View of “Sean Scully,” 2015.

View of “Sean Scully,” 2015.

Sean Scully

Sean Scully Art Space – Santa Cecília de Montserrat

View of “Sean Scully,” 2015.

“I have a highly intuitive relation with color; I don’t think of it at all,” Sean Scully recently told me. Yet one would hardly think so from his ensemble of pieces in the chapel of Santa Cecília at the Monastery of Montserrat, where Scully got carte blanche to create a series of works for permanent display in a sacred setting. This Benedictine chapel was built in the tenth century in the mountains near Barcelona and was recently restored and, after the artist’s intervention, renamed Sean Scully Art Space.

Here, despite Scully’s words, color seems deeply considered. The main nave has small windows of red monochromatic stained glass, while in the left aisle the windows are yellow and on the right side blue. Thus a trinity of primary colors defines the architecture of natural light entering the space. On each side of the main nave, close to the original entrance, there is a painting nearly ten feet in height, mounted with metal grips that make the work float in front of the wall. The one on the left is Cecilia, 2012, with red and yellow horizontal bands; on the right is Landline Cecilia, 2015, with blue bands intersected with a red and a dirty reddish white. These paintings echo the red light illuminating the space from its stained-glass windows, while each complements the primary hue in the aisle behind it. These subtle interplays seem to suggest that the installation reflects a careful color plan, although within the paintings, one still feels the artist’s intuitive hand and subjectivity countering the minimal compositions.

Scully incorporated a range of techniques in this project. In the left aisle, where visitors now enter the chapel, hangs the huge Doric Nyx, 2013, a dark oil painting that does not get a lot of light; its placement is the only one I cannot fully comprehend, since it reduces the power of the work. Across, facing it, is Holly-Stationes, 2013, a twenty-foot-wide steel construction with fourteen small paintings inserted within it, referring to the Stations of the Cross, although in an abstract sense. The small paintings each show two juxtaposed color bands. An inscription below makes explicit reference to the pains and sorrows of humanity in relation to the Crucifixion. Scully made the first version of this work in memory of his mother, who’d recently passed away. Behind the altar there is a triptych of monochrome panels in glass, mounted just above the ground on the curved wall; together, they look like a Minimal sculpture, with a blue panel contrasting two yellow panels, one soft and one brighter. Rather than smoothly blending his work into the existing architecture, Scully brings disparity and introduces a different sense of time in the chapel. Another highlight is three small frescoes, which add another texture and a more direct relation between painting and architecture.

Scully’s chapel differs from earlier examples that naturally come to mind, such as that of Matisse in Vence, France, or Rothko in Houston, which seem more focused on creating an experience of unity. Matisse devised a light, color-filled, and spiritual environment, while Rothko’s chapel is dark and, in my experience, rather gloomy. Scully’s space, on the other hand, is populated by many characters and moods, and allows contradictions. Up high, the windows create a kind of ordered architecture of light. Lower, at eye level, the individual works range from dark and introverted to subtle and bright, from monumental to modest. One feels at times absorbed in an encompassing spiritual setting, while at other moments, each work tells its own story.

Jurriaan Benschop