Washington, DC

Sean Scully

Before this retrospective I had never thought of Sean Scully’s painting as particularly controversial. But both the artist’s conversation and his admirers’ writing return to a defensive posture sufficiently often that Victoria Combalia begins her catalogue essay by noting this habit, which she explains as a craving to counter charges of conservatism levied by “those who, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, think in terms of progress in modern art.”1 This is a weird beast to have to slay. Still, the weapon Scully draws against it strikes me as equally odd. Scully is aware that the qualities that make his paintings not-quite-now—their high-Modernist insistence on the expressive potential and spiritual aspirations of abstraction—are wedded to those that make them not-quite-then, that signal the abandonment of any utopian or transcendental program. Yet he and his defenders persist in thinking of ways we can benefit from the paintings’ regard. Accordingly, throughout his explications of his mature work, he posits its “plurality,” “impurity,” and “inclusiveness” as demonstrating an appropriate way to exist in an increasingly provisional world.2

These are properties opposed to those often found in the artist’s earlier works, characterized in a 1979 article by Sam Hunter as “absolute paintings.”3 A Scully from the late ’70s generally consisted of narrow hard-edged stripes in a pair of unmodulated colors alternating across the expanse of the canvas, a format arrived at as the result of a deliberate reduction from the optically active, often diagonal webs of interlaced stripes that the artist had produced earlier in the decade. Although Hunter emphasized that “Scully’s approach and attitude were actually more pragmatic and open-ended” than those of Kasimir Malevich, Pier Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt, he maintained that there was “a moral tension evident in the uncompromising asceticism and exaltation of a formal ideal,” and found “wonderfully apropos” Reinhardt’s statement that “there is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of any morality.”4

Even in their austerity, however, canvases such as Horizontals: Thin Greys, 1976, and Brennus, 1979, were beginning to display signs of an exotic coloristic bent, as their ostensibly Spartan hues resolved into hints of, respectively, lavender and deep plum. And when, after making these hard-edged stripe paintings for five years, Scully finally gave free rein to his coloristic impulses, he simultaneously reintroduced other “impurities”—unruled lines, obvious brushstrokes, rough edges offset by strips of underpainted color.5 Of his “manifesto painting,” Backs and Fronts, 1981 (a work not in this show), he has said, “The idea of the reduced, refined, irrefutable, absolute, distilled object was completely thrown out the window, in favor of lots of relationships.” In this embrace of uncertainty, however, Scully still claims a moral force for his painting. If Combalia recognizes in his work an affinity to the disintegration of the figure in later Titian, “whereby a formal characteristic possesses the capacity to constitute itself as a metaphor about the world,” Scully himself says, “It is a moral imperative to have the strength or the tolerance to be able to live in the world without wanting definite truths.”6 It appears he wants an art reflective of social fracture to have the same kind of metaphoric and public reach as Renaissance religious painting.

Renaissance painting, however, while conveying a burgeoning humanism, catered to a culture unified by belief. What unifies Scully’s audience, in its reception of an intuited and improvisatory abstract language, is the senses. Significantly, the title of the show’s most sumptuous, lyrical work, Magdalena, 1993, refers to the New Testament figure not only most indicative of the inclusiveness of the Gospel, but also most unproblematically eroticized in the iconography of Christianity, and most unsteady as a moral indicator. (In art, though not in the Bible, the Magdalene never loses the taint of her past dedication to carnality. From Noli me tangere pictures showing Christ leaning away from the Magdalene’s hand, one sometimes gets the impression that the painter himself would not have been so coy.) Even the spirit beings of Scully’s realm—Angelica, 1982, and Angel, 1983—are represented as conjoined dualities of spirit and sense, free of the smirch of dogma. Each work has a left panel containing the simplest, cleanest, most disembodied lines—technically not even stripes—of Scully’s maturity, drawn with oilstick on contrasting flat backgrounds, white on black or black on white. But the works’ right panels anchor them with columns of thickly painted, heavily reworked, colorful, horizontal stripes. The understanding posited here, that the spiritual may be accessed via the physical, may constitute a poetic or philosophical stance, but—one begins to feel Reinhardt was correct—scarcely a moral one.

Indeed, Scully’s claim of moral content, like Mark Rothko’s contention that his subject matter was the tragic, is one that, while not necessarily incommensurate with our experience of the work, doesn’t inhere in it. With Scully, the moral attitude supposedly embodied seems a default. If ideas of the absolute, the transcendent, and even of social utopia are no longer available to the artist, must his work then necessarily bear witness to what is left—tolerance for multiple perspectives, the provisional nature of truth? While not overtly hostile to such a moral thesis, the paintings’ robust structures, the physicality of their paint, and the sensuality of their color—the things that make them register, and register viscerally—do little to support it. Establishment of their moral import could only strengthen their tie to the most vigorous American Modernism, but Scully needn’t despair of establishing a link to his Abstract Expressionist forebears—his most convincing, weightiest canvases are freighted with sense experience and redolent of Abstract Expressionist virility.

In Flesh, 1985, the presence of a horizontal slab, slathered in a pulpy, tissue-colored froth of paint and jutting into a primarily vertical architecture of dusky mat stripes, emphasizes that the human being exists as meat in a mineral world. Setting the vividly animal against the pallors of ash, coal, and clay, Scully contrasts the sexual with the rational, the primal with the planned. A similar dualism is established in Africa, 1989. Although Scully claims the title refers to North Africa (he has made several trips to Morocco, on one occasion filming a documentary about Matisse’s travels there), this dark, ominous painting seems to point more to the sub-Sahara. A panel of yellow and white stripes, underpainted in black and set into a menacing grid of blocks composed of larger, wider ocher and black stripes, is identified by the artist as representing “hope” embedded in a field glimmering with the “light of dusk, close to death.”7 It could, however, represent a Western consciousness submitted to the forbidding African Other. In many ways this is the fulfillment of a search begun in 1982, with Heart of Darkness, a pivotal work in Scully’s rejection of the rationalistic reductivism of his late-’70s post-Minimalism.

If so, Heart of Darkness also echoes earlier Modernist quests for the “primitive,” and it is telling that, despite his concession that certain Modernist tenets have lost their force, Scully holds fast to the contentions that his art “is dealing with the fundaments,” that its horizontals and verticals are “eternal,”8 and that “abstraction is about a yearning for universality,” qualities that place him in the dwindling Modernist line. Indeed, when Scully’s critics take up the issue of his apparent anachronism, they are bowing less to a perception that the paintings don’t belong to our own time than to the understanding that they might have fared better had the esthetic of an earlier era endured. As Arthur Danto notes, “Abstraction is no longer the bearer of destiny in anyone’s mind; it is but one of the things an artist can do.”9 Had Modernism’s heyday lasted a little longer, Scully’s paintings might have been central in the art history of the last 25 years. As it is, they are central to but one branch of it. This is why Scully feels embattled.

It is difficult to say whether the territory of abstraction has truly shrunk or whether the other areas of practice that have risen around it, hemming it in, have just made it look smaller: In either case, Scully has addressed his position, even to the extent of describing Pale Fire, 1988 (not in show)—a triumphant red-and-white field broken by an inset of dark bands, irregularly alternating compressed, dull tones across the panel and undermining the “health” and “generosity” of the larger expanse—as perhaps “a metaphor for the possibility of painting.” Still, he may be less resigned than he appears. He tells the story of a comment made to him by the critic Steven Madoff: “We don’t live in a golden age, we live in a silver age.” To which the painter gives a qualified assent: “I happen to like silver better than gold anyway, so that suits me just fine.” For Scully to continue to be able to make his paintings, it has to.

Glenn Dixon conducts management and salary surveys for a Washington, D.C., association. He is an occasional contributor to Washington City Paper.


1. Victoria Combalia, “Sean Scully: Against Formalism,” in Sean Scully:
Twenty Years, 1976–1995
, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta: High Museum
of Art, 1995, p. 32.
2. Sean Scully, in “Sean Scully: A Dialogue,” a public conversation with Ned Rifkin, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 14 June 1995. Unless otherwise noted, this is the source of all other remarks by the artist in this essay.
3. Sam Hunter, “Sean Scully’s Absolute Paintings,” Artforum 18 no. 3, November 1979, pp. 30-34.
4. Ibid., p. 32.
5. Scully, speaking at a press briefing, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 13 June 1995.
6. See Combalia, pp. 36–37.
7. Ned Rifkin, “Interview with Sean Scully,” in Sean Scully: Twenty Years, 1976–1995, p. 70.
8. Scully, press briefing, 13 June 1995.
9. Arthur C. Danto, “Art after the End of Art,” Artforum 31 no. 8, April 1993, p. 69.