New York

Sean Scully

Galerie Lelong/Danese

Sean Scully’s concurrent shows proved that abstraction is not dead. The work on view was neither reprise nor parody but the carrying forward of those abstract staples of modernism—geometry and gesture—to new aesthetic heights. At Galerie Lelong, the artist presented two contrasting series (all works 1998), the four large canvases that make up his “Walls of Light,” along with 40 examples of his unusual “Floating Paintings,” which project from the wall perpendicularly rather than resting flat against it. At Danese, Scully exhibited five medium-size paintings displaying formal similarities to the “Wall of Light” series. These works at once epitomize the essentials of abstraction and give them what one might call, both literally and figuratively, new depth. If, as the Parisian philosopher Eugène Minkowski eloquently stated, “the dimension in depth never allows us to know ourselves totally,” then the mysterious dimension in depth that Scully achieves here suggests that we can never know the expressive and metaphysical implications of abstraction completely.

The best abstract painting always remains peculiarly enigmatic: It can never be reduced to its techniques, however conspicuous they may be, nor simplified to some one-dimensional meaning. (Rothko said that his own paintings were not planes of color but tragic emotions. To see them objectively was to miss their subjective complexity.) Scully reminds us that abstract painting is the grand climax of the romantic pursuit of the ineffable, and he achieves a sense of tangible intangibility through two methods. On the one hand, ingenious overpainting creates a certain murky atmosphere, for the shadow of the lower layers seems to fall across the upper layer, so that there is no conclusive surface—no clear difference between outer and inner—but a kind of painterly quicksand. On the other hand, Scully arranges many of his rectangles—they almost resemble Lego building blocks—alongside one another in units of three, forming squares or rectangles. But sometimes one unit is missing, and some squares are larger than others, disrupting the neatness of the serial sequence. Moreover, the painterliness softens the geometry—edges are not always firm and straight—and the geometry contains the painterliness, so that it seems peculiarly concentrated, almost solid.

Wall of Light White is composed of twelve such “squares,” each comprising two or three rectangular bands of color. In one square a soft blue-gray rectangle lies horizontally sandwiched between two black ones, while another square consists of a black band nestled vertically between two grays. Again and again geometric and color patterns reverse, destroying the symmetry of each row and the effect of a stable allover pattern and generating a tension that is never resolved. The grid is “off” and oddly restless. The surface trembles, as though registering unpredictable oscillations. And through it all—through the very fiber of the paint—a strange light, dim but vital, shimmers.

Imbued with this odd, impacted light, at once gloomy and elated, Scully’s paintings become peculiarly urgent, secretive, and intimate. They seem to float free, as the three-dimensional “Floating Paintings” almost literally do. However familiar the construction of his works, they are also ingeniously refined, to the extent of using the conventions of geometrical and gestural abstraction to new, unexpected expressive effect. Indeed, Scully’s work is the next step—one might even say “advance”—in abstract painting, all the more so because they are more emotionally convincing, even tragic than the elegant abstractions of Rothko or, for that matter, of Agnes Martin.

Donald Kuspit