Sean Scully is a traditionalist. That is, he’s a painter, and a painter in the modern tradition of abstraction.
It’s very bold to be a traditionalist in a time of Pop Surrealism (e.g., Jeff Koons), visually noisy installation spectacles, neo-I-want-to-save-the-world-from-its-bad-self art (meaning the protesting artist is a good guy, a morally superior being, etc.) and, above all, that now-gray cat-of-a-thousand-lives, the redundant idea of transgressive-subversive épater le bourgeois (and thus automatically "advanced") art.
These days, the bourgeois love having their collective art-collecting face smacked. It’s so arousing; it adds a bit of color to the face; it makes the drudging bourgeois feel alive as they rarely do. It unclogs their arteries, allowing their blood to run faster. What more excitement and joy could one want after the excitement and joy of making money? With the right dose of art spice, life tastes better.
So what does Scully, with his against-the-current-grain traditional-type abstract painting -- and pure abstraction is such a quaint, Greenbergian idea -- have to add to it? What’s different about his geometrical abstractions, compared to those of, say, Mondrian, Albers, Donald Judd or Ellsworth Kelly, to mention artists who work in different veins, but are all, in one way or another, purists? Not only in Greenberg’s sense of purity (emphasizing -- overemphasizing? -- the medium), but also, however implicitly, in the sense of "Purists" Ozenfant and Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), and even in Matisse’s sense, which involves distilling an image to its abstract essence, giving it a new concreteness and specificity -- a purely esthetic concreteness and specificity.
If one tracks geometrical abstraction, as the list of names above does -- they’re all milestone-markers in its history -- one realizes that it becomes less poetic and more prosaic as it develops. Or, if one wants, it becomes less expressive-symbolic-connotative and more declarative-literal-positivist (the last two terms are Greenberg’s) and, with that, self-referential and esthetically and emotionally indifferent (Duchamp’s influence?). Or, at best, esthetically and emotionally shallow.
This point was made explicitly by Frank Stella, who repudiated the muddled "introspection" of Abstract Expressionism, and by Judd, who mocked the "relational painting" of Mondrian, with its inner tensions, suggestive of disequilibrated feelings, which art is supposed to reconcile and reveal simultaneously.
I think what Scully does is restore poetry to geometrical abstraction. He makes it unexpectedly romantic, in the good old-fashioned sense of Romanticism. "Romanticism," Baudelaire wrote in The Salon of 1846, "is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling." More particularly, Romanticism means "intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite." "Romanticism is a child of the North," Baudelaire adds, "and the North is all for color."
However nominally American, Scully is an English-educated Irishman (if not exactly Anglo-Irish), and thus a Northerner. And his work is inconceivable without its subtle, moody, not to say devious, insidious color -- a fork-tongued color quite different from the comparatively straight-speaking, outspoken color in the works of the abstract artists mentioned above.
Kandinsky, in On The Spiritual in Art (1912), mourned the casual everyday use of the term "mood" ("Stimmung"), suggesting that it no longer had the romantic import it once had. A mood is a mode of feeling, and a feeling is a subjective fact, and as such poetic, imaginative -- an uncanny synthesis of subject and object, intuitive response and canny observation, as Baudelaire suggests. In The Salon of 1859, he distinguishes between artists who are "positivists," who "want to represent things as they [objectively] are," in other words, "the universe without man" (the universe de-subjectified), and "imaginatives," who "want to illuminate things with [their] minds," that is, as they subjectively experience them, implying that one can never exactly and comprehensively know what they are.
Baudelaire comes down squarely on the side of the imaginatives, asserting that "the true artist, the true poet, should only paint in accordance with what he sees and with what he feels. He must be really faithful to his own nature." "His productions," Baudelaire adds, should always be "in relation to himself."
Looking at the many paintings in Scully’s "Wall of Light" series -- some approach mural size, most are intimate easel paintings, with a number of figure-sized paintings, as well as watercolors and photographs, usually of stone walls on remote Northern islands, implicitly studies or points of departure for the paintings (Scully is fascinated by their archaic abstract patterns, and the eccentric way these are formed or mapped) -- one realizes that what makes them distinctive is their moodiness, indeed, emotional profundity.
This moodiness is generated by the nuanced edges between the Lego-like blocks of color of which they are constructed, as well as the peculiarly murky, even opaque character of the textured, often rough-hewn color, which seems to have been quarried from a cosmic spectrum. Mondrian, Albers and Kelly -- even Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still -- are "transparent" compared to Scully.
Evocative nuance -- the mood spontaneously suggested by nuance, which functions like a divining rod intimating the creative unconscious -- matters more than geometrical gestalt for Scully, however emotionally charged and resonant its color. One might say that the solid geometrical gestalts exist to buttress the frail luminosity between them, making for an odd dialectic of the epic and lyric.
The sense of nuance is generated by the peculiarly awkward way -- far from seamless -- the blocks of color fit together. The resulting wall is stable, but looks unstable and unbalanced, however dynamically balanced its parts, that is, however much each block counterbalances and even harmonizes with the others while holding its own, maintaining its independence.
Light filters through, or seems latent, in the "synapse" between the geometrical gestalts, implying an underlying depth, indeed, a gnostic illumination. Light waits to break out, like a genie, from the narrow space in which it is compressed, overwhelming the colors, purifying and clarifying them, liberating them from their odd bleakness and from the overall barrenness of the composition itself, however playfully intricate its pattern.
Without this impacted illumination and inner edginess -- in part, a response to the edges of the canvas, just as the angles and lines of the Lego-blocks of color (more or less modular units) are a response to its shape (suggesting that Scully is more of a Greenbergian purist than he might care to acknowledge) -- Scully’s paintings would be naively minimalist or emotionally simplistic. Whatever the drama of the interacting geometrical units -- however "off" the grid might still be -- they would no longer be the abstract psychodramas they are.
The whole pattern in effect floats on a hidden light, which shows signs of emerging, but never quite breaks free of the dark and darkening colors of the geometrical gestalts, indicating that it is a sad light, a twilight, perhaps making it more spiritual in import. Do we see the faded residue of the light of transcendence that permeated ancient churches in Scully’s paintings? Indeed, they have a self-enclosed Romanesque rather than an open Gothic look. It is, after all, a wall not a window, through which light can freely stream, that we see in Scully’s paintings.
A wall keeps one out, and divides space, suggesting that the space of Scully’s paintings is profoundly divided against itself, on the planar surface, with its idiosyncratically abstract pattern, and because this structured plane is suspended over and generally blocks out an amorphous plane of implied depth, evoked by the luminous nuances that inform the pattern, like an invading aura. Whatever the mood suggested, this double layer effect confirms that the paintings are formal masterpieces. They acknowledge the physical surface of the canvas while subverting (transcending?) it, by creating the illusion of "behind the surface."
There is a strong sense of light being lost as well as tentatively found -- freshly and unexpectedly discovered, as though Scully was an archaeologist digging up the darkness, with its rotting colors, in search of a living memory of light (suggesting that his paintings are, however ironically, abstract memento moris) -- in Scully’s paintings, heightening their sadness. Restoring the romance of abstraction, he also restores the sublime melancholy that haunts the Romanticism of color. Restoring the poetry of painting -- his paintings, with their off-rhyming geometrical gestalts, are a sort of un-free verse, with nuances of freedom -- he reminds us of its emotional power, intuitive intensity and instantaneous effect on the feeling eye.
Scully’s paintings outclass Mark Rothko’s paintings in transcendental poignancy, all the more so because they are a romantic regression in the service of the ego of painting, and thus able to invest color with a greater inwardness than was possible for Rothko, who took color for granted in a way Scully never does, and who lived at a time when painting was triumphant, as it no longer is. If there is such a thing as an "advance" in transcendental abstraction, which began, in different forms, with Kandinsky’s gesturalism and Malevich’s geometry, and has been said to climax and dead-end in Newman and Rothko, then Scully’s paintings, simultaneously gestural and geometrical, are that advance. They breathe new spiritual life and subtlety into transcendental abstraction, showing that it not only remains possible and viable, but that it is necessary in these spiritually dark art times.
"Sean Scully: Wall of Light," Sept. 26, 2006-Jan. 15, 2007, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.