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Sean Scully

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

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

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