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PRINT November 1979

Sean Scully’s Absolute Paintings

IN 1973 THE IRISH-BORN painter Sean Scully told William Feaver, the first critic to take serious notice of his work, that his painting was “about presenting an extreme state of one kind or another.” At the time Scully was 26, and had already held his first one-man show in London, of large-scale, optically active color grids that, in a sense, inflated Kenneth Noland’s milder, overlapped planes of the period into more vivid and intricate space lattices, repeated and echoed in converging depth. After Scully emigrated to the United States, in 1975, he abandoned baroque illusionism and spatial maze in a series of flat, monochrome paintings—first in grays, and then, two years later, in blacks—composed of alternating, uniformly spaced bands of paint slightly varying in texture and thickness. The basic components of his style have remained constant over the past four years, out of an extraordinary single-mindedness. And extremism still marks his current work, despite the radical transformation of dazzling illusionistic paintings into a sizable and formally consistent body of near-monochromes as controlled and reflective as the early multicolor work was unpredictable and dynamic.

Scully’s new paintings might seem narrowly dogmatic in their adherence to his particular formula. Their repetition of horizontal stripes from edge to edge, their impassive surfaces, their symmetry and overall unitary structure, evoke Minimalism. Yet the paintings reveal a considerable charge of emotion within their restrictive program. Ambiguities of surface can be read alternately as painting/object, spatial atmosphere or the flat wall. The physicality of the color matter, with its alternately reflective and matte effects, the subliminal after-image of chroma buried in darkened brown or black pigment, and deliberate inconsistencies in paint application all leave room for sensibility and support an intuitive reading of the decision-making process. Such fugitive perceptual evidence of subjectivism, even hermeticism, identifies Scully’s work as post-Minimalist. A most engaging and articulate ideologue, Scully makes it clear that he still feels himself involved in high-risk painting of considerable emotional impact, despite its formal austerity. He is also convinced of the relevance of his fanatically single-minded methods both to issues of personal freedom and to the inherent meanings of art itself. The force and clarity of his elucidations, in paintings of masterful elegance and power, sharply challenge popular cliches about highly formal art as a sterile cul-de-sac.

Scully spent the academic year 1972–73 at Harvard on an exchange fellowship. In 1975 he returned to the United States for a longer period on a Harkness Fellowship, which enabled him to live and paint in New York for two years. His American experience made the London art situation seem provincial and limiting, so Scully decided to settle permanently in New York. He has been living here for the past four years, stimulated by the art scene and by its formal traditions past and present—by the exemplary work of Rothko, Reinhardt, Ryman and Marden, among others. Scully’s flat gray-and-black-striped paintings were first exhibited in New York two years ago. Last year he created a 10-by-20-foot, L-shaped wall painting in Peter Nadin’s space at 84 West Broadway. This fall The Clocktower is showing 17 of his paintings, covering a five-year period, and Scully will also exhibit a group of black-on-black monochrome paintings later this winter.

Even before he left London, Scully was systematically eliminating the hectic activism and stereoscopic effects of his first colored space lattices, such as Overlay 2. By 1974 he had arrived at a new system of frontal, flattened multicolor panels that neutralized the dynamic interaction of his now-diminished color bars, within a more tightly woven grid. The barely differentiated intervals between narrow, criss-crossed vertical and horizontal color bars painted over tapes, coalesced into an image suggesting a variegated color fabric seen magnified. In Hidden Drawing No. 2, Scully adopted a square format subdivided into nine uniform areas, forming a perfectly trisected square reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt’s black monochrome paintings and their cruciform image. Scully, however, not yet prepared to forsake chromaticism, continued to work in an understated palette restricted to grays and dulled down but subtly interactive primary colors.

There was a further transition in a series of “drawings,” actually narrowly banded and closely meshed grids in close-valued dark tones, made in the early months of 1976. Here the trisected square was abandoned in favor of a generally horizontal format in tripartite vertical oblong divisions. Painted in acrylic on paper, and virtually devoid of color, these paintings are sufficiently refined in their contrasts to be equated with drawing. Scully’s current banding or striping configuration in one direction carries a residual linear energy and seems to describe motion along a horizontal plane as well as a field phenomenon.

Late in 1976 Scully abandoned compositions of interlaced color bands entirely and moved toward a more quietistic and controlled visual experience with his gray monochrome series, again “pushing the new idea toward an extreme.” His highly reductivist horizontal bands, distinguished from each other only by paint thickness and the uniformity of surface and slow tempo of these radically transformed paintings, suggest a number of possible sources, although none was direct. Inevitably they evoked the closed color planes and opaque surfaces of Marden, Olitski’s equation of the painting as object and field in the grayed-down tones of his thickened impastos, and the banded symmetries of Stella’s black paintings. Actually, there was a deeply felt and logically consistent evolution from the taped, trisected color squares to the more evenly distributed visual and psychic flow of the new monochromes, whose gray pigment even bears elusive hints of the vivid chromaticism of the past. Scully said at the time that he felt compelled to break from the illusionism and complexity of his grids, in a statement reminiscent of Stella’s famous rationalization for his black paintings at the 1960 Museum of Modern Art show. Stella: “The solution I arrived at . . . forces illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate by using a regulated pattern.”

Scully’s new formal strategies de-emphasized composition and tonal gradation or modeling, and thus presented a rational distillation of his preceding work toward clarity, simplicity and a special kind of pictorial continuum. There was also a new moral tension evident in the uncompromising asceticism and exaltation of a formal ideal. While the gray monochromes evoked the absolutist forms of modern abstraction, from Malevich and Mondrian to Newman and Reinhardt, Scully’s approach and attitude were actually more pragmatic and open-ended than that, in tune with the 1970s. Nevertheless, some of Ad Reinhardt’s pithy art dogmas and his various chastisements are wonderfully apropos: “There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of any morality.” And the stern postulate applied to painting that is “formless, no top, no bottom, dark, no contrasting colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, matte, flat.”

Just as Reinhardt built up his black-on-black paintings by actually painting out successive coats of red, blue and green, so Scully’s “monochrome” paintings are really similarly multicolor and duotonal, at least. The color mixes for his alternating bands—or for individual panels, when combined in diptych and triptych format—change subtly in actual hue, as well as in intensity, as the pictorial balance may dictate. In the gray painting which he calls Blue, in fact, Scully moved toward cool and distant tonalities, in this case combining both oil and acrylic mediums in alternating bands, creating a sense of foreground and background, and painting his bands in thickness of one to three layers. By alternating oil and acrylic stripes the artist managed to create even sharper distinctions of figure and field than successive coats of one medium alone would allow. Oil and acrylic also emphasize refined contrasts of shiny and matte surface. Scully has frequently combined abutting panels in diptych form, and in these ensembles the warm and cool tonal relationships of the banding device may operate between the two panels as well as within the single painting, depending on the visual impact both of color mix and of the coating of the surface with varnish.

All these extremely subtle nuances and differentiations make themselves known to the viewer only after a certain period of perceptual acclimation. The differences in types of luminosity, and the tonal shifts between paintings as the gray mix itself changed, give the work a kind of static energy, and a pearly, flickering light quality held close to the surface. With its subliminal dynamism, Scully’s formal order did not aspire to a self-contained and unflawed perfection, but seemed rather to reflect a moment in a continuing mental evolution and process of consciousness. Even the narrow specialization of means embraced elements of risk and brinkmanship, for there was always the danger of having the painting vanish into its bland gray surface, or harden into a lifeless formula.

In a recent interview with the author, Scully explained his radical break with the past as an effort to rid himself of the last vestiges of traditional illusionism, and commented on the personal and philosophical implications of his gray monochromes. He felt impelled to eliminate the Cubist grid, he said, in order to free his painting for interpretation, and to create a more viable space. In his open fields of horizontal bands he had found a strong device that also promoted an immediate and holistic perception of the painting. “My horizontal paintings force you to look at two things at exactly the same time,” he observed. “The ground and top-most stripes present themselves simultaneously, and you can never break them down as you can the overlapped planes of Cubism. Because the surface is so complete, the emotions are freed.” Scully nevertheless retains abundant options, within the system, in format and expression: single panels, diptychs, triptychs; matte and shiny surfaces, diversity in paint texture, luminosity and medium.

After painting his voluptuous Red Diptych No. 1 at the end of 1976, Scully shifted his palette to a more uncompromising black-on-black monochrome in the following year, introducing a more problematic kind of visibility. Blackness compelled an even more complex and demanding involvement in perceptual issues, and in the temporal evolution of the painting. Like the monochrome gray series, the blacks were painted in sets identified by size and format, and with an alternating use of acrylic and oil, although the most recent work almost invariably uses oil on oil mediums. The first black-on-black painting was a seven-foot square canvas, employing 3/4-inch stripes, varying from one coat of paint on the ground to three for the relief bands. Since then the method of paint application has varied from laying down transparent glazes to taking paint directly from the tube.

Scully characteristically paints in the color-ground with large swipes of a seven-inch housepainter’s brush, using enriched blacks that “feel right” in their warm or cool tone, and shading them toward warm browns or russet. (“I play with color,” he says of the mixing process; “It’s an emotive thing.”) He often works over a light gesso ground to enhance luminosity, and once the ground is established, he lays down masking tape from edge to edge by hand, following measured-off markings on the support. Then he applies the same color paint in two or three coats over the tapes, to achieve finally his foreground band in thickened, assertive relief, working freely with the first applications and then more painstakingly on the later coats with a smaller, three-inch brush.

Scully’s operational methods are both simpler and more dramatically absorbing than his methodical surfaces would suggest. He intentionally lets the subtle imperfections of brushed surface stand, with traces of gesture in the combed ridges of paint clearly visible at close viewing distance. The brush marks convey Scully’s commitment to the painting act, and get rid of the machined, precisionist surface and the associations with a supra-human reality that make puristic art of the past seem so anachronistic today. At any given moment he is working half-blind since either the ground or the foreground bands are obscured by tape.

Scully varies his methods for mixing the black monochromatic surfaces. Sometimes he uses premixed colors; sometimes he works more programmatically, painting on progressive coats of red, yellow and blue with generous admixtures of black to achieve the desirable degree of intensity, light absorption or reflectivity that his enriched black surface requires. He has painted acrylic on his grounds, but now prefers to work with oil on oil, depending on the physical paint layers alone and the ridging left by the removed tapes to differentiate stripe from ground. The formats have varied from square to rectangle, and from intimate to heroic scale. Last summer the artist began working on vertical canvases in a one to three ratio—28 by 84 inches—divided into three equal squares. In Italian No. 2 for example, the middle square is unusual in being quite free of horizontal bands. Its surface shows marks of an expressive brush that had moved over it rhythmically in slow curving sweeps. The new series represents a surprising and abrupt break from the uniformities of four years of painting repeating bands over the entire surface from edge to edge.

In Scully’s opinion, there is no optimum viewing distance for his monochromatic black paintings, or any preferred lighting conditions, so long as surface glare remains controlled and unobtrusive. This reluctance to offer the spectator a specific point of view, or to precondition his perception of the painting seems to represent an effort to test the audience’s fundamental commitment to art, and to confront the spectator with the same ambiguities that the artist encountered in making the work. Scully discerns a contemporary relevance in the ambiguities of his art, and a reflection of the human predicament. He expects the viewer to respond alertly to the internal dialectic of his paintings, and to read even his formal element existentially as well as esthetically. Since his bands fluctuate optically, while they share the same surface equally, they never clearly define themselves apart from the whole surface configuration. Their shifting identities give them a quality of “placelessness.” Similarly, the close-valued tonalities create an impression of “no color.”

Many artists have felt that black is as much all-color as “no-color,” or the absence of chroma. Scully envisions his blacks as light, a “dead light” that he finds harmonious and consoling. He describes himself as a nocturnal creature who works at night and likes “to go out at night,” because he “finds it restful.” Fond of Samuel Beckett, he perceives an ambiguity of place and location in his work, analogous to the contradictions and indeterminacy of his color. And he connects serial painting and contemporary creativity, suggesting that seriality has to do with “making something stand still.”

These views get to the heart of Scully’s structural obsession and the moral implications of formalist art for him generally. He finds expansive possibilities in limitation, linking the formalist position to the dilemmas of living itself, with its circuitous path to authentic personal freedom. Experiencing a positive exhilaration in working within strictly circumscribed limitations and preordained rules, he is convinced that his monotonal and systemic abstract painting connects him to a current of spirituality in historic abstraction. “The power of abstract painting today,” he declares, “lies in a constant exchange and perpetual transformation of a physical state into a visual, emotional and mental state, and back again. It is closely aligned to the human situation.”

In his extraordinarily prolific outpouring of monochromatic black paintings over the past two years, Scully has demonstrated the seriousness, intelligence and strength of his painting, more than justifying his high-sounding declarations on art and life. His paintings are, in fact, unique today in their particular combination of painstaking method and emotional intensity, material presence and spiritual commitment, and in the harmonious graft of intuitive energies onto intellect. In the past year he has also become an assured monumental painter, capable of mastering a much grander theatre of operations, including large-scale mural painting, within his exacting formula. One notes his admiration for Seurat: “With Seurat you’ve got the most monumental painting made out of the most pedantic fussiness imaginable.” In Scully’s black, brown-black and red-black paintings today we acknowledge the strict, almost dogmatic, limitations of the pictorial structure which the artist has imposed on himself, and that awareness does not detract from their breadth and power, and their precarious and exciting equilibrium.

Sam Hunter