Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest*
Curator: Dávid Fehér
The Passenger paintings form an enigmatically beautiful group of works in Sean Scully’s oeuvre. In these pictures, the ground has another picture inside it – an inset, as the artist calls it –, which in every case is shifted from the composition’s vertical axis of symmetry. It is as though the inset had moved or were still in motion. The insets can be interpreted as lingering moving figures, solitary human figures passing across the horizon. To use the artist’s own words, “The inset, or the inside, is a ‘Passenger’ within a bigger structure, that evokes a kind of mother-child association, something being protected or held by something bigger.” The association of the passenger and the mother-and-child turns the relationship between the ground and the inset into a metaphor for life: after all, what Scully deals with in his works is how forms and figures evolve and transform over time, and how their constellations progressively alter. All this is inextricably connected to personal experiences and memories, and there is also a possible hint at the role of travel and emigration in the artist’s life: Scully is of Irish origin but was raised in England, before settling in America, interspersed now and then with stays in Europe. Furthermore, these works relate to his constant urge to look for varying constellations. The inset is a metaphor for the incessantly moving and changing phenomena that appear on the abstract plane, a metaphor for the eliminated subject.
In the works presented in this introductory section, the links between the insets, the panels and the fields of colour can be compared with (inter)subjective relationships. In one of Scully’s first paintings, Cactus, the figures (cactuses) embedded in the striped, abstract ground serve as metaphors for the subject to the same extent as the insets in his later Passenger paintings, or as the body-like presences in his Floating Paintings, which hover in space. “My paintings want to tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade”, Scully once said. Behind his works, the human subject appears sometimes as a distant association (for example, in the title of the work Mariana, while at other times, the interplay of fields of colour merging into one another refers to human interactions, to the experience of being together and being separate.
Early Experiments from the 1960s
Though Scully’s work is predominantly abstract, the starting point of his art is the human figure. Between 1965 and 1968, when he attended Croydon College of Art, he was particularly occupied with the forms and intensive colour use of Fauvism (Henri Matisse, André Derain) and German Expressionism (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff). The works of these art historical forebears seem to be echoed sometimes in the colour fields of Scully’s Seated Figure paintings and works on paper that have a powerful, quasi-abstract character. Scully’s early works are often built on varied repetitions, whose sequential character presages the artist’s later works. The vibrant structures of bands placed beside his seated figures return later as the sole motif of his art. The artist gradually deconstructed his human figures into their elemental parts, and then eliminated them altogether, resulting in semi-abstract or completely abstract systems of forms. Among Scully’s most important role models in his early years was Paul Klee. He was particularly taken with paintings in which Klee arranged soft patches of colour into a broken (irregular) gridwork, conjuring up an imaginary landscape. Throughout the 1960s Scully gradually moved away from figural depiction, progressing step by step to the basic elements of painterly form, to the interplay of patches of paint against irregular grids, to constellations of horizontal bands of colour that recall landscapes – all these features returned, on an increasingly large scale, in his later paintings. Notwithstanding the fundamental abstract quality of his motifs, however, they always contain the memory of the figure and figurativeness.
Works from the 1970s
In 1969 Scully travelled to Morocco, where he was deeply impressed by the striped carpets and textiles he saw, and by the repeating patterns in their ornamentation. It was partly these and partly the urban architecture that inspired the paintings referred to by the artist as Supergrids, in which he creates dense, polyphonic systems of interweaving square grids. The illusory spectacle generated by the overlapping layers of paint and space recalls Op Art, while his geometric structures – often formed with the help of masking tape – are defined by the artist’s own uniquely (re-)interpreted post-Minimalist approach. The works Scully made as a student in Newcastle in the early 1970s allude to industrial architecture and to the close-knit fabric of the metropolis, yet they are never completely devoid of the spontaneous, personal quality imparted by the painterly gesture. The dense gridwork system is sometimes opened up (Diagonal Inset, 1973), foretelling the actual insets embedded in many of his later works. The Crossover pictures are among Scully’s most definitive works from the 1970s. Their basic character derives from the pulsating vibrancy in the criss-crossing, vertical and horizontal bands of colour. Scully’s first longer sojourn in the USA was in 1972–1973, studying at Harvard University on a Frank Knox Fellowship. In 1975 he received another scholarship, this time to New York, where he settled. American Abstract Expressionism had a decisive impact on his art. According to Arthur C. Danto, one of the most important interpreters of Scully’s work, “Scully’s historical importance lies in the way he has brought the great achievement of Abstract Expressionist painting into the contemporary moment”. Moreover, in the second half of the 1970s, Scully also began to reflect on contemporary painting discourses – his increasingly dark-toned grids and band structures resonate with that period’s concerns about the future of painting: Scully’s black paintings share parallels with the art of Ad Reinhardt, while they simultaneously enter into dialogue with analytical abstract artists such as Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman.
After the Turning Point of 1981
The first momentous turning point in Scully’s painting came around 1968–1969, when he eliminated the figure from his works, while the second was his abandonment of “pure” abstraction in 1981. The latter was driven by his desire for content and representation. As the artist has stated, “… if you take out a figure – house, tree, whatever – from a painting, then you take out representation, and you are creating an absence. But it’s not possible to create the absence inside a human being … we can’t alter the human need for narrative representation, a connection with the world, sensuality, and so on. All the things that we associate with content.” Even though the works he produced in the 1970s were also primarily inspired by concrete visual experiences, from the early 1980s, the narratives, references and human figures lurking behind his increasingly complex structures of bands became the defining aspects of his art. Scully fills his band structures with narrative and metaphorical associations, but the stories and the figures themselves remain hidden. The key characteristic of his art now became layeredness, in both the technical and metaphorical meaning of the word: “… my work is European in the sense that it is layered, not only physically but in its meanings.” Scully’s interest in layeredness led him largely to replace acrylic with oil paints after 1981: oils allowed him to apply many more layers and to create far more “bodily” surfaces. Such surfaces often function as substitutes for the human body. Scully deconstructs and then rearranges abstraction, juxtaposing picture fields of different widths and depths. He regards Cubism as an important precursor to his method of deconstruction. The art historical and cultural historical forebears that can be discerned in his works, and the iconographical schemas alluded to in his titles, cover an extremely broad range, from Henri Matisse and James Joyce to classical depictions of the “Adoration of the Magi”, as exemplified in this section by the paintings entitled The Bather, Adoration and Araby.
Works from the 1980s and 1990s
In the 1980s Scully achieved his international breakthrough. In his polyptychs, composed from panels of differing widths and depths, he combines geometry with gesture, abstraction with representational associations. In his works, he carries on and reassesses the traditions of modernism and Abstract Expressionism without the slightest trace of irony, and this, together with its wealth of cultural historical references, is what makes his art so radically different from the post-modernist trends of the era and from the approach of the American Neo-Geo movement. A dramatic transformation in Scully’s art took place after a traumatic tragedy, when his 19-year-old son Paul died in a car accident. From this point on, his works became increasingly dark and “aggressive”, often “colourless”, permeated with existential anguish. The painting entitled Empty Heart is also associated with this trauma: the composition evokes a barren landscape, and can be interpreted as a kind of monument. Aside from his personal experiences, art historical, musical and literary allusions also play a decisive role. In Rock Me, he deconstructs and reassembles the utopian forms of Constructivism. The elemental forms of archaic cultures are referenced in his paintings through mask-like figures (Red Mask), while Hammering harks back to the most primeval form of music and rhythm. In addition, it refers to the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom: “Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail / The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder”. The monumental triptych, “hammered together” from separate pictorial elements and from reduced motifs, is a unique pairing of formal reduction and referential richness. In the words of Kelly Grovier, an important interpreter of Scully’s art, “An avid reader, especially around the time he made his breakthrough to a more human and emotionally-rich post-Minimalism in the early 1980s, Scully was acutely aware of the haunting and hypnotising power of language. He became increasingly sensitive to the syncopating syllables of memorable metaphors and their ability to approximate the cognitive cadences that he hoped to access and excite through his work.” The suggestive power of visual metaphors partnered with poetic titles became a prominent feature of Scully’s art in later decades.
In Dialogue #1
Soft Edges (Scully and Bonnard)
One of the most important aspects of Sean Scully’s art is its dialogue with the art historical past. Scully takes precedents from art history and breaks them down into patches of colour, which he then reassembles. The American art historian Donald Kuspit once described Scully as “… a humanist Old Master with abstract disguise. His paintings have the spiritual depth and universal import of the best Old Master paintings, distilled and coded in modernist abstract terms.” A wide spectrum of associations and even concrete quotations can be found in Scully’s art. The artist once famously stated, “if you put Mondrian, Matisse, and Rothko together, you have my work”, but in fact, the inspirations that define Scully’s oeuvre are far more numerous and diverse than this. The art historical allusions discernible in his works range from the Book of Durrow to Titian, Cimabue to Duccio, Vincent van Gogh to Giorgio Morandi, André Derain to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, J. M. W. Turner to Gustave Courbet, Diego Velázquez to Édouard Manet, Paul Klee to Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock to Jasper Johns. Scully’s tastes and preferences build up into an extraordinarily complex and multifaceted fabric, a kind of pantheon. Key artists from the late nineteenth century are particularly important, especially Monet, with his volatile, light-infused surfaces, and Cezanne, with his tectonic structures. Scully has also made reference on more than one occasion to the paintings of Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard: the sensuality of soft edges and interlayered patches of colour, the complex interactions between interiors and human figures, the poetry of diffuse, mottled geometry. Chosen in collaboration with the artist, a work by Bonnard from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest has been incorporated into the “ground” of this exhibition, wedged in like one of Scully’s insets. The 1894 painting entitled Grandmother with a Child (Grand-mère et enfant) consists of human figures and colour patches superimposed over a sparse (almost geometric) system of horizontal and vertical lines. Scully’s Walls of Light are often based on similar structures, but they are never specific paraphrases of Bonnard’s works – instead, they form snippets of a dialogue abounding in free associations.
In Dialogue #2
Fields of Colour (Scully and Van Gogh)
Scully’s early encounter with the art of Vincent van Gogh was among his major formative experiences. He was 17 years old when he saw the painting Van Gogh’s Chair (1880) at the Tate Gallery. As the artist later recalled, “It made everything possible to me. It made it possible for me to enter the world of art and to think that I could actually make paintings. Because it was so honest and direct.” The immediacy and intensity of Van Gogh’s painting marked the point of departure for Scully’s artistic practice, which focuses on the emotional potential of colours. In later phases of his career Scully returned to his formative encounter with Van Gogh’s art. He created several triptychs bearing the titles Arles Abend Vincent or Arles-Nacht-Vincent, which obviously refer to the works Van Gogh painted in Arles. The composition of these triptychs connects them to Scully’s series of paintings constructed from imaginary blocks and tiles, evoking the structures of walls. The façades of these Walls of Light are built up of sensual patches of pigment that resonate with Van Gogh’s palette, especially his paintings of Wheatfields, which deeply inspired Sean Scully. The artist once said, “in Van Gogh’s art everything is an event.” The central aspect of the paintings on show in this section could be described as the “visual event” offered by the intense vibrancy of fields of colour.
Windows and Figures
One of the most prominent motifs in Scully’s oeuvre is the window. Since the late 1980s, he has often cut a window-like opening into the ground of his pictures, filling it with another, smaller picture – the inset. The picture inserted into the picture can be interpreted simultaneously as a body, a figure, an opening and a window. In terms of harnessing the latent structural and metaphorical potential of the window motif, Scully’s most important predecessor was undoubtedly Henri Matisse, whose works often featured windows or window openings parallel to the picture plane. Scully once explained, “We’ve invented the window as a way of being in one situation and experiencing another situation, which is a fantastic human invention. That’s really part of our brilliance that we’ve managed to create something architecturally that allows us to have a double experience.” In Scully’s art, the window appears as an interface or gateway between two spatial and existential planes. “A window is a promise, like a doorway. A façade is not totally relentless because of the window and the door. That’s what humanizes the wall.” The windows make the wall both vulnerable and more “open”. The window motif can be regarded as the transitional (mediating) surface between inside and outside, between in front and behind. This is particular true when the window motif appears in a diptych. In the work entitled Window Diptych Red each of the two panels is penetrated by a window, as though the openings were offering a glimpse behind the texture of the picture. The insets were originally aligned with the ground of each picture, but Scully swaps them over to interlink the two compositions, giving us the sense that we can see one structure by looking behind the other. The bodies and the planes intrude into or lean across each other. We seem to be looking at them through a window, but without knowing which side of the window we are standing on. What is more, the frame of the painting is itself reminiscent of a window frame, recalling Leon Battista Alberti’s famous metaphor comparing a mimetic panel painting with an open window – in Scully’s art, however, the window motif can be seen as a metaphor for the crossing-point between mimesis and abstraction.
Architecture of Light
Walls and Landlines
This section presents groups of works by Scully that were inspired by the natural landscape and by the built environment. Walls of Light and Landlines can be regarded as the two most significant series of paintings in Scully’s career in the last two decades. The idea that prompted his Walls of Light can be traced to the 1980s: in 1984, during a visit to Mexico, the artist painted a watercolour of some ancient ruins, showing “how the light changed the walls from orange, to blue, to black, pink in the morning”. In these works, two (apparently) mutually contradictory qualities are brought together: the stone wall seems to dissolve in the sunlight, while the sunlight appears to be embodied in the stone wall. The structures are simultaneously solid and volatile, hard and soft. These opposites, however, do not refer to conflicts, but are unified into a harmonious synthesis. As the artist’s monographer David Carrier put it, “If the basic concern of his 1980s panels was the aesthetics of conflict – what happens with what, when you crash panels with stripes of varied colors, orientations and widths into one another –, the concern of these more recent pictures is ideal harmony. Scully’s walls of light are Arcadian paintings.” This Arcadian harmony characterises the painting entitled Wall of Light Zacatecas, conjuring up the spectacle of stone walls steeped in sunshine.
The Landlines are works with a more romantic character, where earth, water and sky meet and touch. When writing about “the landline of the horizon of the sea”, the artist quotes words by Samuel Beckett: “ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky”. The intensive colours in the Walls of Light and Landlines are counterpointed by Scully’s predominantly grey Doric paintings, whose inspiration came from ancient architecture. The palette used in the Doric series is also reflected in the work titled Cut Grey Ground 08. Since the 1990s, Scully has also exhibited photographs, which often deal with similar motifs to those in his paintings – an example of this is the photo entitled Barcelona Dark Wall.
The hapax legomenon Uninsideout refers to one of the key issues in Sean Scully’s art, namely the intertwining of inside and outside, the complex relationships that link “before”, “between” and “behind”, posing questions that are both visual and metaphysical. In the monumental triptych entitled Uninsideout, the aligning and misaligning insets create a multi-layered, polyphonic system, which – like his earlier triptychs – can be interpreted as an abstract portrayal of human relationships. In recent years, Scully has increasingly painted his works on aluminium sheets rather than canvas, which produces radically different effects. In addition, he has resorted more and more to using spray paint to shape his motifs (several instances of which are already known from the 1970s), returning to the sights of the metropolis, as it were, partnering his art historical allusions with forms and solutions that recall graffiti. He takes divergent (incongruent) qualities, connects them to each other and makes variations on them in works consisting of more than one panel. The artist had this to say when talking about the triptychs on show in this section of the exhibition: “It has a relationship with Lego, the way Lego is put together … This is the way that we think now: I’m making painting the same way that you move blocks of text around on a computer and put them in different places, and move images around, as if the parts are interchangeable. These paintings are all about things being in the wrong place and painted in a wrong way.”
Lately, a new and significant group of works has appeared in Scully’s art, as he produces ever more sculptures, spatial variations of the motifs familiar from his paintings. While his environments of the 1970s and his Floating Paintings can also be regarded as three-dimensional works, the monumental sculptures of recent years signify a new direction in his career. The work entitled 30 Also – a monumental counterpart of which was exhibited in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice in 2019 – can be seen as a sculptural variant of the artist’s Landlines: as a tower leading from the earth to the sky, an imaginary stairway, which deals at complex levels with the theme of up and down, inside and out.
The relationship between inside and outside appears in a different context in his new paintings created in 2020. In his series Dark Windows and his painting Black Square, the artist revisits Kazimir Malevich’s icon of “pure feeling”. Scully’s Black Square is filled with metaphorical layers of meaning and with representational associations. In this recent painting – which is being shown to the public for the first time at the Hungarian National Gallery – the black square, as a form resembling a black hole, is inset into the glow of a “romantic landscape”: it acts as a manifestation of almost tangible Nothingness, a contemporary metaphor for a situation burdened with existential anxieties.
Figure Abstract and Vice Versa
The Madonna Series
Many people were astonished by Sean Scully’s return to figurative depiction. This dramatic turn was connected with the birth of his second son, Oisín, in 2009, whose presence brought about a substantial change both in Scully’s life and in his art. In 2015 the artist began to paint his cycle of paintings titled Eleuthera, which show Oisín playing in the sand by the seaside – the simple scene of a boy building a sandcastle, with the gesture of carving a moat of protection in the sand, becomes a metaphor for life in Scully’s works, with layers of universal meaning. The painterly gestures visible in these works can be compared with the surfaces of the abstract paintings of the present time (an example being Figure Abstract and Vice Versa, in which Scully juxtaposes a figural composition with a Landline), but at the same time they signify a return to the artist’s earliest figurative works, and the figures he painted that were inspired by Fauvism and German Expressionism. Once again, Henri Matisse is among the defining forebears of these works. The Madonna paintings in this section can be regarded as a continuation of his Eleuthera series, and in them, Oisín is joined by his mother, the artist’s wife, Liliane Tomasko. The pairing of mother and child (the relationship between the inset and the painting that holds it has previously been compared by the artist to the relationship between the child and the mother) carries echoes of the art historical tradition of images of the Virgin and Child, as the title of the series confirms, and this raises the everyday scene to an almost sacral dimension.
Works on Paper
Pastels and Watercolours
Works on paper form an especially important part of Sean Scully’s oeuvre, and a rich selection of them is presented here. (The watercolours could almost stand as a comprehensive overview of the artist’s major series.) In these works, Scully creates variations on the motifs familiar from his paintings and on the picture types that are present in his art, but on a smaller scale, tempered to match the properties of each given medium.
“The pastels, those big pastels that I make, are very monumental. And they have a dryness. The material is pressed into the paper over and over and over again. Behind glass, they’re blurred, they’re indistinct. They have a physicality, but they have the physicality of powder… or chalk, whereas the paintings are shiny, inherently shiny. In other words a pastel doesn’t really have a skin. It’s full of air.”
“[The] watercolors are about the extreme absence of physicality. They really are as close as a painter can get to pure light, an effortless, physically effortless vision.”
The works on paper are supplemented with a diverse array of Scully’s sketches and notes, which form a particularly interesting subgroup in his oeuvre. Scully’s writings – his aphorism-like, sometimes quasi-poetic observations, his public statements, his essays and his commentaries – are extremely helpful when it comes to interpreting his life’s work. In this exhibition Scully’s own words can be read next to numerous artworks, shedding extra light on important aspects of them. They reinforce the opinion of David Carrier: “In his writing as in his art Scully is a great storyteller.”
Curator: Dávid Fehér
Exhibition manager: Ágnes Pablényi, Magdolna Rajkai
Exhibition design: Zsolt Vasáros DLA, Ákos Vasáros, András Gáll, Ágnes Véner, Narmer Architecture Studio
Exhibition graphic design: Ferenc Eln
Installation: Narmer Architecture Studio
Lighting: Sándor Nagypál, Norbert Niederkirchner, Attila Sándor
Exhibition texts: Dávid Fehér, Sean Scully
Copy editors: Judit Borus, Noémi Böröczki
Translation: Steve Kane
Registrars: Katalin Borbély, Zsófia Eszter Farkas, Annamária Gáspár, Zsófia Molnár
Legal tasks: Henriett Galambos, Adrienn Gippert, Katalin Lapath, János Marosi, Ágnes Renfer
Reproduction rights: Sylvia Cseh
Financial tasks: Csaba Bodri, Enikő Cser, Judit Ónodi, Gábor Virágh
Travel organization: Beatrix Laczi-Biller
Communication and marketing: Blanka Bán, Tibor Barcsik, Gábor Bellák, Judit Cseke, Éva Kovács, Laura Kund, Zoltán Lévay, Magdaléna Miklós, Dávid Szabó
Communication design: Ágnes Megyeri
Sponsorship management: Lili Horváth, Balázs Kégli
Museum education: Nicolette Koós
Visitor services: Kinga Basilides, Krisztina Gerhardt, Ágnes Ruzsits, Réka Vratarics
Conservation: László Gippert, Krisztián Kovács, Ágota Kovácsné Gőgös, Orsolya Zelenák
Security: Gábor Ágoston, Péter Hota
Technical team: Gyöngyi Agárdi, József Gecsei, Vince Györe, István Horváth, János Horváth, Zoltán Imre, Sándor Kispál, Balázs Nagy, István Patai, András Szaniszló, László Szutor, Ibolya Tokai, János Uhlarik
Art handlers: Zsolt Berta, György Buru, Vilmos Brozsek, Áron Erdmann, Sándor Felvinczi, Pál Sándor Gyenes, Ádám Zsolt Kiss, Attila Macska, Norbert Menyhárt, Zoltán Moró, Tamás Wiemann
Transportation: Hungart Logistic Kft.
Insurance: Kuhn & Bülow, accuArt Europe AG, UNIQUA
Special thanks to the Hungarian State for guaranting state indemnity and therefore enabling the realisation of the exhibition.
The Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery would like to express its thanks to the following collectors and institutions for lending their artworks:
Albertinum | Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Dresden
Hilti Art Foundation, Schaan, Liechtenstein
Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld
Modern Gallery – László Vass Collection, Veszprém
mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna
Sammlung Klein, Eberdingen-Nussdorf, Germany
and the private collectors who wished to remain anonymous.
For their help in the realisation of this exhibition we owe special thanks to: Marion Ackermann, Hilke Wagner, Katrin Bäsig, Anika Lautenschläger (Albertinum | Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden); Michael Hilti, Uwe Wieczorek (Hilti Art Foundation); Christina Végh, Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen, Hannelore Wahl (Kunsthalle Bielefeld); Mr and Mrs László Vass (Modern Gallery – László Vass Collection); Karola Kraus, Marie-Therese Hochwartner, Astrid Robin, Alexandra Pinter (mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien); Alison & Peter W. Klein, Valeria Waibel (Sammlung Klein); Faye Fleming, Michellé Hoban, Frank Hutter (Sean Scully Studio); Veronika Bába, Judit Geskó, Anna Zsófia Kovács, Csilla Regős, Tamás Végvári, Mónika Zsikla
and the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery and the lending institutions, who contributed their advice and help.