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Sean Scully: Passenger – A retrospective

Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest1
14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021

Since according to common agreement there is nothing outside and separate in existence from sensible spatial magnitudes, the objects of thought are in the sensible forms, viz. both the abstract objects and all the states and affections of sensible things. Hence no one can learn or understand anything in the absence of sense, and when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images are like sensuous contents except in that they contain no matter. Imagination is different from assertion and denial; for what is true or false involves a synthesis of concepts. In what will the primary concepts differ from images? Must we not say that neither these nor even our other concepts are images, though they necessarily involve them?2

If in his sensuous, often lyrical and at the same time incredibly precise texts the artist did not offer the power of words for the interpretation of his images, I too would probably not resort to converting the powerful visual evidence recorded on canvas or metal sheets into verbal loose change. Sean Scully’s self-interpretation, however, is so rich and convincing that I am unable to escape the compulsion to adapt: as he himself identifies his sources and idols – being a relationist – from Mondrian to Beckett, from Van Gogh to Bob Dylan, a flood of parallels and allusions unfolds to explore for their connections.

Above all, the will, the strong light of the arc that creates the work, that precedes and triggers the intention, the will that ultimately holds the work together during its completion, and even more so afterwards. Well, it is primarily this that one must observe more closely (with or without being blindfolded).



The Works of Aristotle: De Anima. Translated by J.A. Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective. Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 (exhibition view) | Empty Heart, 1987, oil on linen, 182.9×182.9 cm; Any Questions, 1984–2005, oil on linen, 259×324 cm © Photo: Ferenc Eln

You talk about something and then you say, have you got any questions? Shall we analyze it, pull it to pieces, make it understandable for you? And of course what he’s saying is that you can’t make it understandable. This painting is about the left side and the right side, and the irreconcilable relationship between the two. And it’s about not providing any answers. I thought of the left side of the painting as a figure. … And I thought of the right side of the painting as perhaps a painting that had fallen apart and been put back together without a plan, without the original format being available. So one was about perfection, one side is about perfection, and one side is about fracture or the possibility of something being lost, an order being lost. And then I slapped them together to make a relationship. And that’s the kind of relationship that exists in the world. So I’ve tried to make the relationship exist in this painting in a more intensified, a more condensed way. – Scully writes about the work Any Questions,3 and the artist’s interpretation prompts me to take a leap of faith: in light of the treatment in Scully’s Mondrianesque paintings,4 it is perhaps not sacrilegious to paraphrase the train of thought in Géza Ottlik’s theory of the novel. On the one hand, because the painter himself “dramatizes”, adds sujet to his works, and on the other hand, his tastes and literary references are very similar to Ottlik’s; Beckett, Joyce, and Irish literature and culture in general are extremely important to both of them. On the other hand – of course – because of the element of chance. Scully often invokes the unexpected contingency as a source of inspiration. His technique is also based on this in part, as the seemingly austere grids themselves, and the fields they occupy even more so, are all painted in a richly layered, loose, pastose manner, resulting in almost expressionist planes that recall the surfaces of Pierre Soulages or Robert Ryman, whom Scully acknowledged as a model, and of Mark Rothko, to whom Scully often refers.


Any Questions, 1984–2005. Oil on linen; 259×324 cm. Private collection


Backcloth, 1970. Acrylic on canvas; 198×304,8 cm, private collection. I am thinking primarily of this painting, which evokes the New York City series (1941–42), one of Mondrian’s key works from his New York period, but Mondrian’s manner of construction also provides a model for the composition of countless paintings consisting of large square fields.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective. Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 (exhibition view) | Backcloth, 1970, acrylic on canvas; 198×304.8 cm; Diagonal Inset, 1973, acrylic on canvas; 243.5×243.5 cm © Photo: Ferenc Eln

And finally, one more reason: as Dávid Fehér, the editor and best author of the impressive exhibition catalogue, who has done a brilliant job curating this magnificent exhibition, writes: Scully “seeks the paradoxical harmony between incompatible qualities.”5 (which I think he has found and has captured in his work), so that we can even layer – not our point of view, but our viewing planes, like a palimpsest.


Dávid Fehér: Behind the Wall: Figures and Grounds in the Art of Sean Scully. In. Sean Scully Passenger – A Retrospective. Publications of the Hungarian National Gallery, 2020/4. Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 2020. 10.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective. Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 (exhibition view) | Oisín Sea Green, 2016, oil on aluminium; 216×190.5 cm | Landline Field, 2014, oil on aluminium; 216×190.5 cm | Landline Sea, 2014, oil on linen; 216×190 cm | Landline Oisín Green, 2016, oil on aluminium; 216×190.5 cm © Photo: Ferenc Eln

(Following Ottlik – on his plane – thus without in any way violating the leitmotif) in the bottomless confusion of reality, the clutter is not so hopeless after all. These series of ordering experiments, these models of existence, which are repeatedly thrown and mixed back in, even if they intensify the confusion, they nevertheless also provide a way of ordering. Not within themselves, but for the image, for example. If we look at the visual arts, influenced by the 20th-21st century natural sciences and (also) by machine-made imaging, we can see them as assembling their own structures from models of existence (Mondrian, for example) or models of reality (as even in the case of Lucian Freud) – in such a way that it is more intact and truer, and more realistic in its existence than the individual models separately. In this sense: let us label with R1 this so-called received, agreed-on (conventional) model of reality, manufactured by so-called humanity, which we can crudely describe by such things as: we are born, we live, we die, generations succeed one another on earth, a culture was created which can be called Cartesian, Euclidean, Aristotelian, Newtonian; the individual is only one of many, although she strives for her own happiness and salvation in addition to meeting her moral obligations. It is a tried and tested, useful idea: it has space, absolute time, causality, bivalent logic, continuity, psychology, moral values, even a good deal of aesthetics. We accept it and use it for what it is. This R1 is one view of the image – say, the second-plan (on the back burner), the middle view or middle-order view of Newtonian mechanics, – and it threatens the work of art with being swallowed up by this readymade model of reality, which is also carried by language. For it, the order of R1 is a false and dreary simplification, its clarity is a tinsel light, its framework is narrow. So it seeks another model of reality to complement it in a broader framework, say a metamodel.

R1 is about reality being exactly what we call reality. Let R0 be the solipsistic idea that reality is only me, the idea that I alone see. This, in any case, resolves the untenable contradiction that transforms R1 into an almost catastrophic model: that it has inserted the subject, the self that created and sustains the entire model, into the model. R1 is out of luck in space and in irreversible time. It dies as it was born, and its despondent little consolation is that some trace of its brief material existence, some fading memory, some effect, may survive in successive generations of humanity: it is even worse than nothing. For compared with the real intensity of its existence, its intact totality, these are but pale appearances. Fortunately, in R0 it also knows that not only the succession of short-lived generations, not only the futility of glory, work, morality, the absence of absolutes, irreversible time, but the whole of R1, together with birth and death is not reality, but only a model of our own making.

Still, it would be a trivial solution were we to use R0 to overwrite or delete R1. Art does not do this; it never erases anything. Besides, we couldn’t use R0 on its own. It is too obvious and too close a view, hardly any view at all in fact. That is to say, it pays a very high price for its relative lack of contradiction: if we want to complete it into a workable model, we run into insurmountable complexities. Yet, if somewhat empty, it is also an inescapable component of the visual arts.

Finally, we can, still from a comfortable position – starting out from the hyper-near-view of R0, think of how a third, sort of star-view, expandable to infinity, which does not say “I am”, but only “There is something”. Completely impersonally, with perfect indifference to the properties and interrelations of things in R1, it arranges its model in its own sovereign way. On a kind of musical or mathematical, and not at all verbal basis. We could call it R-endless or R-aleph, but let it be R2. It is incorporated into the work, or more precisely into the painting, as a distant view, let’s say. The brushstrokes, or rather the shifting of the planes, and indeed the various elements in the picture, the recurrent or modifying undulations and pulsations, imitate R2, as does the tectonics, the dynamics or tonality of the whole view of the work, perhaps – what we might call style – or what thus remains of a picture from a cosmic distance: a single colour, a single speck perhaps, or the data of a wavelength, measured on the unknown spectroscope of R2. Beyond painting – suprematism, neoplasticism.

If these independent, boldly contradictory models are put together and projected onto the canvas at the same time, their interactions result in a model with a higher real-world value, striving for higher-order integrity. Together, these R’s we have so far form a certain elementary pictorial structure. This is almost enough to make a work of art. But even if one were to assume, if only for the sake of example, that these roughly completed models of existence already include everything that exists, the work of art needs at least one more R: for the things that do not yet exist. Let us, using a different indexing, label it Rr, because it does not say, as R1 does, “What exists is what we call reality”, nor, as with R0, “I am”, nor even “Something exists”.

The statement of Rr could be “Something is coming into existence”. The subject here is not a point or a line enclosed in the spacetime of R1, nor, as in R0, cosmos itself, but moves freely to and fro in the web of models and has dimensions of depth and breadth. This is precisely what we needed Rr for, to squeeze in, to incorporate, as it were, into the process, what could not fit into the others: the dimensions of the self, for example.

And, in the case of Sean Scully, the painting itself in its state of becoming, as it is perhaps striving from darkness to some light, from the confusion of existence to order.6


Géza Ottlik: Próza. A regényről. (On the novel)
An essay originally written in 1965 in which Ottlik formulated his theory of the novel.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective. Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, 14 October 2020 – 30 May 2021 (exhibition view) | Arles-Nacht-Vincent, 2015, oil on linen; 160,5×160 cm (each) © Photo: Ferenc Eln

The world in front of the grid. The world inside the grid.

Shifting dimensions and layers: the above paragraphs, a rewriting of Ottlik’s text, if not closely, but in method and content, mimics or at least imitates the process by which Scully seeks and finds inspiration and ‘themes’ in his threefold (real) approach to reality, from landscape, the elements of space or from his own photographs7 and their motifs to his paintings. And back again, in a new layer or dimension: he often captures the sensory-material reality of richly painted surfaces in close-ups of his own works, and by enlarging the ‘skin’ of the paintings, transforming their colours and shapes, as if they were readymade factures, into a re-formed abstract configuration.

These works, as far as I can see and understand them, also follow a kind of musical method: it seems to me that they (also) use homophony.8 Homophony is the musical texture in which all the notes move more or less simultaneously, i.e., they live in the same rhythm. The textures of the colour-filled bands and rectangles give the impression of a sequence of chords, i.e. they are valid as a vertical musical structure, while the facture and texture of the surfaces can also be described by polyphony, in which the horizontal musical structure formed by the movement of the notes dominates, and they are independent of each other. The homophonic texture may be represented by a series of vertical blocks that symbolise the chords that occur over time, but their composition may vary logically. Scully’s paintings are tonal and real sequences and are perhaps closest to Steve Reich’s repetitive compositional technique.

In Scully’s paintings, the equal-sized bands – the broad and sometimes full-bodied, other times loosely translucent brushstrokes seem to obey the ornamentation of some kind of staircase, a step-by-step process – but they do not outline any quasi-narrative. The planes, which are often painted over, bury images underneath them, like a palimpsest, and even if, from a distance, they seem to erase gesture, expressiveness, and, wittingly or unwittingly, refer back to the puritanism, hermeticism and spiritualism of classical geometric abstraction of the first half of the 20th century, by modifying the viewpoint of the observer – the distance – they only reveal the incredibly impulsive richness of the details. The two planes of movement in Scully’s paintings are connected by colour and, as it were, are channelled in the same direction. The striped, rectangular ‘compartments’, however, generally do not capitalize the direct meaning suggested by colour: in his best paintings, the mixed – broken, muted, woeful – colours or the damp, soft greys and blacks, averaging emotions even when contrasted, are primarily intended to define the objecthood of the fact of painting (without, of course, denying the possibility of association and the discovery of material origins) and to separate it from its environment, from the world-which-is-not-painting. Nonetheless, Scully’s ‘colour theory’ in these paintings is deeply indebted to that of his beloved Van Gogh: hence, perhaps, the paintings’ elusive aura of sorrow, which pervades and overrides their rigorous construction.


The Color of Time: The Photographs of Sean Scully. Steidl Verlag, Göttingen. 2004. It is a shame that only a few photographs were included in the exhibition and the catalogue, given the fact that Sean Scully photographed walls, fences, windows and doors in countless places from the Aran Islands in Ireland to Mexico and North Africa. These images are never simply records of architectural elements. The painted walls the colours of which are fading, the cracked surfaces, the rough edges and the deep shadows they cast evoke the beauty inherent in decay and the fundamental contradiction between nature and life: solidity and fragility, timelessness and change. As metaphors for physical and mental states, the photographs evoke memories, feelings and thoughts. Just as Mondrian abstracts the organic structure of a tree, Scully arrives at a quasi-reality, if not ultimate, then certainly impressive, by transcribing architectural elements and structures.


His mother was a vaudeville singer, and Scully was influenced by rhythm and blues as a teenager, running an R&B club in South London and briefly playing in an R&B band with his brother and a friend. In 2016, Billy Martin, the percussionist of the band Medeski Martin & Wood, composed in the artist’s studio in Tappan a 6-movement percussion piece titled Boxing for Sean with Scully’s monumental corten steel sculpture Boxes of Air, which was performed live outdoors. |

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