Painting the Future
Irish-American artist Sean Scully is known for his emotionally-driven paintings, consisting of intense blocks of colour. He spoke to Apollo about his personal mission to allow the world back to abstraction
Ben Luke, Friday, 1st April 2011
His adoption of metal was borne of frustration: ‘I was having a lot of trouble with canvas, and I got so upset and fed up with it that I just thought, “I am going to have a holiday from this.”’ The change has clearly inspired him: ‘When I paint on the metal, it sounds like the percussion section of a jazz band – the brush hits it and it’s “boom, boom, boom”, like a bass drum. It’s very hypnotic, and I try to make [the paintings] in one go. It’s exhausting.’
Scully’s reference to the Doric order is interesting, in light of his position in the history of abstract painting. For the Roman architect Vitruvius, the Doric order expressed masculinity and strength; similarly, Scully once told Stephen Bennett Phillips, associate curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that he thought his work to be ‘more masculine and muscular than Rothko’s.’ I would argue that in the Wall of Light series, the artist moved closer, partly through an engagement with the subtle tonality of Bonnard, to the poeticism and acute emotional sensitivity of Rothko’s paintings. But with Doric Brown, he recovered the toughness he had subordinated in much of his work of the previous decade.
This renewed architectural emphasis will be even more evident in a new commission which is certain to be a career landmark: decorating the 10th-century Santa Cecilia monastery on the Catalan mountain of Montserrat. Scully has lived partly in Barcelona for over a decade – he divides his time between the Catalan capital, New York City and Mooseurach – and is clearly humbled that in presenting him with a commission ‘so close to the heart of the culture of Catalonia’, the locals have begun to treat him as one of their own. As an artist so in thrall to Matisse and Rothko, both of whom decorated chapels to exemplary effect, Scully admits that the commission is at once exciting and daunting. ‘It will be the first chapel of this kind since Matisse’s chapel in Venice,’ he says, emphasising that the commission has come from the church itself rather than privately, as with the Rothko Chapel. ‘So it had better be good.’
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