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The Weight of Painting
An Interview with Sean Scully and Dávid Fehér concerning Scully's retrospective titled Passenger

Patrick Tayler
An internationally significant exhibition of Sean Scully’s work opened in the October of 2020 at the Hungarian National Gallery. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition titled Passenger was closed for several months, but now the visitors have a chance to look at it for a few more days. Walking among the paintings emitting a radiant presence, the viewer involuntarily focuses on the physical act of looking at paintings and the enthralling, direct experience of the artworks. Following the curatorial narrative formulated by art historian Dávid Fehér, the exhibition presents the thematic chapters of the artist’s consistent painting practice in a complex manner. In my interview, I talked with the artist as well as the curator of the exhibition. The following discussion was published in Hungarian in the print edition of the journal in November 2020.

Sean Scully: Wall of Light Zacatecas ╱ 2010 ╱ oil on linen canvas ╱ 279,8×350,4 cm ╱ private collection © Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist ╱ Photo: Christoph Knoch

Patrick Tayler: The geometric structures in your paintings often have a tactile quality. How would you describe the poetic domain that these diverse visual attributes open up for you? 

Sean Scully: Well, what I do in my work, in a sense, is ruin perfection. Subverting order has always been a vital element of my painterly practice during the years. I think this maybe comes from – or is at least partially connected to – me being Irish and thus coming from a poverty-stricken country. If you come from a place like Ireland, you become naturally subversive. It becomes instinctive that you work from underneath. The way I think about upsetting the pictorial structures of painting is philosophical and also political.

PT: How does your painterly process document or evoke a sense of temporality? 

SS: Physicality and temporality are critical aspects of painting as we humans are also physical and temporal beings. In painting, it is as if a fact or an image is frozen in the moment. When I speak about this in interviews, I often compare it to the way footprints document complex interactions in time and space. A footprint – or a handprint – is a passage of human action. You are freezing this on the surface of the painting. This is what makes painting – in my opinion – so unique. If you think about this from a historical perspective, you can say that this is also the very reason why painting came roaring back when everybody thought it was finished. Currently – one can easily claim that – it is the most important form of art.

Sean Scully: Adoration ╱ 1982 ╱ oil on canvas, linen, wood ╱ 274,3×396,2 cm ╱ private collection © Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist ╱ Photo: Alan Zindman

PT: Is there a parallel between the act of viewing and that of making visible, materialising, figuring?

SS: Well, this is the alchemy of painting. You know, they often say that the eyes are the window to the soul. Eyes take in information without any description, as they are immediate. Description and codification come later. Someone once told me that to look at an abstract painting takes two seconds, as the eyes know more than the language can hold that we have collectively constructed.

PT: What role does intuition play in your work? How does it take you towards the ungraspable centre of your intentions?

SS: Oh, well. That is intuition, and intuition does not bow to description. It is always wild. To combine the rational and the emotional is easier said than done. It is full of mystery, sensitivity and intuition, and you cannot codify it. That is what is great about it.

Still image from an iPhone video made by the artist, depicting the work process of the painting titled Black Square ╱ 2020

PT: In what way do your paintings invite the human figure? Where do you think the main entry points are to your compositions in the case of the beholder? 

SS: My paintings are not like the evaporating rectangles of Rothko, and they do not follow the extreme and Calvinistic order of Mondrian’s paintings. I want my paintings to be like things that you have already seen during your everyday life. This is why my pictures are not that complicated. I always keep things simple, and I never let my paintings become baroque. My compositions make reoccurring references to things that you might see while walking around. This notion of familiarity is very similar to how you recognise a face and is at the core of my work. The relationship with the banal is crucial. This is also the hook that I use to draw people into this world of paint, edge, surface and colour.

PT: The powerful compositions of Scully make the viewer halt in their step. What were your first physical experiences on seeing Scully’s work, and what new insights did you gain while organising the retrospective exhibition?

Dávid Fehér: I first saw Scully’s works in a group exhibition at the Lenbachhaus in Munich in the early 2000s as a young boy. I was impressed by the intensity of the paintings, their restrained colour palette, the generosity of the painterly qualities, and by the way Scully dissolved geometry into gesture and locked the gesture into a geometric system. The stunning coexistence of monumentality and simplicity, intellectuality and sensuality, highlighted the paintings of Scully. Later I saw several exhibitions by the artist, of which the retrospective exhibition at Lentos in Linz (2012) and his solo exhibition in Palazzo Falier in Venice in 2015 deserve special mention. We have been gradually planning a Scully exhibition in Budapest for ten years; it is a great pleasure that the exhibition, which is among the largest-scale exhibitions of the artist ever organised, was finally realised. My acquaintance with Scully opened up new perspectives for me. During the preparation of the exhibition, I was also confronted with the dazzling referential, thematic, motivational and stylistic diversity of the seemingly homogeneous Scully oeuvre, the richness of the different series and the variation of motifs.

Sean Scully: Backcloth ╱ 1970 ╱ acrylic on canvas ╱ 198×304,8 cm ╱ private collection
© Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist

PT: As the exhibition’s curator, you illuminate Scully’s complex oeuvre with a personal interpretation. What central thematic units does the exhibition propose? Which paintings mark significant turning points in Scully’s oeuvre?

DF: The exhibition’s title evokes one of Scully’s beautiful group of works titled Passenger. The term refers to the path of the artist of Irish descent, who grew up in England and then became world-famous in America, and returned later to Europe from time to time. It also alludes to the journey of the temporally and spatially changing forms, which present not only painterly questions but also existential issues: the desire to fit in and its fundamental impossibility. In Scully’s oeuvre, he creates shapes that become integrated and some that deny conforming, thus also modelling the modes of human relations. He fills the forms that evoke American Abstract Expressionism with references to art and cultural history, taking into account the traditions of European painting.

In the meantime, his works also remain deeply personal: behind the wall, there is always a human presence. As Arthur C. Danto quoted Simone Weil’s famous sentences when writing about Scully’s walls of light: „This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time, it is the way through. Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.” As in the case of Weil, for Scully, the wall becomes a metaphor for separation and connection.

The exhibition unfolds these issues in successive sections based on a loose chronological order following the introductory section on the ground floor. Starting early from Scully’s figural works inspired by German Expressionism and French Fauvism, continuing with the minimalist and post-minimalist „Supergrids” of the 1970s, depicting the artist’s 1981 turn when he unbolted the strict system of the grid structure into sensual, smeared colour surfaces – at the same time maintaining but loosening the geometry of his paintings, dividing the intact composition into distinct parts (partly inspired by the Cubists), pushing pictorial fields of different depths and widths side by side – the association of the human figure (re)appeared in his art, and filled abstraction with hidden narrative contents. The 1980s brought an international breakthrough for Scully. It was then that he found the language of forms that he elaborated on during the later decades.

Sean Scully: Empty Heart ╱ 1987 ╱ oil on linen canvas ╱ 182,9×182,9 cm ╱ private collection © Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist ╱ Photo: Robert Bean

Concerning the period following the 1990s, the exhibition presents new periods of the oeuvre not in a chronological system but organised into thematic sections. In these sections, we focused on questions such as the painterly discourse that Scully was invested in with the various traditions of European painting (a Pierre Bonnard-painting from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest was also woven into the exhibition’s fabric), the motif of the figure and the window, the depiction of natural and architectural spaces (in the series Wall of Light and Landlines), the entanglement of inside and outside (Uninsideout) and also the works of the later few years when Scully returned to figurative painting (Madonna-series), which took the professional field by surprise. We are very proud that the exhibition is a true retrospective, representing all of the significant groups of works by the artist, by highlighting essential masterpieces, starting with one of Scully’s earliest paintings, Cactus, continuing with major works such as BackclothAdorationThe BatherHammering and Empty Heart. In addition, the richness in the presented media is emphasised by including a sculpture and a photograph by Scully. The exhibition also features one of Scully’s latest paintings, Black Square, which is now on display for the first time. In the painting, the black square – that elicits connotations to the work of Malevich and Albers – is wedged into the romanticism-inspired landscape: it wounds the glowing image surface, opening a black hole into nothingness. All this is a metaphor for the general state of current existence. However, it is also a summary of certain tendencies in the history of European painting from a specific point of view.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective ╱ Dávid Fehér (ed.) ╱ catalogue ╱ Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest ╱ 2020 ╱ (English version) ╱ Graphic design: Ferenc Eln

PT: How did your art-historical perspective materialise in the exhibition? By leafing through the meticulously crafted exhibition catalogue, we can read compelling studies from international authors and enrich our knowledge through the immersion into the artist’s thinking by reading his writings. How did this volume come together, and how does it contribute to the international literature on Scully?

DF: Sean Scully gave me a completely free hand in the selection process and curatorial decision making. We consulted regularly, but he ultimately left the decisions to me. To this extent, the exhibition faithfully reflects my reading of Scully’s oeuvre. Two publications have been of great help in developing the concept: David Carrier’s monograph on Scully’s art and the book titled Inner, edited by Kelly Grovier, which collected and published a selection of Sean Scully’s writings. It is a great pleasure to me that David Carrier and Kelly Grovier also agreed to write a study for the exhibition catalogue. In addition to them, Raphy Sarkissian’s excellent essay also appeared in the publication. In addition to the new texts, we have republished an earlier writing by Arthur C. Danto, one of Scully’s most important interpreters, as well as a rich selection of Scully’s writings. Several of the latter appeared in print for the first time.

Sean Scully: Oisín Sea Green ╱ 2016 ╱ oil on aluminium ╱ 216×190,5 cm ╱ private collection © Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist ╱ Photo: Christoph Knoch

The catalogue also includes an essay I wrote: in my text, I focused on the invisible but still perceptible human figure behind the walls of Scully’s painting. This notion is also an underlying principle that runs throughout the exhibition: the narrative begins and ends with the human figure while exploring the extraordinary variability of Scully’s reduced set of forms. I believe that a curator of a retrospective exhibition should always find the structure of the exhibition starting from the structure of the given oeuvre. Scully creates a polyphonic system of variations in his oeuvre, a dense fabric of insets and motif variations. The artist once stated that he fits together and then tears apart motifs and colour fields as a child plays with Lego or how blocks of text are cut, pasted and pushed around in a word processor. The sections of the exhibition, the order of the images and the halls presented a similar (thoughtful, yet sometimes intuitive) process to how Scully establishes the order in the case of the fields of colour that constitute his images.

The goal was to create a „scullyesque” structure: it is a great pleasure that the artist confirmed my curatorial concept with a positive affirmation. I am incredibly proud that Sean considers this catalogue of the Budapest exhibition to be among the best publications ever made on his work. Apart from the work of the authors and editors, the publication’s graphic artist, Ferenc Eln, also plays a significant role in this accomplishment. The publication’s clean graphic concept highlights the character of the texts and the pictures. Furthermore, as an object in its own right, the book engages in a fruitful dialogue with the paintings of Scully. We hope that the richly illustrated, prolific volume will gain the favour of the international professional scene and that the catalogue will become an essential item in the global Scully literature. At the moment, we are confirmed by the significant foreign interest in the English-language edition of the catalogue.

Sean Scully: The Bather ╱ 1983 ╱ oil on linen canvas ╱ 243,8×304,8 cm ╱ private collection
© Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist ╱ Photo: Trevor Good

PT: Why do you think it is crucial for the audience to experience this exhibition in real life?

DF: It is challenging – at its core impossible – to get a complete sense of Scully’s work based on reproductions. Their monumentality and the sensual nature of their painted surfaces – the vibrating, engulfing fields of colour, the porous qualities of the thickly applied, skinlike layers can only be experienced in the physical presence of the artworks. The notion of autopsy is always crucial when someone approaches a painting. This is especially true in the case of the American Abstract Expressionists: Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko’s paintings, when reduced to the size of a stamp, might resemble a carpet. Photography does not illuminate the importance of these artists. Scully builds on the „sublime” painterly tradition of Abstract Expressionism. Even though I have a thorough knowledge of his oeuvre, I was struck by his paintings’ astonishing scale and visual power.

PT: How can we restructure our art-historical narratives concerning the traditions of Hungarian (abstract) painting in light of Scully’s painterly and theoretical work?

DF: The history of abstraction is significant in Hungary as well – let us allude here to the Constructivist tradition (Lajos Kassák, László Moholy-Nagy or László Péri), which was restructured and treated as a starting point by many artists during the 1960s (I am thinking here of Imre Bak or István Nádler), these artists in return influenced the notions concerning abstraction for an even younger generation. Scully is also in conversation with the tradition of Constructivism. In his work, Scully merges the significant motifs and painterly strategies of the forerunners of Geometric Abstraction (such as Mondrian or Malevich), the influential painters of the American Abstract Expressionist movement (Rothko, Pollock) with the reminiscences of representational artists such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh or Giorgio Morandi. Apart from this, the presence of references external to the realm of painting is also essential – repetitive music, rock and roll, jazz, rugs from Morocco, the spectacle of ruins in Mexico, the writings of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. These all create the polyphonic texture of Scully’s art. Scully often refers to the act of prying open, „opening” abstraction towards metaphor and objective associations. This understanding of abstraction lends itself very well as a tool that could be used in the reinterpretation of many Hungarian abstract painters.

Sean Scully: Black Square ╱ 2020╱ oil on aluminium ╱ 215,9×190,5 cm ╱ private collection
© Sean Scully ╱ Courtesy of the artist ╱ Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

PT: The exhibition was preceded by an intense year of preparation. The depth of this was provided by continuous communication with the artist. Could you tell us something about this period?

DF: I have been – and still am – in close correspondence with Sean Scully since the preparations started for the exhibition. We often exchange several emails per day, and we are in a close personal and working relationship. Sean took part intensely in the preparation phases, and I am incredibly grateful to him for that. This collaboration has opened up new perspectives for me, both as a human and professionally speaking. The recent months, which the epidemic has plagued, have been tough for everyone, yet I can say that perhaps the most beautiful period of my life is behind me.