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

THE ART OF SEAN SCULLY: A human spirituality
Brian P Kennedy

Scully at WorkThe work of Sean Scully affirms our need and capacity as human beings to have spiritual affiliation with each other. The artist’s sensitivity to enduring truths is spoken through the language of abstraction. The nature of Scully’s practice is a ritualistic, determined pursuit of the multiple possibilities of his chosen subject matter — vertical and horizontal (rarely diagonal) stripes and blocks of layered colour. His paintings, watercolours, pastel drawings and photographs offer different ways to explore and come to an understanding of his art. Scully’s everyday life informs his work in the manner of a continuous colour landscape. The source for much of his abstraction is in his architectural and urban environment; in turn, his abstract paintings affect the ways both he and his audience review their everyday world. As he declared in 1979, in the first major critical account of his work:

The power of abstract painting today … lies in a constant exchange and perpetual transformation of the physical state into a visual, emotional and mental state, and back again. It is closely aligned to the human situation.1

The catalogue of the landmark exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting 1890–1985, organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986, makes not a single mention of Sean Scully.2 This is remarkable, given that Scully had already acquired a reputation for work that powerfully evokes the human spirit. Donald Kuspit, in his essay for the Los Angeles catalogue, noted that spirituality in art was better understood in 1912 when Wassily Kandinsky‘s Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art)  was published.3 Kandinsky wrote that art is ‘one of the mightiest elements’ in ‘the spiritual life … a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forward and upwards’.4

Over the thirty years of his practice Scully has found himself on the unfashionable side of contemporary art, where there seems to be even less concern for art as an expression of what Kandinsky called ‘inner necessity’.5 Abstract art is always a ‘harder sell’ than representational works of figurative or landscape subjects. But a reasonable case can be made that there is no such thing as an abstract painting, that all abstract painting is based on reality. Conversely, it can be said that all reality is open to abstraction: when looking closely at anything, its intimate details become apparent. The whole becomes abstracted into parts; those parts into even smaller parts. Mark Rothko argued that his abstract shapes can be stand-ins for figures. In 1947 he wrote: ‘I think of my pictures as dramas: the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.’6(see fig.1) Scully quoted this famous statement in a perceptive review of the Rothko exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1998, and added that it was Rothko’s ‘most original pronouncement … it suggests the human and figurative element of his apparently abstract art’.

If we take it literally, as I do, it can only mean that Rothko’s paintings are essentially as representational as those of Rembrandt; they can and should be read as a plane on which figures are painted. His work does not imply, as that of his contemporary Barnett Newman does, the end of the figure-ground relationship; rather a radical new way of exploiting it, without having to tell stories.7

Here Scully implies that his own application of blocks and stripes of colour is akin to Rothko’s use of coloured floating forms — Rothko called them ‘organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion. They move with an internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world … in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms.’8

Fig. 1�Mark Rothko�1957#20�1957�oil on canvas�233.0 x 193.0 cm�National Gallery of Australia, Canberra�� David Rothko, 1957/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia
  fig.1 Mark Rothko 1957#20 1957 oil on canvas 233.0 x 193.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; © David Rothko, 1957/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Scully’s understanding of life as an abstraction identifies with Plato’s philosophical underpinning of abstract art in Philebus: ‘I do not now intend by beauty of shapes what most people would expect, such as that of living creatures or pictures, but … straight lines and curves and the surfaces or solid forms produced out of these by lathes and rulers and squares … These things are not beautiful relatively, like other things, but always and naturally and absolutely.’9 It is in this sense that Scully can make his case for abstract art as the universal art.

I’m interested in art that addresses itself to our highest aspirations. That’s why I can’t do figurative painting — I think figurative painting’s ultimately trivial now. It’s almost humanism and no form … 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.10

True to his determination to ‘break down structures’, the spiritual intensity of Scully’s paintings is unconstrained by line. Marking a break between one colour and the other, his signature tentative lines appear to be enervated. This characteristic, with his energetic layering of colour upon colour, causes the surfaces of his paintings to vibrate and to ‘open’ up before the viewer.

The blocks of colour in Scully’s paintings are indeed volatile and passionate organisms, to use Rothko’s analogy. Scully learned from the Abstract Expressionists that, although he did not paint figuratively, he could embody human figuration within his chosen abstract style. The character of each of his paintings could be distinctive, just as each human being is individual. The Abstract Expressionist who negotiated this relationship between the representational figure and abstract colour forms most intensely was Willem de Kooning (see fig.2). In a remarkable two-sided painting on fibreboard of 1948 (now in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC), de Kooning painted Woman on the recto and, on the verso, an Untitled abstract image that carries the unmistakable character of the woman figure. As de Kooning asserted:

fig. 2 Willem de Kooning Woman V 1952�53 oil on canvas 154.5 x 114.5 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra � Willem de Kooning, 1952�53/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia
fig.2 Willem de Kooning Woman V 1952–53 oil on canvas 154.5 x 114.5 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © Willem de Kooning, 1952–53/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia  

Certain artists attacked me for painting the Women, but I felt that this was their problem, not mine. I don’t really feel like a non-objective painter at all. Today, some artists feel they have to go back to the figure, and that word ‘figure’ becomes such a ridiculous omen — if you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody’s nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I have to follow my desires.11

While the choices faced by Scully have been similar to those confronted by de Kooning, his preference has been to abstract the figures without qualification.

I identify strongly with many of the Abstract Expressionists who were immigrants. Obviously Rothko, though perhaps even more physically connected to the impasto and layering of de Kooning, in his early days in New York. There he was sensually connected to the body of European art. He went to New York as a young man as did I. I’m very attracted to his relationship with abstract art. Not the fluid style of his abstraction. But its relationship with the figurative.

Even in his most resolutely abstract work the memory of the figure is embedded into the surface. This I could say of myself.12

The émigré experience has had a strong influence on Scully as a painter. Just as life’s relationships can be made and broken — the birth or death of a child, the loss of a parent, the end of a marriage, the leaving of a city, the leaving of friends — the abstract, coloured shapes in Scully’s paintings engage in relationships of harmony and disharmony. In this way much of his work can be read as distinctly autobiographical. Life cannot be negotiated in isolation.

I was born in Ireland, you know, I came to England and the relationship was broken. Then I lived in an Irish ghetto in London, Islington. I went to a Catholic church and I lived within an umbrella — a cultural umbrella that was completely Irish, even though I lived in England. So, the first break was less dramatic than the second. The second break was when my parents were at war with the church because they worked seven days a week and were poor. So I was pulled out of convent school, and put into a state school and these two breaks marred my sense of reality permanently. So that my idea of relationships is informed by the possibility that relationships can come apart.13

The foremost characteristic of Sean Scully’s art is a spirit of engagement. His works are wonderful colour poems that take us beyond the limits of everyday life. As a fellow Irishman, it is tempting for me to say that this is his ‘Irishness’ coming through and, although he is quick to eschew nationality as a badge of identity, he is indeed a born conversationalist who would be at home in any Irish pub. His love of the written word is reflected in the titles of some of his works with their references to literary sources, such as the work of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce. He is obsessed by the spiritual dimension of things, like others who have left Ireland and know it having grown up in communities abroad. He does not, however, have much time for organised religion.

Holly 2004 is Scully’s memorial to his mother. In its chapel-like arrangement of fifteen canvases, Holly evokes the Stations of the Cross — the fourteen representations of Christ’s journey to Calvary that line the interior of Catholic churches. As in a church, Scully’s paintings — one large and fourteen identically-sized, smaller canvases — run along the walls of an enclosed, rectangular gallery. The larger canvas hangs at one end of the space, with two of the smaller canvases at the opposite end and the remainder lining each side wall. The colours of Scully’s ‘Stations’, in their austere beauty, dance with each other as in a pas de deux — just as his mother danced the tango with his father when they moved to Spain from England. It is significant that Scully’s mother‘s affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church broke down. Though the works mask the hardship she endured during her life, one senses echoes of the prayer every Irish Catholic boy learned about ‘this valley of tears’. At his mother’s funeral Scully read the elegiac poem by William Butler Yeats, The Arrow, which concludes: ‘This beauty’s kinder, yet for a reason/ I could weep that the old is out of season.’14

Holly brings to mind Barnett Newman’s forceful Stations of the Cross 1958–66 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), but Scully aspires to a modest and understated presentation in comparison. Also relevant are the late works of Rothko in the Menil’s chapel in Houston, Texas. Rothko painted Homage to Matisse in 1954 as a tribute to the master he had so admired. Matisse had set the chapel precedent with his late masterpieces of 1948–51, designed as a total work of art — the architecture, stained-glass windows, ceramic tiles, murals, altar decorations and liturgical vestments — for the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence in the south of France. Matisse said of it: ‘This chapel, modest as it was, appeared to me as clear and limpid as a maiden.’15 Matisse’s chapel, unlike those of Rothko and Scully, has always been a consecrated place of worship. It may be significant that in the most recent major publication about Scully’s work, David Carrier noted that, despite Scully’s ambivalence towards organised religion, he would love to make works for a church. Writing before the Holly series was painted, Carrier commented that ‘his paintings could make wonderful Stations of the Cross’.16

Abstract art has offered Scully the opportunity to engage with the artistic tradition of Cimabue, Giotto, Piero della Francesca and the icons of Orthodox Christianity, as well as with all aspects of daily life, without having to burden himself with representational references. For Scully works of art are not objects of veneration. It is people who matter, and their constant struggle as human beings within the confines of daily existence.

I don’t think an abstract painting is something you worship. It is something that is part of the world. It is as if the spirituality in art stepped off a pedestal, or from behind a sheet of glass, and has joined the world of the living. That, of course, is the contradiction with it because many people find it more exclusionary than [say] an icon painting.17

Scully’s central preoccupation is with human spirituality. He insists that the art world, so distracted with the lure of commerce, reputation, shock value and the latest trends, should be forced to deal with his resolute presentation of the human spirit in painting. There is nothing saintly in Scully’s endeavour. It is rooted in this world.

The problem with one current idea of the spiritual in art is that it is represented by a kind of inhuman puritan notion of the perfect. So that under this umbrella, the spiritual is clean, cleaned-up and purely perfect. My idea is more human. And it embodies an acceptance of imperfection. In fact it incorporates it in a built up, imperfect surface surrounded by complex and uncertain edges. Spirituality is not something outside us that shines like a perfect lit-up plexiglass box, that we have to aspire to. It’s already in us. In our imperfect bodies, we are already spiritual. I make something that accompanies what we already are, humanistic and complex. Not cleaned up. Spirituality doesn’t have to look clean. It should look as the world looks.18

Scully has a devotion to the tradition of craftsmanship, whether in the making of his stretchers (prepared by his brother Tony who lives in London), the preparation of his paints, the slow build-up of his surfaces, or in the determination that only his own hand should be in his paintings. The perseverance required to pursue a constant routine of painting with such apparently limited subject matter is indicative of Scully’s stubborn, resolute character. He found karate, in which he gained a black belt in 1988, to be a good complement to the discipline required for his painting. There is in his character a strong self-belief, a determination which is ever earnest. His willingness to share his thoughts about his art reveals both his belief in its importance and his personal humility. Scully has been a stalwart beacon for the spiritual in art, aware of his own human frailty and prepared to make public the steps of his private journey in pursuit of his goal.

Painting takes a lot of years, it takes a whole lifetime. It’s not about having an idea [but] rather being able to express it in painting. I have worked alone in the face of so many movements, against other forms of art. I’ve never thought of myself as an ‘artist’ nor as some sort of superior being. I try to take advantage of an urban language, a language architecturally grounded yet impregnated with emotion. I want it to be [a] common, normal urban language able to transform my painting into a sensation, into a feeling. Taking a look at myself in the mirror of Rembrandt or of Cézanne when they were in their twilight years, I would like to make a deeper painting, give it a sense of spirituality and give the world a more human sense, incorporating the sky, nature, living beings; A world of feelings and poetry.19

Scully’s most recent paintings have become ever more poetic and mysterious. The highest form of spiritual art aspires to the sacred and has a timeless quality. It explores the capacity of colours to have effects on the emotions and the psyche. In his Theory of Colour 1810 Goethe investigated not only the physical properties of colour but also their moral effects.20 It is little wonder that Scully’s stated artistic debts are to masters of colour, in particular Mondrian, Matisse and Rothko. His personal revelation took place on a trip to Morocco in 1969 when he was captivated by strips of dyed wool (about fifteen centimetres wide and up to two hundred and forty-four centimetres long), which were hanging on wooden bars ready to be used to make rugs. He also saw, laid out on the sand, strips of coloured canvas. He recalled later: ‘Against the yellow sand, they created exotic and arbitrary colour relationships so unique … I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.’ 21

Exhibition makers have attached titles to exhibitions of Scully’s work such as Light and gravity that seek to represent seemingly contradictory facets of the artist’s work, especially his preoccupation with the materiality of light.22 Scully has engaged with this apparent dichotomy in his Wall of Light series — one painting in this series is titled Stone light 1992. The title he gave to his review of the 1998 Rothko exhibition at the Whitney Museum ‘Bodies of light’ is too emphatic for his own work. Our preferred title for this exhibition in Australia, Body of light, has been chosen in appreciation of the immanence dwelling at the heart of Scully’s work. The vehicle employed by Scully to achieve his ends is paint. Variations in texture and colour, achieved with the artist’s five-inch brush, allow those who engage with his colour dialogue to become involved intensely with physical objects. This is the absurdity to which de Kooning referred, and it is the challenge all serious painters face every day in the studio. Scully has elaborated on the role of colour in his work:

Thinking about the colour, for example, in my work, and its darkness: I often think about how the light in my work produced by this colour, that is so emphatically attached to its own body weight and gravity, has a tendency to fall back into the painting. The painting has to be opened up. The colour, of course, would be opened up. Red could be bright red. Yellow could be the colour of coloured flowers and green could be leaf green. This would make the paintings more immediate. More obviously communicative. More readily available and less burdened by the issue of interior content. My painting, however, is a compression. A compression of form, edge, weight and colour that participates in this density. So the painting is immediate, since it’s painted aggressively by hand, yet it is difficult, because it is compressed. The light in the painting has to be opened up. Pulled out. And it is exactly this difficulty that gives the work its interior life. It is an incarnation, not an explanation.23

Sean Scully’s art is a sublime gift to the early twenty-first century. Now aged fifty-nine, he lives between New York, Barcelona and Munich, where in 2002 he became Professor of Painting at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste. He believes that his role as a teacher is to provide students with the opportunity to be validated and empowered as painters. In his work he continues to refrain from telling stories, dictating truths or moralising. The work itself is an invitation to conversation, to a dialogue through colours and forms, talking of regularity and irregularity, harmony and disharmony, parents and children, marriage and divorce, unity and separation, communion and isolation.

Maybe if my painting induces you to meditate it is because in point of fact I want to represent the world, not like a figurative painter does, rather by producing an impact, a simultaneous impression of many things at the same time. Every day I look at the sky to capture the colour of the day with an anxiety to achieve a synthesis between cultural world, natural world and personal world. Starting out with geometry, which is in fact our mental world, that of architecture, of mathematics, I want to structure the world, to resolve the difference between the geometric world and the cultural world, in perfect communion.24

To achieve great ends indeed requires a great aim. Sean Scully has been ‘trying to get at deep emotions through simple forms’.25 He has never given up seeking to realise his lofty ambition and, as with only the greatest of artists, his work continues to gain depth, strength and maturity. He remains totally committed to painting and its place in contemporary life.

I use abstract forms because they are fundamental shapes: this makes the rhythms of the relationships move in a free space. Nearly every form of communication in the world now submits to deconstruction. Painting has moved into a space where it can resist this juggernaut.26

It seems entirely appropriate that Scully should today be teaching in Munich, home of the celebrated Lenbachhaus, with its glorious collection of works of the Blaue Reiter group, and particularly its display of the work of Kandinsky. Sean Scully is surely the painter who has done more than most since Kandinsky to promote the spiritual in art.


1 Sean Scully, cited in Sam Hunter‘Sean Scully’s absolute paintings’Artforum vol.18 no.3 November 1979 pp.30–34 (p.34).
2 The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting 1890–1985 (exhibition catalogue) New York, Abbeville Press 1986.
3 Donald Kuspit ‘Concerning the spiritual in contemporary art’ The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting 1890–1985 (exhibition catalogue) 1986 pp.313–325 (p.313). See also Wassily Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular (1912) trans. MTH Sadleir, revised by Francis Golfing et al. New York: George Wittenborn 1947.
4 Kuspit ‘Concerning the spiritual in contemporary art’ 1986 p.313; see also Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular (1912) 1947 p.26.
5 See Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular (1912) 1947 p.51.
6 Mark Rothko ‘The romantics were prompted’ Possibilities no.1 Winter 1947–48 p.84 cited in Sean Scully ‘Against the dying of his own light’ Times Literary Supplement no. 4988, 6 November 1998, subscriber archive version downloaded 7 April 2004, reprinted in extended form as Sean Scully ‘Bodies of light’ Art in America vol. 87 no.6 July 1999 pp.67–71, 111 (p.69).
7 Scully ‘Against the dying of his own light’ 1998; Scully ‘Bodies of light’ 1999 p.69.
8 Rothko ‘The romantics were prompted’ 1947–48 p.84.
9 Plato Philebus cited in Peter and Linda Murray The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists revised edition, London: Penguin 1989 p.1.
10 Sean Scully, cited in Judith Higgins ‘Sean Scully and the metamorphosis of the stripes’ Artnews vol.84 no.9 November 1985 pp.104–112 (p.106).
11 Willem de Kooning, interview with David Sylvester 1960 cited in Willem de Kooning: A centennial exhibition (exhibition catalogue) New York: Gagosian Gallery 2004 p.50.
12 Sean Scully, letter to Brian Kennedy 20 May 2004 National Gallery of Australia file 03/0511 folios 103–108 (folio 107).
13 Sean Scully, interview with Hans-Michael Herzog ‘The beauty of the real’ Sean Scully (exhibition catalogue) Milan: Charta 1996 pp.55–131 (p.71).
14 WB Yeats The Works of W.B. Yeats Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions 1994 p.61.
15 Henri Matisse, entretien avec le frère Rayssiguier, 24 October 1948, in Marie-Alain Couturier, Henri Matisse and Louis-Bertrand Rayssiguier La Chapelle de Vence: Journal d’une création Paris and Geneva: Editions du Cerf, Editions d’Art Albert Skira 1993 p.63.
16 David Carrier Sean Scully London: Thames & Hudson 2004 p.42.
17 Sean Scully, interview with R Eric Davis Journal of Contemporary Art 1999, online version, downloaded 18 April 2004.
18 Scully, letter to Kennedy 20 May 2004 file 03/0511 folio 104.
19 Sean Scully, cited in Maria Lluïsa Borràs ‘Sean Scully, immensely human’ Sean Scully (exhibition catalogue) Barcelona: Galeria Carles Taché 2003 n.p.
20 See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Goethe’s Color Theory (1810) trans. and ed. Herb Aach, London: Studio Vista 1971.
21 Maurice Poirier Sean Scully New York: Hudson Hills Press 1990 p.16.
22 Sean Scully: Light and gravity (exhibition catalogue) New York: Knoedler & Co. 2001.
23 Scully, letter to Kennedy 18 May 2004 file 03/0511 folios 92–93.
24 Scully, cited in Borràs ‘Sean Scully, immensely human’ 2003 n.p.
25 Scully, letter to Kennedy 18 May 2004 file 03/0511 folio 93.
26 Carrier Sean Scully 2004 p.214.

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