Art

Summer of Sean Scully

As his 70th birthday looms, artist Sean Scully is just warming up for a summer with shows in Venice, Sao Paulo and a reimagined chapel in Barcelona.

Julie Baumgardner

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Though the hulking, Irish-born, North London-bred painter Sean Scully may have once been known for cursing and sulking, his emotions are running a different course these days.Particularly since the birth of his son, Oisín, six years ago, Scully’s latest works are nothing short of sentimental.

If you visited his recent solo exhibition at the New York gallery Cheim & Read, Scully’s canvases in “Landline” are covered in his signature horizontal sweeps and laden with more emotion than ever. “I’m a very petulant person, but I can’t do that anymore,” he says, with fatherhood being the one thing that might compete with his brush, the one thing up until now since “I can’t please just myself anymore. When I had my son, I thought I was going to stop because I am so devoted. I look after him 50 percent of the time, and I don’t mean the men’s 50 percent.”

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Landline Dark Red, 2014

Scully, an abstract painter who, as the late great art historian Arthur Danto wrote, “belongs on the shortest of short lists of the major painters of our time.” He’s long been in the art scene spotlight, whether in London, New York, Munich or Barcelona—the latter three wherein he has studios— even if he’s never been the type to schmooze and booze.

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12 Triptychs, 2008

By now Scully’s story is well known, but, for the unacquainted, Scully, like many of the powerful artists descending from the British Isles, had a “profoundly unhappy childhood,” he says, “that’s why I’m a happy adult.” Nearly any biographical discussion of Scully includes an anecdote about his disgruntled father, “force of nature” mother and the sense of terror that accompanied the household. “I wet the bed well into my 20s. I got married and then within a week it stopped.”

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Art historian and critic Arthur Danto’s new book venerates Scully as the continuation and further development of Abstract Expressionism.

But this living legend, as both popular and critical voices have him crowned, has “become freer.” How could he not? A stable family life, a steady career and an evolving aesthetic that “is always stretching a decision.” In one of many ways the abstract painter who, as Danto wrote in the essay “Sean Scully and the Art of Painting,” “made those stripes his own,” still maintains ethereal but pulpy strokes, often of plump widths, which “construct paintings as objects.” But, Scully, has added a few formal twists “to make something do what it can’t do,” and now that includes aluminum canvases—a surface he shows his affinity for by rapping his fingers on the hardened paint—and figurative studies.

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Doric Black, 2012

“Those are not for sale,” says Scully, pointing to the wall-sized bright canvases of Oisín at play, rendered in sympathetic corals and teals, hung amid his other variations of “Landlines,” which are being sent around the globe this spring. Firstly, the meditative “Landline” exhibition, in its soothing cascades of textured blues head to the 56th Venice Biennale, in an official collateral exhibition at Palazzo Falier, near Piazza San Marco and at the Pinacoteca in São Paulo. But mostly he’s focusing on the Santa Cecilia chapel in Montserrat, the pilgrimage site just outside Barcelona, where he’s transforming the chapels into a space of contemplation, which will be unveiled in June. “I still believe emotion cannot be represented,” he says. “That’s very humbling, no matter how great I think I am.”