Sean Scully, Painter Poet by Donald Kuspit

 Sean Scully, Landline Pink, 2013, © Sean Scully


If reading prose is like taking pills for arthritic pain, then reading poetry is akin to that of a steroid injection directly into an inflamed joint.  In other words, poetry speaks to the unconscious and facilitates the mentalization of the nonverbal substrate of the psyche.  Reading poetry informs one about the inner state of affairs, embraces empathy with the self, and therefore facilitates mourning.  Writing poetry involves self-holding, illusory though omnipotent manipulation of objects, discovery of the internal source of anguish through its mentalization, and a mastery of pain through “self-dosed” suffering and surviving the suffering.                                 

-- Salman Akhtar, New Clinical Realms (1) 

Sean Scully is undoubtedly a major master of abstraction, largely geometrical but not without gestural touches, as the often brushy painterliness that informs the geometrical bands of many of his works, giving them a moody expressiveness, indicates.  Landline Pink, 2013 and Landline North Blue, 2014 are two among many such subliminally expressionist geomorphic works, contrasting sharply with his smoother, more finished looking works, such as Blue and Precious, both 1981, or the earlier, even more static, ingenious grid paintings, such as Harvard Frame Painting, 1972 and Green Light, 1972-1973.  All of these works, along with many others, are on display at the huge retrospective of Scully’s works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The catalogue has a number of art historical essays that exhaustively analyze Scully’s works, convincingly arguing he is the grand, climactic master of geometrical abstraction.  His art is about the eternal return of eternal geometry, geometry being “knowledge of the eternally existent,” as Pythagoras said.  Whatever existentializing touches give his geometrical forms auratic presence, they remain Platonically autonomous and transcendent—transcend the gestural vicissitudes that seem to mar them but that in fact underline their perfection by giving it sensuous presence.  However profaned—sullied, perversely informed--by gestural touches, Scully’s geometry remains peculiarly intact, numinously present, implicitly pure, a hierophanic revelation.  Each and every one of his paintings is an aesthetic masterpiece, seemingly beautiful and sublime, inviting and intimidating at once.

Sean Scully, Heart of Darkness, 1982, © Sean Scully

But however much the bands and rectangles in Scully’s Heart of Darkness, 1982 are conspicuously geometrical, the title of the painting alludes to Joseph Conrad’s morbid novel Heart of Darkness, 1899, suggesting that Scully’s abstraction is not pure art, art unmarked and uninformed—unsullied--by human experience.  Conrad’s novel tells an existential story, the all too human story of Charles Marlow, a sailor tasked with finding Kurtz, an ivory trader who has “gone native,” that is, become a “savage,” that is, rejected civilization.  Kurtz is a kind of outlaw and outlier, estranged from society, not to say a misfit.  For Gauguin, also alienated from and rejecting so-called civilized society, artists had “lost all their savagery,” had “no more instincts,” as he wrote in 1903.  He chose to live among “savages” in Tahiti to recover his.  Writing about “Symbolism in Painting” in 1891, the great critic G.-Albert Aurier—he gave the name to the movement--singled out Gauguin as the exemplary Symbolist, for he had “the gift of emotivity,” not banal “sentimentality” but “transcendental emotivity,” that is, emotions as ends in themselves rather than as responses to objects.  They became evident in “the pulsing drama of the abstractions”—Gauguin’s abstractions, as Gauguin called his paintings, in the form of “symbols—that is, Ideas—that arise from the darkness”—dare one say the unconscious, the “formidable unknown,” as Aurier called it.  Scully’s paintings are fraught with transcendental emotivity, more particularly they have a certain sullen grace that bespeaks muted suffering, a sort of tragic sense of life managed, contained, and controlled by his geometrical forms, one steadily building upon and connected to each other, their integration and unification in an often complex pattern indicative of what Freud called ego strength—the ego strength necessary to manage instincts, not to say the feelings that the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg says are their foundation.

Sean Scully, Agosto, from the portfolio Etchings for Federico García Lorca, © Sean Scully

I think the key to Scully’s art are the 13 etchings he made to accompany James Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach, 1993 and his 10 Etchings for Frederico Garcia Lorca, 2003, along with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which, as Scully said, “made a lasting impression on him.”  Joyce and Beckett are Irish, as Scully is, and Lorca was Spanish.  The homosexual and republican Lorca was a misfit in Franco’s fascist Spain; he was murdered by it.  Joyce and Beckett were alienated from Irish society; Scully was what might be called a natural born alien and outsider in it because he was an Irish Traveler, “a traditionally peripatetic ethno-cultural group originating in Ireland,” sometimes mistaken for or confused with Gypsies, “generally found in Eastern Europe.”  They are two distinct cultures and societies, with different languages.  In 2011 there were around 29,500 Irish Travelers in the Irish Republic, and they are generally regarded as inferior whites, as the scholar Michal Wolniak notes, and as such marginalized, and perceived as “mad, primitive others,” as he writes.  Sean Scully, born in Dublin, Ireland in 1945 to working class Irish Traveler family, could not help but have an inferiority complex. 

After holding many jobs, he eventually became an artist, an educated artist, as his knowledge of Frederick Garcia Lorca and James Joyce works, as well as Samuel Beckett’s, another innovative Irish writer, indicate.  I am suggesting that Scully identified with them because they were social outsiders, as he was, and because their writing was psychologically minded, that is, involved the description of psychological states, particularly Beckett’s, who was psychoanalyzed by the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion when he was a youth, and worked as James Joyce’s secretary.  Scully identifies with them.  One might say they are his emotional mentors, the emotional touchstones of what has been called his “emotional abstraction,” or, as I would prefer to say, his psychodynamic abstraction.  Kandinsky said that feeling was all in abstraction; I would say the unconscious resonates in Scully’s abstraction, not through this or that particular feeling, but more basically a pervasive sense of feeling as the fundament of being, an idea implicit in what Lorca called the “duende.” 

1.21.89, 1989, by Sean Scully (American, born Ireland 1945) (Collection of the artist) © Sean Scully

Kandinsky said that an abstract painting is a musical composition.  But Scully’s abstract paintings are poems, as their forms, sometimes harmoniously rhyming in discreet stanzas, sometimes eccentrically at odds in what seem to be randomly constructed, not to say free form poems, suggest.  Walter Pater famously said that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” but as Aristotle said poetry involves catharsis, suggesting that Scully’s paintings are cathartic abstractions.    Scully’s abstract poems have rhyme, rhythm, and meter, sometimes read as free verse, sometimes as systemic verse, to play on the idea of systemic painting, which is the way Lawrence Alloway characterized Scully’s type of painting, but they have a poignancy, even a subliminal pathos, and a flexibility, even fluidity—for the geometry often forms a stream, indicating that his works are informed by process painting--that systemic painting lacks.  

James Joyce’s poems are tender-minded, not to say sentimental, as such titles as “A Flower Given To My Daughter,” “Gentle Lady, Do Not Sing,” “I Would In That Sweet Bosom Being,” “My Dove, My Beautiful One,” “Love Came To Us” indicate.  In contrast, Beckett’s plays and novels are tough-minded and morbid.  Waiting For Godot, officially a tragicomedy, is more tragic than comic—the comic is a sort of defense against the tragic--as the scene in which the two main characters contemplate suicide indicates.  Death is a perennial theme in Beckett—living death—as his novels indicate.  “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all,” Beckett writes in Malone Dies, 1955.  Perhaps more pointedly, Waiting for Godot, 1949 is about the problematic relationship of the two protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, described as tramps, not to say social misfits.  I suggest that they allude to the relationship of a psychoanalyst and his patient, the relational psychoanalyst Bion, whose idea of “bizarre objects” seemed to have influenced Beckett—Vladimir and Estragon, along with Pozzo and Lucky, two other characters in the play, are unmistakably and incorrigibly bizarre--and his analysand Beckett, whose novels and plays are filled with paranoid anxiety.  A so-called theater of the absurd, Waiting for Godot is a surrealist farce, for it shows that “the mind placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet (dare one say an artistic outlet) in the absurd,” as Breton said.  The difficulty in Beckett’s play is that Godot doesn’t come and probably doesn’t exist, suggesting that it is absurd to wait for him.  I suggest that Scully’s abstractions idealize the absurd, as their eccentric, not to say idiosyncratic construction suggests, and as such might be called surreal abstractions, for there is an aspect of “pure psychic automatism” to them, to refer to one of Breton’s definitions of Surrealism, appropriated from the psychologist Pierre Janet, implying, however unwittingly or perhaps insidiously, that abstraction is an absurd art, which it certainly is from the perspective of what Freud called the reality principle and realistic art.     

Uist, 1991, by Sean Scully (American, born Ireland 1945) (Private Collection. Courtesy of Beaumont Nathan Art Advisory) © Sean Scully

But I think what gives Scully’s geometrical abstractions their uncanny power—their unconscious significance--is that they are informed and inspired by the duende.  “The duende,” Lorca writes, “is a force not a labor, a struggle not a thought.  I heard an old maestro of the guitar say:  ‘The duende is not in the throat, the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’  Meaning it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that is truly alive:  meaning it’s in the veins:  meaning, its of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.”  The duende “rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned.”  It is demonic, irrational, and implies an awareness of death.  It seems to be an expression of what Freud called the corrosive death instinct, perhaps explaining the odd blurred look of Scully’s bands and blocks of colors, more generally his oddly atmospheric geometry.  He has said he is “very interested in disharmony, because I wanted the painting to be unresolved but not unresolvable.”(3)  His paintings seem unresolved because of their atmospheric, energized color, resolved because of their oddly solid, imperturbable geometry, containing the intense color, emblematic of the duende, indeed, activated by the duende.  Scully’s poetic paintings are also prosaically geometrical, suggesting they are paradoxes, the opposites of deadpan geometry and vitalizing touch inextricably entangled in an aesthetic Gordian knot.  Scully’s ambivalence, the simultaneity of good geometry and bad instinct—or is it bad deadpan geometry and vitalizing gesture--is a sign of the sophistication of his art. 

Overcoming the split, not to say conflict, between geometric and gestural abstraction, Scully shows that neither is a dead-end.  At first glance Scully’s paintings seem caught between the Scylla of geometrical repression and the Charybdis of gestural expression, more pointedly between civilized control and “savage” instinct, but at second glance they seem to reconcile them poetically, that is, unconsciously, suggesting that we are instinctively drawn to geometrical forms, rather than only cognize them intellectually, contemplate them rather than yearn for them as a sort of intellectual haven from troublesome emotions.  Scully’s is a subtly refined dialectical art, showing that geometry, which belongs to the realm of intelligibles, as Plato said, can become poetic by becoming dream-like, that is, surreally sensuous, and as such “transcendentally emotive,” to recall Aurier’s words, and as such poetic, rather than only a prosaic transcendental form. WM


(1)Salman Akhtar, New Clinical Realms (Northvale, NJ and London:  Jason Aronson, 2007), 15

(2)Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1968), 86, 93  

(3)Quoted in Timothy Rub, “Sean Scully:  The Shape of Ideas,” Sean Scully:  The Shape of Ideas (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art),  39 

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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