When I became an art critic in 1981 one of the first artists I met and wrote about was Sean Scully. At that time I was teaching philosophy in Pittsburgh and he, having recently moved to New York, was as yet without a dealer. We are almost the same age, and to some extent we grew up together. When we first met, he had just made the transition from doing narrow, dark, late-1970s minimalist abstractions to the much broader intensely colored striped works, which in the 1980s brought him international fame.
At that time I knew Scully’s earlier figurative works from reproduction, but hadn’t seen them in the flesh. (More recently they have been shown.) At the start of his career in London, before he became an abstract artist, Scully loved, as he told me a few days ago, “German Expressionism, André Derain (the greatest Fauve painter)” and, also, some American figurative artists — “the Bay Area painters, like Joan Brown, David Park, and Elmer Bischoff.”
But he didn’t pursue that visual concern. “They were all taking liberties with figuration and realism, and it’s hard on their heirs to continue to treat the same path over and over.” Abstraction, he has said, “was always waiting for one to defect. However, it’s a great jolt when you do.”
Given this history, I was more than a little surprised when I recently learned that in June, 2019, he will be mounting a show of the 2016 Eleuthera series of 23 large-format paintings depicting his son Oisin, who then was six, at the Albertina Museum, Vienna. (Eleuthera is an island beach resort in the Bahamas. And Oisin is named after a legendary Irish warrior.) The color, he has said, “is open like Expressionism. But I paint them on metal with a big brush and I don’t paint too many details.” The colors and scale are like those of his middle-sized abstractions.
Often when a mid-20th century modernist would make the transition from figurative to abstract painting, it was viewed as partaking in the forward thrust of art history. If abstraction was the wave of the future, as it was called then, it followed that going from abstract art to figuration would be a historical regression. Think, if you will, of all the controversy aroused when Willem de Kooning or Richard Diebenkorn returned to figuration. Or look at Jackson Pollock’s post-drip, quasi-figurative “Portrait and a Dream” (1953), an embodiment of the artist’s difficult situation, both formally and personally. For Scully, however, the recent taking up of figuration was motivated, initially at least, entirely by happy changes in his personal life. He put it this way during our conversation:
As Bill Murray says in Lost in Translation, children will change your life in ways you cannot imagine. My son has undone my conceit. When you become a willing devoted servant, a few other things change as well. And you don’t need to worry about over-intellectualizing it. I wanted to paint my son. I was taking photos. But photos are not paintings. Paintings embody an image in a monumental surface, in colors that can only be invented.
Fatherhood had unexpected surprises.
I thought when he was born that I could park my career the way that John Lennon did, to bring up Sean. And I was ready for that. But somehow everything went backwards, and I started producing more than before.
Scully also continues, I should add, to make his abstractions.
Certainly I found these new figurative works startling — as unexpected as the massive post-minimalist sculptures, which he has displayed recently, but that development is another story for another occasion. These new paintings, Scully has suggested, are very much influenced by his “[personal] history, coming from Ireland, growing up in London, yearning for America,” which has given his work “a character that’s unusual”:
If I want to do something, I’m really not so inclined to ask for permission first. Or to do a few and then ask my friends if they’re okay. I made 23 for my son’s birthday party, which took place in my enormous (American) painting room […]. I didn’t really care what anybody else thought. Someone recently asked me how I navigate the space between my abstract and figurative paintings, which I often paint side by side. I said I jump.
How, then, should we understand these works? To cite one Anglo-Irish reference, their structure resembles the stage sets in the paintings of Francis Bacon. Scully says:
I didn’t realize until I’d painted about five that I was setting my son in a protective circle. However, that was invented by Oisin [. . .]. He dug, as children do, a moat around himself on the beach, that we his parents used to fill up with water from the ocean. Although in one painting the circle looks like an enormous umbilical cord that originates in his hands and circles him. It’s obvious to me, though, that it takes an abstract painter to paint with such brutality. With such a sculptural simplifying attitude.
For Scully, though, the motivation for making these images is very straightforward.
I think I wanted to paint pictures of my son in a way that represented him and all boys of his age, in an eternal situation, by the sea. I don’t really care if other people think I can do it or not. I didn’t ask other people if I could or should come to New York either. I’m aware though, if you take enormous risks it can go wrong. But if you don’t it will go wrong anyway.
In some ways, return to making figurative art was not difficult:
I was surprised how I could still draw, without hesitation, on a big scale while holding an iPhone photo in my left hand. I thought that it was like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it.
When I first saw these new paintings, I thought that perhaps they were inspired by the aesthetic theorizing of our great mutual friend, the late philosopher Arthur Danto. Danto claimed that ours was a post-historical era, in which everything was possible. Scully didn’t exactly reject that idea, but he didn’t embrace it either.
My idea is to work how I want. […] And staying with what is safe is not attractive, because I never entered art in the first place to make money. If you’re obsessed with something and you want to keep doing it because you love it, or it reveals something you have to see or show, that’s enough reason to keep doing it. I’m not making changes to show that everything is possible.
When I pressed a little further, he amplified this point.
I follow my instinct to create. I’m a creator. I only think about whether something has to be made, and if it does, I make it. My sculptures are my paintings 3D; my paintings of my son are my son 2D.
How will the art world judge these works? That will be interesting to see.
A dealer once told me that if I didn’t give him paintings for the collectors who kept asking, they would buy something else. I said, in reply, that was wonderful. It’s very important not to prostitute yourself, unless you like that, of course.
This profile builds upon discussions held in late February 2019, upon my experience of these figurative paintings earlier this year and, of course, upon our many conversations over the past 38 years.