this installation view). Oil on aluminum, 85 by 75 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Having drawn from an art historical lineage of modernist painters—including Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko—the paintings of Scully mine the formalist vocabularies of twentieth-century abstraction, often conflating abstraction and allusion through such titles as Landline Blue Dark, Landline Long Grey, Landline Falling and Landline Rust Blue. This suite of four rectangular oil-on-aluminum paintings hangs on the east wall of the gallery, where each panel measures just about seven feet high and six and a quarter feet wide. The seemingly horizontal, painterly bands of Landline Blue Dark (2019), for example, are executed in deeply meditative hues of medium blue, dim grey, maroon and black. The painting captivates the observer through lyrical brushstrokes that appear to be exalting the materiality of paint, pigment and abstraction, without abandoning fragmentary allusions to bodies of water, land, night, horizon or any other association the observer may desire to cast. Scully imbues his hypnotic compositions with dramatic painterly gestures that incite the beholder’s subjective reaction. Though the aluminum support of the painting is rectangular, structurally rigid and industrial, upon the surface of that infrastructure Scully reveals a painterly process that conveys a sense of ethereal dynamism which remains historically attached to the legacy of modernist painting.

Whereas the nebular, horizontal bands of Scully may come across as variegated and romanticized nods to Agnes Martin’s ascetic compositional syntax, these four paintings remain intimately tied to the painterly language that Mark Rothko established and continued practicing through such works as Number 11 (1949), Untitled (1951) or White Band (Number 27) (1954). Thus Landline Rust Blue (2019) of Scully can be read as a compositional extension of Agnes Martin’s Untitled #3 (1995), where figure and ground have been transformed into visual synonyms, while the resplendent blue and burgundy bands of Scully here convey a sense of distinctive luminosity we find in Rothko. In Landline Falling (2018) of Scully, drips of paint reassert the flatness of the medium, as if to render such indexical marks as envoys of gravity and chance that set themselves apart from the lofty sublime of the upper bands executed in such colors as navy, deep vivid blue and black—colors that disembody the physicality of the medium. For Scully fortuitousness has remained inseparable from his handling of the brush for the past four decades, as luminosity and shadow—insofar as visual perception is concerned—themselves comprise fortuitous phenomenons.

Except that Scully translates that reality “abstractly” through his works, relying upon properties of coloration that we find, for instance, in the minutiae of Venus and Adonis (1560s) by Titian, Venus and Adonis (circa 1617) by Peter Paul Rubens or View of Notre Dame (1941) by Henri Matisse. Within Landline Falling the horizontal strokes that generate each band remain at a minute distance from the side edges of the aluminum support, further triggering spatial nuances. Here Scully deftly collapses the separations of abstraction and illusion, as the visual perception of light, depth and volume are generated through the concrete reality of the medium of oil. While gestures of the brush in lighter colors appear to protrude the picture surface, the darker ones seem to recede, as if to demonstrate that luminosity and the optical characteristics of color are based upon physical properties of matter and the effects of reflection and refraction of light.

Sean Scully, Doric Cream Red, 2019. Oil on linen, 28 by 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Whereas the above four paintings of Scully adhere primarily to billowy, horizontal bands, Doric Cream Red (2019) and Untitled (Doric) (2019) present tessellations of vertical and horizontal bars that call to mind the motif of post-and-lintel construction and thereby continue expanding the modernist romance with the grid through a highly painterly method that has been Scully’s eminent facture since the early eighties. These relatively small, oil-on-linen paintings appear as homages to Piet Mondrian’s seminal abstraction, except here Scully has reformulated the rigorous, linear method of Mondrian through a highly gestural one. The composition of these paintings of Scully also recall, for instance, Color for a Large Wall (1951) of Ellsworth Kelly, where the Cartesian grid has been materialized through sixty-four panels. Despite the planarity of Scully’s composition, each section of the partly irregular grid usurps flatness through accumulated layers of impasto that appear wet, reveling the medium of oil in one of its most intrinsic forms, while transfiguring the planarity of each cell of the matrix into a bulbous rectangle that shifts the idealized, utopian modernism through the voluptuous thickness, sensual stratification and fleshy materiality of oil paint. Along with the suggestion of brick, there is the impression of an abstracted, flattened, ethereal pillow that each painterly cell of Scully imparts.

Sean Scully, Time, 2018. Oil on aluminum. 85 by 75 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Time (2018), on the other hand, relies upon vertical blue bands and brown stripes to set a ground that frames a multicolor inset of horizontal stripes. Within the gallery, vivid coloration reaches one of its utmost heights here, where the painting seems to reassert the sensuous pleasure of opulent, Matissean colorfulness within the arena of the abstract. This vibrant palette of Scully brings to mind, for instance, Large Reclining Nude/The Pink Nude (1935) or Woman in Blue/The Large Blue Robe and Mimosas (1937) of Matisse. The compositions of such paintings as Day-Glo Prison (1982) or Decision (2011) of Peter Halley are also evoked by Time of Scully. Though Halley retains Mondrian’s sharpness of line only to systematically reinvent the palette and texture of the surface through florescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex, Time translates Mondrian through gestural traces of color. As suggested by Halley’s titles that include such words as conduit, cell, prison, his seemingly abstract paintings are references to such mediums of communication as the telephone, fax machine, cable television, Internet and Instagram of our times—systems and agencies that continue restructuring society and the individual through the technological and digital. The caesura of Time of Scully, that block that is inset, renders it a painterly counterpart of Halley’s compositional language and hence for a moment can be read as a visual representation of our data-drenched society. But perhaps the bouncing fluidity within Scully’s pink, yellow, dark blue and red multilayered bands conveys a sense of return to nature, recalling the critique of technology by Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer: “Man has reduced nature to an object for domination, a raw material. The compulsive urge to cruelty and destruction springs from the organic displacement of the relationship between the mind and body.”1 

Sean Scully, Vice Versa Green, 2019. Oil on aluminum, two panels, 85 by 75 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Each panel of the diptych Vice Versa Green (2019) holds a block that appears to be extracted from the other panel. Here Scully invites the observer to a gestalt type of an experience in deciphering the whole-part dialectic the four parts furnish. Formalistically, Vice Versa Green synthesizes Doric Cream Red, Untitled (Doric) and Time, conjuring up such notions as opticality, tactility and the prägnanz—a principal of visual perception that underpins concision and meaning. As simplistic as it might be to figure out the relationships between the reciprocated interior panels to their formerly exterior ones, for a moment the beholder may have to strive for grasping those associations not only within the diptych but also among the other paintings on display. Vice Versa Green inevitably lends itself as a brilliant visual metaphor of the artist’s oeuvre, connoting a set of associations of his style to modernist precedents and contemporary practices.

Sean Scully, Shutter, 2019. Oil on aluminum, 110 by 212 1/2 inches (left). Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

With its monumental scale, Shutter (2019) expands the vaguely horizontal motif of the luminous Landline paintings, only to disrupt continuous horizontality through four vertical segments, each consisting of two bands of alternating colors. While its title may suggest the Venetian blind or camera, each of the four sections of the painting evoke, for instance, Untitled (Stack) (1967) of Donald Judd, whose advocacy of “rationalism” within Minimalism was a denunciation of the Abstract Expressionist “sublime”—as contended in his 1965 essay “Specific Objects.” Shutter offers the spectator a consolidation of that diametrical opposition, whereby such contrary pairs as singularity and repetition or the subjective and rational may become regarded as restrictive linguistic categories.  

Sean Scully, Ten Ton Ceiling, 2017. Bronze and aluminum, 34 by 40 by 47 inches (foreground). Madonna, 2019. Oil and oil pastel on aluminum, 85 by 75 inches (background right). Boy Land, 2019. Oil and oil pastel on aluminum, two panels, 118 by 75 inches each (background left). Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery

Within Lisson Gallery located at 138 Tenth Avenue, Ten Ton Ceiling (2017) of Scully greets the visitor with piles of Duchampian readymade objects, as worn ceiling tiles appear to have been placed there temporarily in order to be disposed. Yet as these “ceiling tiles” are cast either in bronze or aluminum, their art-historical reference becomes expanded. It is unlikely not to find associations between Ten Ton Ceiling and Steel-Aluminum Plain (1969) by Carl Andre of the Art Institute of Chicago. Whereas the “tiles” of Andre suspend the distinctions of the ideal geometric form and material reality of the object, this sculpture of Scully brings together Duchamp, Minimalism and Pop. And yet unlike the Brillo Boxes of Andy Warhol that mimic commercial packaging, Scully transforms the mundane, mass-produced commodity into an object that is both art-historically charged and biographical, as Ten Ton Ceiling is cast out of ceiling tiles from the studio of the artist.

The six partly figurative drawings of Scully, executed in 1966, echo the compositional elements and palette of Zulma (1950) of Matisse. In these painterly drawings bright colors give rise to recognizable human figures, although a certain degree of abstraction and flatness also prevail, as a given face or torso is a sum of monochromatic patches. In three recent paintings of Scully, all titled Madonna, there is a surprising return to significant figuration, where the subjects are based on “photographs taken of his family at the beach,” as noted on the press release of the gallery. Retaining his vibrant Matissean palette of red, orange, blue, green and pink, these large-scale paintings are executed in oil and oil pastel on aluminum. Despite the sumptuous coloring of this Madonna series, these paintings evoke the ethos of The Artist and His Mother (1926-circa 1946) by Arshile Gorky at the Whitney Museum of American Art or the one at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., two paintings based on a photograph of the artist with his mother. While the photographs of Gorky and Scully are distant from each other by place and time, these works of both artists cannot but elicit autobiographical references to catastrophic famines, mass starvations and deaths during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Ireland and Armenia. Though both Scully and Gorky would practice painting through the leading currents of their times, only to originate untrodden paths, the Madonna series here and The Artist and His Mother paintings of Gorky demonstrate the power of recognizable imagery as indispensable means of representing personal and cultural histories. As these paintings of both artists are derived from photographs, they call forth the concept of the punctum of Roland Barthes, that visual detail of a photograph that gives rise to a compelling psychological response within the viewer: “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me),” reflects Barthes.2 

Dated 2019, the diptych entitled Boy Land of Scully notably juxtaposes an extension of his recent Landline series with a figurative painting representing his son from an overhead view, as if this image were an extension of the Madonna series, paintings within which a given representation of hat, hair or hand may come across as one possible punctum of the original photograph—that subjective voice that punctuates the studium of Barthes. This bipartite painting of Scully, each containing a pair of insets, operates as a formalist and autobiographical archaeology of the artist’s oeuvre, along with references to seminal trajectories that have shaped painting over the past century or so. It frames—both structurally and pictorially—the past, present and likely upcoming parameters of the artist’s paintwork. Titled Sean Scully: Pan, this exhibition presents works that absorbingly embody the physicality of a given medium, only to numinously disembody that physicality within the realm of the beholder’s perception. WM 


1. Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. John Cumming (London and New York: Verso, 1972), p. 233. Cited in Anna C. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects of Abstraction (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 212.

2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980), trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 27.


Raphy Sarkissian

Raphy Sarkissian received his masters in studio arts from New York University and is currently affiliated with the School of Visual Arts in New York. His recent writings on art include essays for exhibition catalogues, monographs and reviews. He has written on Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Anish Kapoor, KAWS, David Novros, Sean Scully, Liliane Tomasko, Dan Walsh and Jonas Wood. He can be reached through his website www.raphysarkissian.com.

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