Cover Story: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Contemporary

Sean Scully's Wall of Light exhibition celebrates a gifted artist who's neither radical nor cutting edge

Jul 19, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Sean Scully

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Contemporary

Often over the years, I've been asked what others and I mean when they use the term "contemporary art." The answer I regularly provide is that contemporary art refers to the art of our time or the art of living artists.

It's unfortunate that many people inside the art community have adopted a much narrower definition for contemporary art. For some, and often those of influence, it's only art that is cutting edge or art that's fresh from the studio of an artist associated with the latest trend. For this group, for art to be considered contemporary it has to be radical or sensational.

This narrow thinking leaves out some of the best art being created today. Mature artists who came of age in the 1960s, '70s or '80s are still creating contemporary art worthy of our consideration and enjoyment. Some of it builds upon the artist's earlier radicalism but with an insight derived from decades in the studio.

Other artists are strongly influenced not by the tumultuous time of their youth but by what we now label the modernist tradition, or the art of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Their heroes are Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard and Joan Miro, not Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol or Nan Goldin.

A select group of artists have turned their backs on the seductive pull and ease of new forms of presentation and the latest technological developments. They prefer oil paint and aquatint to installations and video. Their art is quiet and contemplative, not loud and assaulting. It's calming and meditative, not confrontational and polemic.

I mention these issues to set the context for the exhibition of recent work by Sean Scully now on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), Wall of Light. It's a spectacular exhibition, a special moment for everyone in Cincinnati interested in the history of Western painting.

Wall of Light is of special importance to any and everyone interested in modern and/or contemporary art. It will be especially pleasing to those who didn't realize that contemporary art can be new and fresh while simultaneously tied to tradition and the kind of visual values mentioned above.

CAM is hosting an important traveling exhibition of large-scale abstract paintings and supporting works on paper by a living artist. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., originated the exhibition; after the tour's Midwestern stop here, the exhibition moves on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Scully's rhythm and pulse
Sean Scully was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1945. In 1949, his family moved to a working-class neighborhood in London.

At age 20, Scully enrolled in art school. His first student works were created in the figurative tradition. Once the young artist was exposed to the abstract expressionist paintings of American Mark Rothko and popular op-art pictures of celebrated English painter Bridget Riley, Scully embarked on what would become his lifelong dedication to the exploration of a very specific brand of abstraction.

In 1972, Scully was awarded a fellowship to study at Harvard University, which brought him to the United States for the first time. By 1975 he'd moved to the center of the contemporary art world, setting up a studio in New York City.

While Scully became an American citizen in 1983, he's now really an internationalist. A wide audience for his work has resulted in a successful career that affords him studios in New York City, Barcelona and Munich.

This exhibition highlights Scully's work from the last decade that he has labeled, as the title of the exhibition indicates, his "Wall of Light" pictures. All of Scully's paintings and related works on paper (prints, watercolors and photographs) stem from a limited, but not limiting, vocabulary of elements: wide horizontal and vertical bands of color of only slightly varied lengths and widths. The bands are consistently laid out and interlock at 90-degree angles.

In earlier works, the bands appeared flat and static, more in line with the rigid formalism associated with minimalism, an art movement that Scully was exposed to when he first moved to the U.S. The pictures from the Wall of Light series diverge from this aesthetic and represent the artist's latest approach to abstract picture making.

Now Scully's compositions are fluid, expressive and emanate with internal light. The brush stokes are expansive and reveal the hand of the artist. The surfaces are dynamic. The colors are luscious and varied.

There is a calmness about these pictures that comes from the quiet rhythm and pulse of his finely tuned abstract compositions. At times they verge on melancholy interrupted by unexpected bursts of happiness.

These pictures are a feast for the eye and sheer joy for those captivated, as I am, by the evocative power of expressive abstraction. I would go so far as to say that Scully's pictures offer the discerning viewer a visual experience that verges on secular spiritualism.

Capturing a moment in time
For many museum visitors and students of art history, abstraction art still presents a struggle. Often they tell me they just don't "get it" or they don't "see anything" and therefore don't understand what all the fuss is about. I ask them to remember that abstraction is still a relatively new movement. We forget this, because during all our lifetimes we've been surrounded by it — and, unfortunately, by a lot of derivative and second-rate abstract art.

Many art historians consider abstract painting and sculpture, and its counterpart in architecture, to be the most important discovery and artistic movement of the 20th century.

Abstraction is a visual language that has to be learned. Just as one learns to read and speak a new verbal language, be it Spanish or Japanese, one has to learn how to see and interpret a new visual language. This takes time, and this time has to be spent looking — not listening to or reading — explanations. Through visual lessons, not verbal ones, the language of abstraction is gradually revealed and appreciated.

Among the artists associated with the birth of abstract painting at the beginning of the last century are Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. Several decades later came Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and even later Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Ellsworth Kelly. Scully has now taken a well-deserved place in this impressive lineage marking the nascent history of a modern art movement.

The Scully exhibition, because it consists of many works that are a variation on a limited theme, offers the viewer an excellent opportunity to study and learn the mysteries that abstract art has the power to reveal. The viewer is forewarned that the pictures reveal themselves and their mysteries slowly, so patience is required.

CAM has in its permanent collection a 1987 painting by Scully that's now on view on the third floor. Everyone should take the time to go upstairs and look at it and compare it to the newer pictures that make up this exhibition.

The viewer can observe first-hand the artist's subtle evolution, which takes him from a more formal and intellectual approach to abstraction to one in which the paint itself and the picture's internal compositional elements are exploited for their full emotional potential and spiritual connotation.

Scully has had a variety of inspirations. It's said that he was taken with the striped patterns he observed in the textiles that covered the sun-lit tents in Morocco on his travels there in the late '60s and early '70s. But it's claimed that his primary inspiration for the Wall of Light series comes from the Mayan stone architecture that captivated him while visiting Mexico in the early '80s.

A small watercolor he made during his travels through the Yucatan is included in the exhibition and serves as a reminder of his response to the local architecture. After several additional visits to Mexico, Scully began the Wall of Light series in 1998, which has grown to more than 200 paintings. The CAM exhibition includes a representative selection from this large and ongoing body of work.

Scully pictures are comprised of thick, multilayered brush strokes that form interlocking bands of color. Just as a wall is composed of bricks or stones laid on top of another to create a strong support, his bands create a structure that defines and secures the picture plane of his canvas.

His walls, however, aren't tightly sealed. Spaces exist between the stacks, and thus light passes through cracks and crevices. Light also bounces off the surface. When one combines these variations in the quality of light with the subtle changes in the wall's composition, Scully has the formal structural ingredients to create a limitless number of paintings.

Color is as important as structure to the expressive qualities of these paintings. As one walks around the exhibition, the range in Scully's color is apparent. Many works have a somber tone, the grey cast of a cloudy late English afternoon. Others have the bright orange and red glow of a desert sunset.

The more time one spends in this exhibition gazing at each of the large-scale oil paintings, the more one sees within them the artist's sources of inspiration that go beyond architecture.

Each work captures the essence of a particular moment in time. Scully is using abstract language to capture and evoke the quality of light that defines a specific visual memory associated with a real place. He hints at the specificity of these places through his titles, which offer assistance as the pictures transport the viewer to other places and other times.

What's cutting edge?
Beyond the light and warmth or calm coolness of specific places and times, Scully is always in dialogue with art history, most particularly modern art — but to recognize this requires an educated eye.

First, the theme and variation based on changing light brings to mind the brilliant series of haystacks and cathedrals by the impressionist Claude Monet. Then I see the influence of Paul Cezanne and Mark Rothko in the building-block structure.

I can't help but associate Edouard Vuillard with Scully's compact, dense yet shallow space. And there is no escaping Henri Matisse, never an abstract artist but perhaps the greatest colorist of the early 20th century.

Scully is a living, working artist. This exhibition contains new pictures created within the last few years. By my definition, what could be more contemporary?

Yet Scully isn't the cutting-edge artist associated with the explosive content or new media of much contemporary art. That he's working in the tradition of modernism and what I'm calling secular spiritualism, while further developing the still-young language of abstraction, does not make him any less deserving of rapt attention than the brand of living artists who are shown at our city's Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).

The Cincinnati Art Museum deserves praise for bringing this superior traveling exhibition here and for exposing us to one of the great abstract painters of our day. Let's hope this is the beginning of a new policy for CAM — adding the best of the many available traveling exhibitions of established living artists to their special exhibition program on a regular basis.

I also hope that the CAC will reconsider the narrow definition of contemporary art it seems to have embraced and consider showing on a regular basis what might be labeled "the older generation" and/or more "conservative" but nonetheless contemporary artists.

While Wall of Light looks terrific in the boxy confines of CAM's second floor special exhibition galleries, just imagine how these pictures or other large-scale works by different artists would look in the CAC's dynamic gallery spaces.

SEAN SCULLY: WALL OF LIGHT is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 3.