New York

Sean Scully

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Without the boxiness of his previous work, Sean Scully’s new paintings are certainly less physically overbearing. Each large canvas contains a smaller, inset one that evokes projections collapsed back onto their supports—as though Scully wanted you to remain aware enough of their former invasiveness to give the paintings credit for holding back. With the single exception of a work appropriately titled Red Way, 1992, Scully’s palette here is an unusually extended range of grays; two diptychs (Calling, 1992, and As Was, 1993) include steel elements that fit right into the tonal schema which is reminiscent of Jasper Johns.

Johns’ influence stands out all the more strongly given the comparative temperateness of Scully’s new paintings. Still, there’s a literalist’s Johns, a Pop Johns, a painterly Johns, and so on; the one who leads to Robert Morris or Bruce Nauman is a very different artist from the one who leads to Frank Stella or Brice Marden. The Johns who shows up in Scully’s work is neither the fastidiously nostalgic ironist nor the Proustian ponderer, any more than he is the recondite poser of iconographic puzzles. Scully’s Johns is the classically formal Johns—the painter of flags and targets whose rhetorical mileage came from playing off formats that were flat (in both the ’physical and the emotional sense) against hypnotically evocative paint handling.

Of course a flag or a target can never really be as neutral as all that—certainly not compared with the neutrality of the formats Scully employs: checkerboards, stripes, bars. Like Kenneth Noland, Scully has moved away from specifically referential motifs toward more abstract patterns whose analogues can be found wherever a surface needs elaborating, from architecture to clothing. By the same token, Johns’ brushwork was never really all that emotive, in comparison either to that of the Abstract Expressionists before him or to Scully’s rough and brawny paint application. Not that Scully’s way of filling in his stripes and squares can fairly be called Expressionist either. His handling of paint shows affinities with that of some of the “new image” painters of the ’70s—his closest American contemporaries—but where their roughness was meant to evoke Johnsian tentativeness, vulnerability, and doubt, his seems to aim more at stoic self-dominion.

Upping the ante on Johns’ formula, Scully has upset its balance. The subject of Scully’s paintings has less to do with emotion than with what used to be called “character.” They speak of determination over brilliance, forthrightness above subtlety, domination rather than seduction—the ideals of a jock rather than those of a poet. Or maybe of a jock who writes poetry, for of course he wants you to admire his sensitivity too. Which would all be very well, if only the poetry were finer. What Scully’s new restraint reveals is that the old assertiveness was its own reward, that despite a pleasurable formal solidity, the inwardness and sensibility riding on Scully’s charged brushwork are just too simple, too steady, and too familiar to be of deep interest.

Barry Schwabsky