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Conversation width Sean Scully

Passenger is the title of the retrospective exhibition1 of world-famous abstract painter Sean Scully, which opened on the 14th of October at the Hungarian National Gallery.

The large-scale show, organized and curated by Dávid Fehér, exhibits close to 110 artworks from the oeuvre of the painter, with a scope encompassing everything from early figurative compositions to recent works. The exhibition is the artist’s first comprehensive museum show in the region. Sean Scully travelled to Budapest for the opening. It was on this occasion that we had the following discussion.

Mónika Zsikla: This is not Your first time visiting our country. Could you talk about your relationship with Hungary?

Sean Scully: The mother and father of my wife – Liliane – are both Hungarian, as are her aunts, uncles and grandparents. Which also means that the genealogy of my son is half Hungarian, half Irish (and to a certain extent English as well). Hungary and Ireland are, in a sense, second homes for him. We often drive to the Lake Balaton from Bavaria to visit his grandmother. We stay at this funny little place on the northern side of the lake called Révfülöp. I have a beautiful photograph of the local railway station at night – a very fifties-looking building – which reminds me of movies on the second world war. The whole place seems to be frozen in time. The villa of the aunts – which is architecturally very typical of the area – intrigues me. There is a small well there where the uncle of Liliane committed suicide. A tiny well with a very claustrophobic construction around it. Also, her grandfather once got off a train in a snowstorm, went, sat on a hill and died. There is a lot of sorrow in Hungary, which touches me deeply as I come from a similar background: my grandfather hung himself.

As I drove last summer across the country to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, I listened to the national radio. I felt very close to the kind of melancholic gipsy music that was playing. While I was driving, I started to think about the properties of the land. Agriculturally speaking, Hungary should be the bio factory of the whole continent and one of the richest countries in Europe. After all, it has the perfect climate and land with black, fertile earth. There is a lot of sun and rain. It is perfect. People just have to jump over their own shadow, but they are held down by the past…

MZs: Travelling has been a big part of your life. According to the title of your Budapest exhibition, are You a Passenger yourself?

SS: The title is autobiographical. I have been a passenger all my life. When I was young, I made a trip from Ireland to England. My mother was talking to me about this crossing after I recounted one of my dreams to her: it was about a man continuously walking past us. My mother told me the story that probably triggered my dream. She said we were on the deck of the boat where all the poor people were. There was a terrible fog, we got lost, the radio connection broke, and the sea was full of mines. It was very dangerous after the war. The captain and the steward were running up and down the deck with poles. They were trying to push the mines away from the boat and were firing on them to make them explode. My mother said that this was the moment I was dreaming about. Afterwards, I made two pictures titled Precious (1981, 1987) where I added a little painting inside the composition. The small painting was me. The title Passenger comes from this notion of being an entity that is inside – being carried by – a larger entity.


Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective. Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 october 2020 – 30 May 2021. |;

Sean Scully and Mónika Zsikla | Budapest, 2020

MZs: How do you work with curators and theorists?

SS: It is very informal, always based on friendship.

MZs: Yesterday You went live on the online platform of Brooklyn Rail, an independent cultural and public journal from the Budapest exhibition in the company of the curator Dávid Fehér: in the conversation with David Carrier and Deborah Solomon,2 You alluded to the fact that you arrived in New York in the best possible time…

SS: In New York, I was an outsider with a lot of people against me. Imagine you are playing football, and on your team there is only You, and there are about twenty people on the other side, and there is only one ball. This is what it was like for me in New York. I am very fortunate because the first place I lived in was Boston. Everybody who went to New York first was destroyed because they were not prepared for the psychological aspect of it. I always say I am really happy that I am not Italian. How could you go from a place like Italy to New York? But if you go to New York from a dismal part of London, you will be probably fine because it is almost the same. I could only handle New York because I came from a rough environment and upbringing.


Sean Scully with Deborah Solomon & David Carrier: New Social Environment #150. 13 October 2020 |

Sean Scully: Cactus, 1964, oil on canvas; 33×27,9 cm © Photo: Ferenc Eln

MZs: In the wonderful catalogue of Your Budapest exhibition, almost every author mentions the still-life painting Cactus from 1964. What is Your own relationship to this early work?

SS: Well, of course, I could have easily been a figurative painter. I am very good at drawing, and I did beautiful portraits earlier. But I always wanted to do something bigger, freer, more expansive, more international. I did not want to do something like Lucian Freud. A lot of people I know say Lucian is a great artist. I think he is a great realist, but not a great artist, because his work is too hermetic, the same thing goes for Frank Auerbach. I wanted to create something that would reach more people, gather a greater audience and have a bigger effect. My work is really adored in Germany, Spain, France, Italy, America and China; but in England very little. I personally think that the break of the UK from Europe is the same thing as their artistic separation from the rest of the continent. British art is based on eccentricity. You know this bohemian, upper-class thing that has nothing to do with anything we actually deal with in life. My art is based on the kind of rhythm that runs through the world. I think it is much more important and relevant. Anyway, I could never really get along with the English art scene.

I love cacti because they look after themselves, survive on very little attention and they flower when they feel like it. They do not flower when You feel like it. They flower on time. They might not flower for seven years, and then they will choose to do so for three consecutive years. I just love this as a metaphor for the artist and I have repeated it many times to my students. I was a very strange boy and I also had a cactus collection. Once I was carrying this collection in a cardboard box, and some policemen stopped me and asked what I was carrying. I said it was a cardboard box. And then the policeman said, “I can see it is a cardboard box, but what is in it?”. I simply said, “plants that defend themselves”. He said, “Well, let us have a look then” – and he put his hands in the box and then the cactuses pricked him. He said, “Very clever. Fuck off.” Nice story, right? Also, when I was teaching my students gave me a cactus at the end of my time as a parting gift.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective (exhibition view) | Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 october 2020 – 30 May 2021 | Without, 1988, oil on linen; 243.8×365.8 cm | Mariana, 1991, oil on linen; 243.8×213.4 cm © Photo: Ferenc Eln

MZs: Your titles are often narrative, filled with metaphor and associations. What is your relationship to literature?

SS: Literature is very inspiring to me. You know my favourite book is Out of Africa3 by Karen Blixen. Many of the Eastern European writers are also very important to me: Arthur Koestler or Joseph Conrad for example. I have read Heart of Darkness4 more than once. What I like about Konrad is that he writes in – and is a master of – a foreign language. When you write in another language, you are jumping out of your own context: it is so fascinating that somebody can make that effort. Joyce did that too. He wanted to study Ibsen, so he learnt Danish. Beckett wrote in French. I have written in Spanish. It is a very interesting thing to do, to write in a foreign language. However, what I like the most in the work of Conrad is his existentialism. He is always dealing with the British empire, with these people who are thrown into these strange situations, where they often go crazy. I love all this depressive Russian, Eastern European stuff. Solzhenitsyn, I ate. This kind of literature fascinates me but of course I have read most of the classics as well: the work of the Brontë-sister or Sense and Sensibility5 from Jane Austen for example. Austen deals with fine feelings, but it is always in the service of capitalism. Love? Yes. Social rank? Yes. Austen consistently defends capitalism.

MZs: Apart from literature, is music also an inspiration for You?

SS: I come from a musical family and culture and Irish music is amazing. My mother was a singer, whose signature song was Unchained Melody. When I was young, we used to go to the vaudeville on the bus. You know vaudeville is a little bit of everything: a magician, a comedian, a juggler, a dancer, a male and a female singer. The star of the vaudeville who would close the show is usually the female singer. This affected me because my mother was almost a star. My grandmother, who drank a lot, was also a singer who sang sad Irish songs in the pub for drinks. I was in a rock band for a little while with my brother and my friend Johnny Hopkins. I also had a blues club and a big record collection: John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, B. B. King, Robert Johnson, Etta James. I love the fundamental quality of blues, it never gets baroque. Hooker made a record which went: “Boom, boom, boom, boom / I’m gonna shoot you right down”.6 I think this would be a great title for an artwork, as my paintings are made in parallel strokes, you know boom, boom, boom, boom.

MZs: The title of your painting Hammering also comes to mind here…

SS: Yes! Chimes of Freedom from Bob Dylan. I think Bob Dylan is a genius. Everybody else is trying to make music, but Bob Dylan is operating on another level. We hear a lot of catchy tunes and good lyrics, but not on the level of Dylan…


Karen Blixen: Out of Africa / Den afrikanske farm. London: Putnam; Coppenhagen: Gyldendal, 1937


Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. February, March and April 1899, Blackwood’s Magazine


Jane Austin: Sense and Sensibility. London, 1811



Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective (exhibition view) | Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 | Hammering, 1990, oil on canvas, 279×442 cm © Photo: Ferenc Eln

MZs: Sacred reference are common in Your work, thinking of either such a masterpiece of Siena painting as the Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna or the icon of St. Boris and St. Gleb of the Novgorod School of Painting from 1335. Allusive titles such as Madonna or Adoration also appear in your oeuvre. What is Your relation to the sacred and to sacred spaces? I am asking this mainly because of your 2019 exhibition HUMAN that was installed in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.8

SS: My relationship with the sacred is not literal, it is very atmospheric. I am very much connected to ideas of the sacred and to spirituality. But I am very liberal when it comes to religious beliefs, or when it comes to my own behaviour. I would not fit into the rigours of devotional religion. I am like the Jack-in-the-box, you put the lid on, but I keep popping out. However, all religious sites affect me. It is our attempt to be spiritual. However, we should do this by making the world better and not by building churches. Once I had an accident in Childress, Texas, which had a population of about 100, 000 and something like a hundred churches. It was one of the most spiritually barren, unkind places that I have ever visited.

What I do believe in is our spirituality, kindness and caring for others because I think these are the things that are really missing. Also, I did not want the exhibition HUMAN – which was installed in a sacred space – to be devotional, devoted to a particular set of beliefs.

MZs: Should we look for sacred allusions in the diptych and triptych image formats, or should we interpret this as the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis?

SS: It is not married to the sacred. It is more like a questioning, where the panels question each other’s identity. This is similar to the notion of the mirror, the myth of Narcissus looking at his own reflection. One side examining the other side. One of my mirror paintings is exhibited in Passenger: it was important to include it as it is quite a big series. The triptych is a whole, but it is dividing itself. It wants to unify but is also broken. I am dealing with these kinds of metaphors a lot. Concerning your association of Hegel: I am always confronting the notions of the whole, the issue of unity and that of disunity.


Sean Scully: HUMAN. San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 8 May – 13 October 2019, ld.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective (exhibition view) | Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 | What Makes Us Too, 2017; Figure in Blue, 2003; Uninsideout, 2018–2020; Black Square, 2020; 30 Also, (detail), 2018 © Photo: Ferenc Eln

MZs: I would be very interested in the process of how the inset part of the paintings is technically made? While looking at your work I find it hard to decipher how the inserted panels were created. Simultaneously with or independently from the larger structure?

SS: I paint it separately. The whole point is that it is an insert. I use the inset as a separate action: I insert it, I impose it on the field. Sometimes an inset is visually more potent than the other, but the other is more powerful physically. I play around a lot with these aspects.

MZs: As far as I know, You exchanged the insets of some paintings which are exhibited now in Budapest. What motivated you to do so?

SS: Well, I changed the insets in the case of Uninsideout – the large spray triptych – because I thought it was too minimal. It was not saying enough. I made it more complicated, more crazy, more ambitious, dealing with more issues. After I made it more crazy, I really liked it. You know it is a painting about destroying the idea of harmony, dismantling the notion of foreground and background. It is one of my favourite pictures from the show.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective (exhibition view) | Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 |  Uninsideout, 2018–2020 © Photo: Ferenc Eln

MZs: What is the next exhibition you are preparing for?

SS: I don’t really know. I have to go to Skulpturenpark Waldfrieden which is near Wuppertal, for the opening on the 5th of November. [Due to the pandemic, Sean Scully’s solo exhibition9 will be opened in distinct stages from June until the end of the exhibition in January, with the erection of a statue at each separate stage – ed.]. Then I am doing something in my New York studio. I will be showing twelve Landline paintings and one black square as an exhibition. These Landlines are larger than the ones you can see in the Budapest exhibition, and they unite to make one monumental image.


Sean Scully – Insideoutside. Skulpturenpark Waldfrieden, Wuppertal, 10 June 2020 – 3 January 2021, ld.

I have been a Passenger all my Life
The Geometry of Woe | Scully and Words
Sean Scully: <em>Passenger</em> – A Retrospective

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