Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

A Natural-Born Storyteller: The Writings of Sean Scully

Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully

Sean Scully, 2014. Photo: Courtesy Museum Ludwig
Sean Scully, 2014. Photo: Courtesy Museum Ludwig

In the 1980s, many younger abstract painters felt that they needed to theorize their art. David Reed linked his to baroque painting; Peter Halley produced an innovative aesthetic based upon readings of Foucault; and Thomas Nozkowski described the sources of his pictures in nature. But Sean Scully was a law unto himself: his intuitive ways of thinking, which had nothing to do with fashion, were unlike anyone else’s. This volume of over two hundred of his articles, lectures, reviews and statements tells stories about his difficult and impoverished London childhood, his move to America in the 1970s, his friendships with several art writer, his response to many artists – European old masters, modernists, contemporaries—as well as offering a number of accounts of his aesthetic. Scully is a gifted writer—like his paintings, his prose is direct, passionate and totally uncompromising. He is very good at explaining why he is an abstract artist, why he is obsessive, and how he understands the state of the art world, which has marginalized painting even as it has celebrated his achievement.

Scully is compulsively quotable. He can sum up complex situations in two sentences: “I am the European American. Johns is the American European” (p. 243). Giorgio Morandi, whom he admires greatly, “doesn’t attempt to compete with American art: he does the contrary, which is what American art cannot do since no culture can effectively represent the opposite of itself” (p. 174). As for Barnett Newman, “His true model is Olga Rozanova. She splits her surface from top to bottom with an unwavering green stripe” (p. 86). Passionately in love with passion, as Baudelaire described Delacroix, Scully is relentlessly frank about his art and also about himself. An unhappy childhood is good for art, he says: “You have a motor that runs on nothing and needs no attention” (244). His political judgments are totally uncompromising. About the commission for the Goldman Sachs lobby by Julie Mehretu, he writes: “I find it immoral for an artist to decorate their lobby. . . . Art, especially abstraction, has to be a moral act. If not it’s likely to fall into bed with decoration” (p. 273). He offers plenty of close up descriptions of individual paintings. And he writes with exquisite tenderness about many friends—his teacher, the English painter Ian Stephenson; Barbara Westman and Arthur Danto; and the British writer Ian Bennett. Not the least surprising part of this book is his loving response to artists who seem very different from him: the abstract painter Robert Natkin, and Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Very often he circles back around to explain his passion for abstraction. “I agree with Kandinsky’s view that the depiction of the appearance of the real world somehow obstructs access to the spiritual domain” (1989) (p. 18). Abstraction “is a structure, a language that can be read out of context. Out of context meaning unburdened by place, characters you know, stories you already know, objects you already know and can place in time. A way of starting again” (2012) (p. 280).

Once, when I was talking with Arthur Danto about Scully, to my surprise Danto said: “He is a better art writer than I am because I write from the head, but he writes from the heart.” Now, on reflection, that judgment feels exactly right. Scully has always seemed to me a great Romantic thinker and artist, someone born out of time. None of the fashionable theorizing of the 1980s, the era when he found himself, has had the slightest effect on his art. And yet, he has demonstrated that abstraction remains vital. “Am I out of fashion?” he asks: “I certainly hope so. The majority position is by definition over-subscribed; and therefore in no need of further representation” (p. 103). Scully is a natural-born storyteller, unsurprising since he was born in Dublin, and that explains, I think, some highly distinctive features of his art. We tend to associate storytelling with traditional figurative painting, in which a story is visually depicted. The key to Scully’s achievement is creating abstract narratives, storytelling pictures in which we need to respond to the colors, the composition and also, often, the associations with old master art to grasp the story. Thus, his Maesta (1983), a triptych like Duccio’s Maestà, (1308) is dominated by a central panel, which, deeper than those on either side which are black and white, and so more abstract, is “painted in the associational and luxurious colors of red and blue. Thus like a sacred triptych: it is hierarchical” (p. 235). Here, as is usually the case, Scully’s titles matter.

In this book the chronological presentation makes for repetitions—often stories are repeated. And it would be good to have a checklist of the images, and occasionally more information about the context. The letter of August 31, 2003 “Note to Donald,” is it to Donald Kuspit? While I sympathize with the belief of Kelly Grovier, expressed in his preface, that editorial tampering “would require an arbitrary cleansing of potentially enriching nuance” (p. 8), a few explanatory notes would have been helpful. But these are minor concerns. These texts are as strange—as deeply authentic—as Scully’s paintings. And the reproductions of his handwritten letters are great. In the era of the fax machine, Scully was a prolific correspondent. There is more unpublished material out there—I hope that someday Grovier will collect it.

Kelly Grovier, Editor. Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully. (BerlinHatje Cantz Verlag, 2016. 336 pp. ISGN 978-3-7757-4164-4. $60)