Sean Scully



Not on display

Sean Scully born 1945
Oil paint on canvas
Displayed: 2590 × 3200 × 240 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986

Display caption

Around fifteen years ago Scully began to simplify the often complex patterns in his work up to then. Where lines of different direction were included they did not cross but simply abutted. In the early 1980s he began to make paintings with relief elements. He said, 'I liked the idea of looking at a painting that you could not look at just from the front but had to move around.' The triptych form of this work was deliberately chosen. Scully was very aware of the religious associations of this format. It also presented him with the possibility of 'putting something in the middle.' 'Paul' was painted about a year after the artist's son died, and was dedicated to his memory.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Sean Scully born 1945

T04138 Paul 1984

Oil on three canvases 2590 x 1525 x 60 (102 x 60 x 2 3/8), 2517 x 606 x 240 (99 1/8 x 23 7/8 x 9 1/2), 2590 x 1067 x 60 (102 x 42 x 2 3/8); overall size 2590 x 3200 x 240 (102 x 126 x 9 1/2)
Inscribed ‘Sean Scully | 9.84 | Paul' on back of left canvas t.l., ‘Glue size | White lead | oil' on back of centre canvas at centre and ‘Paul 1984' on stretcher of right canvas t.r.
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986
Prov: David McKee Gallery, New York by 1985 from whom purchased by the Patrons of New Art 1986
Exh: Sean Scully, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, May-June 1985, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, July-Oct. 1985 (18, repr. in col.)
Lit: John Caldwell, ‘The New Paintings' in Sean Scully, exh. cat., Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh 1985, p.19, repr. p.3 (col.); Judith Higgins, ‘Sean Scully and the Metamorphosis of the Stripe', Art in America, vol. 84, Nov. 1985, pp. 109 and 110, repr. p.112 (col.); Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.95 repr. (col.); Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1985-6, 1986, p.15 repr.

T04138 is an oil painting on three canvases as follows: the left panel consists of four horizontal bands, alternately in pink and black; the centre panel consists of three vertical bands the central one of which is in black, the other two being in a paler shade of pink; the right panel consists of two vertical red bands separated by a blue-black one. The central section is shorter than the left and right sections and projects forward.

All three sections line up along their bottom edges. The painting is named after the artist's son, Paul Scully (1965-83).

The following entry is based upon conversations between the artist and the compiler held in New York on 29 April 1987 and at the Tate Gallery on 7 August 1987.

The vocabulary of Sean Scully's paintings has always consisted of stripes. During the early seventies his canvases were composed of narrow, crossing stripes of colour often on a dark ground and sometimes on shaped canvases. The stripes were carefully drawn in and masked off so as to retain a hard edge. These early works were often highly complex patterns of criss-crossing lines. Towards the end of the decade Scully simplified his compositions; where lines of different direction were included they did not cross but simply abutted and were sectioned off from each other by the use of contrasting colour. Each direction of line was contained within its own area of colour. Whereas in the early seventies Scully often painted diagonal stripes, by the late seventies he had refined his vocabulary to horizontal and diagonal stripes, generally painted in sombre, earth colours. The paint was applied relatively uniformly. In 1981 Scully made paintings with larger, more freely wrought stripes and the colours became more intense and their use more complex. The surface of the paint became more physical.

In regard to his move into reliefs, Scully has explained that in 1981 he began to make small paintings on wood. He stated that he

was working on one which was a rectangle six inches high and twelve inches wide and it was black and vertically striped. After I finished it I thought it was disproportionately wide, so when it was dry I sawed off six inches so it was six inches high and six inches wide. I laid the remaining section on top and I liked it. It made a step. I liked the idea of looking at a painting that you could not look at just from the front but had to move around.

The first completed painting in relief was ‘Solomon' 1981 (collection of the artist). Since then, the relief painting has been Scully's favoured format. In an interview with Joseph Masheck (in Sean Scully: Paintings 1985-1986, exh. cat., David McKee Gallery, New York 1986) Scully stated that he ‘wanted to make paintings that were, somehow, comfortable in the world as things'. He explained that one of the reasons why he liked the relief format was that it ‘introduces a kind of jolt ... It has nothing to do with the paintings as being overtly physical. I think, in fact, they're quite discreet, physically. I could make projections much larger, getting into something else, like Stella; but I'm only doing this to break the fiction of the painting'. The difference in depth between the central canvas and the other two in ‘Paul' was arrived at intuitively, the projecting central canvas stressing the triptych format.

In regard to the use of the triptych Scully has explained that he was working with this format at the time and wanted this painting, which was to be dedicated to his son, to be a triptych. Many of the other triptychs that Scully has made have had titles with religious associations. The triptych is therefore to be seen within the tradition of religious painting. As a young child Scully had been impressed by Catholicism although his family abandoned it when he was six years old. Formally, however, the triptych offered other benefits. Scully has stated that with triptychs ‘you have the possibility of putting something in the middle. You have a hierarchy. With a diptych you cannot. It's more democratic'. The central panel is therefore a point of emphasis and it is the one which Scully associates with the figure of his late son. Although the painting relates to the paintings of Rothko and Newman, Scully expresses his admiration for the tall, vertical sculptures of Giacometti to which he feels ‘Paul' has stronger links. The horizontal bands, he maintains, are associated with horizon lines and a sense of stability. Although ‘Paul' and similar works are abstract, Scully perceives them as expressing notions of the figure. He explained to Amy Lighthill that ‘It's hard to give the human figure, or the landscape, the profundity of form you need. [Representational art is] worn out' (quoted in Amy Lighthill, ‘Portrait of the Artist as Lightning Rod', in the Pittsburgh exh. cat. 1985, p.7). He also told Judith Higgins that he is

interested in art that addresses itself to our highest aspirations. That's why I can't do figurative paintings - I think figurative painting is ultimately trivial now. It's all humanism and no form ... Abstraction's the art of our age. It's a breaking down of certain structures, an opening up. It allows you to think without making oppressively specific references, so that the viewer is free to identify with the work. Abstract art has the possibility of being incredibly generous, really out there for everybody. It's a nondenominational religious art. I think it's the spiritual art of our time.

‘Paul', which was made about one year after Scully's son died, took about one month to make. During that period the artist left it and came back to it at least twice. It relates closely to ‘Maèsta' (The Edward R. Broida Trust, Los Angeles, repr. Pittsburgh exh. cat. 1985, p.12 in col.) which is a triptych with a similar juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical bands, named after a painting by Duccio. From the outset Scully had an idea of how ‘Paul' would look. He has explained, ‘I always see the painting very clearly before I start but it never ends up that way. You have to turn something that's a vision into a thing in the world.' He knew that he wanted to make a triptych and that he wanted the central panel to be black and more or less white. The triptych format would allow him ‘to situate the centre panel in an environment'.

The painting was made in various stages. The canvas was initially sized with glue and then painted over with a grey ground. While the ground was still wet the artist marked out the position of the bands of the left and central sections with brown oilstick, which is still in evidence in places. Paint was then applied with six inch Italian box brushes, as used by decorators, in long sweeping movements. Scully has used this kind of brush since 1981 when he purchased them in Florence. He finds that they permit him to apply paint in depth rather than in the flat manner of normal decorators' brushes. He explained to Masheck

If you spend a lot of time getting a surface flat, making it perfect, that is estheticising, because that is not really the way the paint goes down ... That, to me, brings in the issue of a deliberate look and the issue of craft - issues subversive to art. I want to keep the work much more matter of fact if I can. If it gets too rough, and I feel I'm trying to paint it that way, deliberately paint it roughly, that's something I reject. It's happened with a few paintings, and I've always painted them out.

The colours of the left and centre panels are contained within the oilstick lines. The bands of the right panel were not previously mapped out but were determined in a freehand manner with the brush. He told Masheck

These paintings have to feel true physically, when I make them. It's really important that I don't have to slow down the brushstroke to take care of a certain part. In other words, if I can paint the whole thing like this, then this is the right way to paint it; and if I can't, it's the wrong way to paint it.

The paint is built up in layers, the colour of one layer often being substantially different from that of the previous one. Thus initially Scully envisaged that the left panel would consist of pink and ochre stripes but ultimately he opted for black and pink stripes. Ochre still shows through in places, as does a different shade of pink from the one at which he finally arrived. Because Scully paints on a wet surface (except, here, in the central section) the paint tends to drag and does not cover evenly. He considers the build up of paint to be a metaphor for depth of feeling and inner life. The painting has a sense of spirituality. He has explained ‘My paintings stand for honesty and a directness and I would like them to have an inner presence. I want my painting to be an object in the world with an inner life. I don't want it to be just a field.'

The colours are not chosen randomly but ‘they have to mean something to me emotionally'. The three sections were not painted side by side. In fact the right panel was taken from another painting because Scully felt it was needed for ‘Paul'. In the painting from which it originated it served as the left section. Scully explained to Masheck; ‘It's practically Dada, it seems to me, taking things, throwing them up in the air and making connections; it has a relation to Dada as well as to collage.'

‘Paul', like other triptychs by Scully, has a sense of stability and solidity. Scully told Masheck, ‘One of my objectives, one of the things I'm most interested in, is to make the paintings ‘classical' in one way - they do use a stable structure - but schizophrenic in another way - in the violence of the abutments'.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.268-70


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