VENICE — The two most arresting exhibitions I saw among the Venice Biennale’s collateral displays were Sean Scully’s Human and Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum, curated by Phong Bui and Francesca Pietropaolo for The Brooklyn Rail.
Scully’s show is a magisterial display of a surprising recent development in the imagery of this longtime abstract painter. And the Brooklyn Rail exhibition is an exemplary presentation of political art. Scully’s 22 paintings, sculptures and numerous works on paper occupy one of Venice’s grandest churches, San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Andrea Palladio, on its eponymous island south of the city, while Brooklyn Rail is in Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti, an out of the way, deconsecrated church near the far edge of Cannaregio, north of the Grand Canal and just east of the train station, a small 17th-century building decorated with several minor 18th-century paintings.
Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, a Benedictine church built between1565-1611 — “floating like a ship in a huge expanse of sky and water,” in the words of architectural historian Deborah Howard — faces San Marco across the lagoon. As you cross on the number 2 vaporetto, you see that the site “emphasizes the frosty whiteness of the facade” (Howard).
Entering the whitewashed stucco interior, Scully’s “Opulent Ascension” (2019), a ten-meter-tall sculpture constructed of narrow, vividly colored horizontal bands, rises under the great dome over the crossing, midway between the entrance and the high altar, lit from above. Then, exiting on the left, you walk down a narrow corridor, with the painting “Landline Gold” (2019), also consisting of horizontal bands, on the right, and enter the sacristy. This space, where sacred services are prepared, is devoted to drawings that reveal “just how much mediation, ingenuity, and passion goes into creating the larger-scale paintings and sculptures” (according to the exhibition notice).
Back inside the church proper, Scully’s artist’s book, “Illuminated Manuscript” (2018-19) sits open on the high altar, while in the courtyard is “Brown Tower” (2015), almost nine feet tall, made of horizontal plates of corten steel. The corridor behind the church is used to display eight of his Landline series (begun in 2013), each composed of six or seven brushy, horizontally oriented stripes of oil on aluminum, which the artist has described, in a quote found in the catalogue of a 2018 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum devoted to the series, as the “coming together of land and sea, sky and land . . . stacked in horizon lines endlessly beginning and ending…”
There is also a side room devoted to his pastels, and another with two series of oil paintings, one group devoted to Vincent van Gogh in Arles, the other a five-part tribute to Miles Davis’s 1959 recording “Kind of Blue,” which Scully transposes to “Kind of Red” (2013). And on the far side, is stained glass window. And, finally, at the end of this corridor is a small room with the three figurative paintings, Madonna Triptych (2018), showing Scully’s wife Liliane Tomasco and their young son Oisín.
Intrigued and puzzled by these three recent figurative works, after taking in The Brooklyn Rail exhibition and a few other sites (described below), I traveled to Vienna to see Eleuthera, Scully’s exhibition in the Albertina Museum, which is displaying 23 of these large recent oil on aluminum paintings, along with a few smaller works and also some photographs (Eleuthera is the name of the beach resort in the Bahamas where Scully took the photographs).
Using flat fields of high-pitched colors, Scully paints close-up views of Oisín playing at the beach, where intense swaths of blue, pink, orange, and red protectively encircle the boy, the lucky subject of his father’s loving attention. In the 1980s, Scully made abstracted images of conflicts — fields of horizontal and vertical stripes banging together; in the 1990s he started making walls of light, pictures of conflict transcended; and recently he has painted landlines, parallel bands of color derived from viewing the meeting point of land, sea, and sky. And now he also does these large pictures of Oisín.
When the first-generation American Abstract Expressionists Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning made figurative work after their breakthrough into abstraction, critics moralized. Nowadays, the freedom of the artist to choose subjects is assumed. Early on in his career, when he himself did figurative works, Scully was very impressed with German Expressionism, with André Derain, and also with Joan Brown, the Bay Area painter. But now the literal use of flatness in his new figurative painting bears unmistakable visual traces of passing through abstraction.
To return to Scully in Venice: A great many abstract artists have wanted to make spiritual paintings. But it was never clear how that was possible. A figurative picture functions as an altarpiece when it depicts holy figures. But since Scully is painting neither abstract altarpieces nor images of saints, what is at stake when he sites Human in a functioning church?
The story of Modernism is the history of the replacement of the church, the traditional setting for ambitious artworks, with the public museum, the new home of ambitious works. And what defines each of these institutions is the ways that their settings are designed to inspire distinctive ways of thinking about the art they display. A church is where we pray and a museum is where we scrutinize the place of works in the history of art.
And so when an old master altarpiece moves from church to museum, it ceases to be a sacred artifact and becomes an artwork. By presenting his abstract and figurative works in this church, Scully aspires to associate his art with thoughts about the spiritual, but without making concessions to religious tradition, and thus creating a philosophical conundrum. Is he allowing his work to be lured into the past — validated as timeless art by its timeless setting — or is he using tradition against itself, turning its trappings into a context for Modernism’s secularist victory over the sacred? Or, perhaps, both at the same time! o be sure, a Palladian church, with the very large, mostly blank white walls, is a distinct sort of religious environment, that can accommodate both interpretations. You couldn’t mount Human successfully in most Venetian churches.
Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum, curated by Phong Bui and Francesca Pietropaolo, features installations by Wolfgang Laib and Lauren Bon inside the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti, which reference ecological dangers. Immediately next door, a silent video by Shoja Azare and Shahram Karimi invites contemplation; Julian Charrière’s installation explores ephemerality; and Shirin Neshat’s video, Sarah (2016), deals with the relationship between water and women.
Finally, in the courtyard, which you enter from the street to the right of the church, are Maya Lin’s site-specific installation, “Water Water Everywhere, Not a Drop to Drink” (2019) and a stage for cooking performances by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tomas Vu and Sarah Sze. There is also a large neon sign by Lauren Bon and The Metabolic Studio, which provides the exhibition’s title, “Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy.”
Finally, recreating the Rail’s Brooklyn environment in a large room between the church and the courtyard, is a closely hung wall with small works by dozens of artists, and Kiki Smith’s cast-aluminum Singer (2008) standing in front. An actual workplace, it will join Brooklyn as the place where the Rail staff will be producing their usual monthly issues, both in print and online. And the public programming will appear in the forthcoming River Rail: Meditations on the Mediterranean, which will be a free print publication and also available online. Inspired by Joseph Beuys’s social sculpture and Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, these collective actions in Venice make up a Social Environment. The artworks assembled are as varied as those in the official exhibition, but what gives unity to Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale is its political focus.
Not far from Santa Maria delle Penitenti is the Ghetto, one of the rare, relatively large open spaces within Venice. It is the site of Edmund de Waal’s installation, psalm, in the Scuola Canton (1531), a synagogue, which now houses the Jewish Museum. At the entrance, 11 vitrines, filled with white porcelain, marble, and gold, line its walls. And then a twelfth holds three porcelain pots, beautiful and frail, as stand-ins for the Jews who lived here. On some of the porcelain shards are phrases from Osip Mandelstam or Rainer Maria Rilke. As we walk higher, we come to the Sukkah. In a luminous essay on the installation published by The New York Review of Books, Lisa Appignanesi writes:
De Waal has constructed his own version of this sanctuary: a high mirroring table on which tall, narrow, and rectangular free-standing vitrines of varying heights cluster together. Each shelters a rounded or ridged porcelain vessel. [. . .] In the play of refracted light, the structure suggests both the idealized city of memory and a dazzling new city, a shelter for the future hopes of the dispossessed.
Like Human and the Brooklyn Rail installation, this exhibition makes admirably effective use of its Venetian site.
After looking at this extraordinary low-key installation, I made one last stop in Venice. Nearby, in the Cannaregio, a neighborhood not much visited by tourists, is Madonna dell’Orto, a massive recently restored Gothic church where, on the choir wall, you see Jacopo Tintoretto’s “The Last Judgment” (1560-62). At the apex of the painting, which is 15 fifteen meters tall, Christ judges the gesticulating masses, who, if they are saved, make their way upward on dark tiers of clouds. Meanwhile, the damned, as if anticipating the Venetian acqua alta and perhaps even global warming, are downing in a flood, which totally engulfs the skeletons at the very bottom of this stupendous picture.
Notes: My account of San Giorgio Maggiore comes from Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice (2002); my discussion of Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti from Giulio Lorenzetti, Venice and Its Lagoon: Historical-Artistic Guide (originally 1926/1975); and also Alta Macadam, Venice: Blue Guide (2014). Scully’s catalogues are Human (2019), with essays by Kelly Grovier and Javier Molins, who is the curator; and Sean Scully Eleuthera (2019), with an essay by Werner Spies and Scully in conversation with Elisabeth Dutz, who is the curator.
Sean Scully: Human continues at the Abbey of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore (Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy) through October 13. The exhibition is curated by Javier Molins
Sean Scully. Eleuthera continues at the Albertina (Albertinaplatz 1, Vienna, Austria) through September 8. The exhibition is curated by Elisabeth Dutz.
Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum continues at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti (Fondamenta di Cannaregio, 910, Venice, Italy) through November 24. The exhibition is curated by Phong Bui and Francesca Pietropaolo for The Brooklyn Rail.
Edmund de Waal: psalm continues at the Canton Scuola Synagogue (Ateneo Veneto, Venice, Italy) through September 29.