Sean Scully by David Carrier
Thames & Hudson, 224 pages, $65
Sean Scully does for stripes what Giorgio Morandi did for bottles. He turns an unpreposessing form into the cipher for a fulsome range of painterly emotions. Morandi’s jugs and jars were things in the world, still-life motifs that precariously balanced specificity and generalization. Mr. Scully’s motif, by contrast, is a readymade abstraction: Stripes have a (no pun intended) checkered history, arriving in the West with the Crusades, at first mesmerizing with their devilish otherness, but soon enough settling into calming ubiquity.
Mr. Scully instills the form with a sense of worldliness as surely as Morandi invested his actual, perceived things with an ethereal otherness. His stripe, at once beefy and vulnerable, couldn’t be more distant from the transcendental stripes of Agnes Martin or the stylish ones of Kenneth Noland (to name two artists he might nonetheless admire). Mr. Scully is an abstractionist with his feet on the ground.
With painthandling that’s voluptuous but never effete and color that preferences authority over elegance, a Scully is at once urbane and rough at the edges. These tender-tough images are imbued with a sense, however hard it is to pin down, that life’s vicissitudes are their subject.
As in paint, so in conversation the artist comes across, in a pleasing oxymoron, as a butch aesthete. He has a reputation, socially, for terseness, but it turns out that with a trusted confidant, and via the fax machine, he’s as loquacious as he is prolific. He is virtually the coauthor of the new, somewhat hagiographic first monograph by his longtime champion, the philosopher turned art critic David Carrier, so heavily does it depend on quotations from him.
This handsome, intelligently organized book is a credit to the diversity and depth of development of an artist active across different mediums (watercolor, printmaking, photography as well as painting) who deserves to be seen as a major reinventor of abstract art. The many, gorgeous plates are surprisingly free of repetition, and they present an artist of genuine breadth within a streamlined idiom.
Born in Ireland to working-class parents, Mr. Scully endured an unpretty childhood in South London. His art schooling was in England, too, but with successful early shows under his belt, he cut loose to start again in New York. There he felt spiritually more at home (he now divides his life between America, Germany, and Spain).
As he would come to reminisce about his discovery of American painting, “All the cowboy movies that I had ever seen and everything I had up to that point found out about art intersected in the art of Jackson Pollock.” But while the scale of a Scully painting is American, Mr. Carrier argues that the tenor and texture remained European.
Mr. Carrier presents Mr. Scully as a painter of the city, insisting that his stripes evoke urban fabric and blues music. He does, abstractly, for the post-industrial city what Canaletto did for Venice. The internal panels he favors, which often carry abrasively different patterns or color schemes from the host canvas, are related by Mr. Carrier to architectural discontinuities.
And indeed there is a grit and attitude in Mr. Scully that has the tough veneer of a modern city. The artist’s early employment as a plasterer and then as a typesetter, working the old fashioned way with the “chase” blocking out text and images, are put forward in the book as form fashioning experiences. So, too, his later work renovating lofts – reconfiguring post-industrial spaces and moving around the sheet-rock as later he would the elements of his multipanelled paintings.
But the form and facture of a Scully relates equally, as Mr. Carrier himself shows, to non-western, particularly Islamic cultural precedents. This suggests affinities that are a far cry from the modern city. Mr. Scully’s photographs of rural dwellings in Mexico and Morocco, in which polychromy reflects aesthetic indifference (the locals merely turning to another color when the first runs out) point to his own, often counterintuitive juxtapositions of color.
In truth, a Scully can read as proletarian or peasant, as you will; what counts is the humble, honest character, a lack of preciousness that isn’t so much environment- as class- informed.
Mr. Carrier presents the artist as quickly shedding an early affinity with minimal art – his interest in series, process, the grid – to reconnect with the stronger, more expressive potentials of modernism. “If you have Matisse, Mondrian, Rothko, then you’ve got my work,” Mr. Scully writes. In a rare display of independence from his subject, Mr. Carrier actually distances Mr. Scully from these professed mentors and proves that Pollock was the stronger influence, energy and freedom being his true hallmarks.
Invigorating formal analysis is not, alas, the hallmark of this book. While it serves the artist handsomely enough, to a fan like myself of both Sean Scully and David Carrier it is a disappointment. Mr. Carrier’s sparky philosophical interrogation of criticism, “Artwriting,” (1987) is a classic, and he has written brilliantly on Baudelaire as a critic; it is therefore the more ironic that when the dean of philosopher critics turns out his own monograph on a contemporary painter, he falls for the intentional fallacy like a sophomore.
Mr. Carrier is especially grating on the nerves when he presses upon the reader literal acceptance of Mr. Scully’s stated ambitions as a narrative painter, egregiously assuming that a title and an eloquent fax find justification in what are, invariably, nebulous and open forms. The artist has only to name “A Bedroom in Venice” after an erotic watercolor by Turner for the author to dutifully class it “an abstract image of a congenial couple” with no formal proof to follow. Unconvincing causal interpretations such as this abound.
What these paintings deserve is a tough, sharp, fearless, profound criticism that matches their own forms. Mr. Carrier might still be the man to write it.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 29, 2004.print