Sean Scully

Jamileh Weber Gallery

“The stripe is neutral and boring,” says Sean Scully of the most obvious ingredient of his work. In the ’70s he had already chosen the stripe as the dominant motif of his painting. At that time he used tape to outline the colored stripes that divided his canvases horizontally, vertically, or diagonally into exact forms. He employed this method with explicit reference to Piet Mondrian, whose ideas Scully wanted to develop further. In 1981 he discarded this impersonal technique and, replacing the rather cold acrylic used for the stripes up until then, introduced oil paint and, with that, a legible artistic signature. Through more subtle application of paint he heightened the effect of the colors, giving them great physical presence. In the paintings of the last two years, shown here, the interplay of colors on the picture plane is reduced to a dominant few that systematically combine to create open, patternlike units organized either horizontally or vertically. Each painting is characterized by a unique set of stripe-modules, and the paint is applied in thick layers of impasto that express substance and material presence. They are kept within extremely subtle values of gray, white, and black, as well as dark-red or blue tones. Scully literally obscures our view of the underlying, vibrant, and much more spontaneously painted layers in black, pink, blue, or green. These underlayers peek through in places, complementing the deliberately heavy application of the surface layers with their fine nuances. Scully’s critical dialogue with Neo-Plasticism is amplified by the unequivocally nonmetaphysical and laconic postulate “What you see is what you see.”

Scully often places smaller canvases within the larger ones, painted either in parallel stripes or in a monochrome tone. As “paintings within paintings” they seem like views through the painting or like barred windows, but they can also be read as compact forms or bodies, leading an emphatic life of their own against the “overall” background of the main canvas. In most cases the finished painting consists of several panels, some similar, some dissimilar in size. Recently, he has at times replaced the painted canvas with sheet metal that has partly rusted surfaces. The various elements that constitute the whole painting are not always congruent in thickness or surface size, and through these discrepancies the works enlarge upon the classical notion of the painting, expressing an objectlike tendency reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ flags. Still, the painting and the painting-object have never been identical for Scully. Instead, his paintings remain embedded in a European tradition insofar as they create moods and evoke various spatial effects of near and far solely through the interplay of colors. In Bridge, 1991, for instance, the horizontal stripes of the middle segment unambiguously mediate between the two broad verticals of the left-hand section and the small canvas on the right, which is experienced as being much farther away since it is framed in steel.

Characteristic of Scully’s painting, beyond this particular handling of perceptual levels, is a subtle interplay between painterly execution of detail, and the painting’s overall effect, an interplay unknown in Frank Stella’s or Johns’ work. For what at close range is seen as an improvised drama or brushwork appears at greater distance in the large format as purposeful circumspection.

Anne Krauter

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.