DETAIL : Sean SCULLY Ireland 1945  Robe figure, 2003 2003 Painting oil on canvas

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Room 1: Scully’s abstraction

Scully’s paintings seek to provoke a response in the spectator. ‘I’m putting [the painting] together in such a way as I’m not trying to dominate the viewer. I’m trying to make a situation that the viewer completes.’ For Scully, a painting must engage its viewer actively in an exchange that is free of any predetermined meaning or ‘authoritarian’ pronouncement: ‘These paintings are not about just this or that, that’s all finished, that authoritarian ideal.’

Union yellow  1994
The meaning of Scully’s paintings is thus necessarily ambiguous. Note how Union yellow is structured around ambiguity. The rigour and control suggested by the work’s formal structure is disputed by the expressive quality of the thick paint. This ambiguity enables an active exchange between the painting and the viewer, which is why Scully sees abstraction as ideal for contemporary times. ‘Abstraction’s the art of our age … it’s a breaking down of certain structures, an opening up. It allows you to think without making oppressively specific references, so that the viewer is free to identify with the work. Abstract art has the possibility of being incredibly generous, really out there for everybody.
It’s a non-denominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time.’

Painting places: Bigland  1987–88
Scully draws together a complex series of references in his paintings. Secret sharer refers to the title of the novel by Joseph Conrad. Many of Scully’s works also refer directly or indirectly to place. Bigland evokes the canyons of the United States of America: the deep, wide canyons of the western states (the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, etc.) and the concrete avenues, peaks and spires of America’s great, built cities, especially New York. The formal structure of Bigland also refers to the famous gridded streets of New York, a rigorously geometrical organisation that represented for the artist a radical alternative to
the structure of European cities.

Scully also responds to historical innovations in abstract painting: these include the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian, the sublime abstract expressionism
of Barnett Newman, and the minimalist repetition of Carl Andre and Donald Judd. With Bigland, Scully literally inserts himself in the history of abstract painting and, more especially, of post-war American abstraction.

Mexico and Durango  1990
As with many of the great painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, Scully’s work has been influenced by his journeys to Morocco and Mexico.

Scully was particularly impressed by the effects of the strong Mexican light on landscape and architecture when he visited the country during the early 1980s. Durango is the name of a city and state in north-west Mexico. The area is famous for its beautiful 18th-century architecture, its history as a film set for Hollywood westerns, its high, flat position, vast skies and strong, clear light. Scully utilises an all-over structure and a monumental scale that suggest something of the expansiveness of Durango and the plateau on which it is located. The painting’s rich, shimmering surface also reflects Scully’s experience of the starkly radiant light of the region.

Just as Scully’s abstract paintings often have the real world as their source, they are intended to allow us to reflect back on our own everyday lives in particular ways: ‘I feel very passionately about the power of art, that art has the ability to affect the way people see the world, now more than ever.’ As Scully has said
of his work, especially of its rigorous structure, ‘I want it to leak out into the world … What one has to do is tie abstraction into one’s life.’ In this way, Scully’s abstract paintings continue the project of the mid-20th-century abstractionists, such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, who believed that the experience
of a great abstract work could offer the spectator a new outlook.

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