Washington, DC

Sean Scully

The Phillips Collection

In the tradition of Giorgio Morandi and Mark Rothko, Sean Scully’s abstract paintings ply a narrow course that is both emotionally dense and intellectually engaging. Since 1998, Scully has been gradually refining his focus with a group of thematically linked paintings titled “Wall of Light,” inspired by his observation of Mayan ruins. Several dozen oils, watercolors, and pastels from the series, in addition to some earlier works, were recently exhibited at the Phillips Collection, where they revealed a singular achievement, one all the more impressive for its concision. The Irish-born artist, who was raised in England, relies on deceptively simple compositions based on iterations of horizontal and vertical blocks of heavily layered color, a style he amusingly labels “Druid Minimalism,” and for much of his career he has veered toward an abstraction reminiscent of, among others, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. Scully’s work, however, is more broodingly romantic than either of these artists’.

The exhibition, also titled “Wall of Light” and curated by Stephen Bennett Phillips, was installed on two floors of the museum’s Goh Annex, an airy contemporary extension of the original 1897 Georgian Revival mansion. The first level was given over to a miniretrospective charting sequential epiphanies regarding composition, color, and gesture, which seen together formed an intriguing evolutionary arc. Scully’s works of the ’70s focus on rigid geometric abstraction characterized by nearly affectless surfaces and subdued color. In the ’80s, the now-familiar post-and-lintel composition begins to appear, handling of paint becomes freer, edges are more animated, the juxtaposition of color seems bolder, and the canvases attain a greater physicality. Occasionally, multiple panels are combined on several planes, the result, as in Red and Red, 1986, resembling a kind of erratic terracing. In the ’90s, Scully develops a still more tactile vocabulary and pares down his compositions even further.

The profundity of mood that characterizes the current series was established, breathtakingly, in the first room of the exhibition’s second level by Wall of Light Pink, 1998, and Wall of Light Heat, 2001. Contradictions abounded here, beginning with the series’s title. Walls, typically impediments, are for Scully a source of light. His hues, once declarative, are now darkened by an undercoat of black—the portentous black of Velázquez and Manet. The shade seeps into, animates, and articulates Scully’s ochres, blues, whites, reds, yellows, and greens to create what he calls a “dead fallen light” burdened with memory and yielding “the exuberance of regret.”

Scully’s heritage—the unreconstructed abstraction of the Cedar Tavern crowd—is evident in his visceral application of paint; it erupts and crashes, streaks and lumbers. Moreover, his brushwork amplifies tensions within compositional elements: The insistent horizontal passages of Wall of Light April, 2000, recall Italian Futurism, while some of the jutting vertical segments of Wall of Light Desert Night, 1999, suggest the precipitous mountainscapes of classical Chinese painting. Some groupings of blocks yield cruciform shapes, others ascending or descending patterns. Some horizontals and verticals are tightly meshed, others loosely gathered. Selective mirroring of groups of blocks, reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s ’70s crosshatch paintings, adds another dynamic layer. Scully’s early, achingly precise geometry has finally yielded to life’s achingly uncertain exigencies. This series’s compositional terseness has emboldened the artist to be more painterly and emotionally expansive, and both the melancholic and rapturous qualities of his paintings are now more apparent than ever.

Nord Wennerstrom