EssaysWeekend

When a Square Is Not Just a Square

Like his best works, Sean Scully’s “Black Square” is oddly exhilarating, especially because it is initially grim.

Sean Scully, “Black Square” (2020), oil on aluminum, 85 x 75 inches; © Sean Scully (all images courtesy the artist)

For some years Sean Scully has been making what he calls Landlines, a recent development of his painting that grew out of living in the countryside. One model for their stacked horizontal brushstrokes is his photographs, which show land, sea, and sky in parallel bands. Another surely is his recent sculpture — columns of steel, frame-like shapes, which open up a space within the artwork.

In “China Piled-Up” (2014), for example, there is a three-dimensional black latticework, visually like that in his early paintings, composed of stacked steel rectangles. In the Landlines, we find neither the conflicts that began in his 1970s art and came to the fore in the 1980s. Nor do we see the ideal harmony of the 1990s Walls of Light. Instead, the Landlines are Scully’s landscape paintings, showing the shore, the water, and the sky in varied colors. We see the world as it is, but presented abstractly.

A new painting, “Black Square” (2020), consists, on first glance, of a Landline with a large square inserted into its lower center. But there’s more to this work, which is a little complicated. In the context of Scully’s career, adding this square constitutes a richly suggestive development.

Windows in figurative pictures can open up the depicted room to the out of doors. Caspar David Friedrich shows figures looking out of opened windows, dramatically extending the confined interior space. Scully’s earliest grids from the late 1970s employ narrow horizontal stripes. Then in the 1980s, the windows he inserted in his paintings broke up the otherwise relentless fields of stripes, opening up those pictures abstractly. Now, however, his solid black window has a distinctly different spiritual significance.

Sean Scully, “Landline Red Bridge” (2016), oil on aluminum, 85 x 75 inches (© Sean Scully, photo by Robert Bean)

“Black Square” deserves comparison with Henri Matisse’s famously enigmatic “French-Window at Collioure” (1914), with a window apparently opening onto a pit-black night. When a few years later, Matisse showed some recent works, though not that one, to the aged Jean Renoir, the older artist was shocked by some black “which stayed in place when it ought by Impressionist rules to have disrupted the whole composition.” (Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, Knopf, 2005, page 219). Who knows what he would have made of “French Window.”

Black may seem a limited color. But as comparing Franz Kline’s purely black-on-white paintings with his mostly lesser-quality works using color reveals, art sometimes gains from self-imposed limitations. The same is true of Frank Stella’s early black striped paintings.

And in the 1950s, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, who much later became Scully’s frequent commentator, made figurative black woodcuts, like “Two Saints and a Martyr” (1955). When I taught in Beijing, I became fascinated with the famous Chinese modernist Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), who often used black expressively. None of these artworks would have remotely the same expressive effect if executed in other colors.

A square in black can also seem a limited format. Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915), as shown in The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 (1915-1916), proposed to end art’s history, as, in a different way, did Ad Reinhardt with his many late, very dark, not quite monochromatic rectangular paintings.

Sean Scully, “China Piled-Up” (2014, detail), Corten steel, 12 x 50 x 20 feet (© Sean Scully)

When, in a painting, a rectangle’s long side is parallel to the picture bottom, we read it as a stable element. But when, conversely, that rectangle’s short side is in that position, it may appear unstable. Peter Halley often makes use of this dynamic option.

A square, by contrast, is essentially ambiguous. How varied are Josef Albers’s Homages to the Square! Unlike a rectangle, a square is unchangeable. Rotate it and it remains the same. It shows what is rather than what might be, and in this sense, it presents absolute negation.

By inserting a crisp black square into a set of luminously colored, brushy horizontal bands, Scully is blocking out the romantic connotations of both the landscape and the brushstroke, while at the same time, short-circuiting the nihilistic visions of the end of art’s history that would be fomented by a black square in isolation. Belief versus disbelief are compressed here together.

By contrast, for all of his importance for Scully, when Piet Mondrian uses black lines to divide the blue, red, and yellow rectangles, he is a utopian visual thinker, which is why a pure black square is, at least within Mondrian’s mature style, inconceivable.

Sean Scully, “Wall of Light White” (1998), oil on linen; 96 x 108 inches (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; © Sean Scully)

The creator of Krazy Kat, George Herriman (1880–1944), who loved nighttime, often used large, flat fields of black in his comic strips. Black is an end point, the definitive mark of resolution — the color of death. And so it’s the absolutely appropriate color of Francisco Goya’s late ‘black paintings.’ Or, alternatively, black is the color of absolute beginning, the moment before God said, ‘let there be light.’

These associations of expressive qualities with the color black may seem to be cultural conventions. Certainly the politics of the relationship between black pigment and bleak subjects are complex, as a recent visionary exhibition at Columbia University, The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (2019) effectively demonstrated. (See my review, “Deconstructing Race in Western Painting.”) Meyer Schapiro observed that in China, white, not black, is the color associated with funerals. I would love to know the artistic consequences of this belief.

For obvious reasons, it’s hard, if not impossible, to identify many black-all-over figurative works. I would love to discover that some Old Master painted a joke picture, maybe, “Two Saints in the Basement with the Lights Out.” But it’s important here not to respond to Scully’s “Black Square” just in overly solemn ways.

When you hear the Rolling Stones sing “Paint It Black” you don’t need a musicologist’s analysis to understand the emotions conveyed. And when you see Robert Rauschenberg’s “Untitled (Glossy Black Painting)” (1951), you don’t need to read a treatise on monochromatic painting to understand, at least in a general way, its place in art’s history.

Sean Scully, “Flatland” (1987), oil on linen, 60 x 60 inches (© Sean Scully, photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

Scully’s art involves what might be called a translation of the color, composition, and themes of Old Master and modernist figurative art. Just as a translator takes literature from one language into another by finding correspondents for the original phrases, so Scully finds equivalents for the features of prior art within his inherently abstract way of working.

These correspondences between his pictures and the older works he admires make his abstractions aesthetically and spiritually more significant — becoming something other, something much more than merely attractive color compositions.

“Black Square” is an appropriate response to springtime 2020 because it offers abstractly a deeply felt response to our present ways of living. In discussing some of my responses — some perhaps oddly subjective, a few guided by his suggestions — I do not mean to cut off other ways of thinking. The essential generosity of Scully’s art lies, so I believe, in its openness.

And like his best works, “Black Square” is oddly exhilarating even though (or, especially because) it is initially grim. A successful artist, it has been said, is someone who makes other people also creative. You need to learn to trust the ways Scully sets your mind in motion.

Note: The style of this analysis owes a debt to Joseph Masheck’s ‘iconicity’ essays published in Artforum 40-some years ago. Masheck was an important early commentator on Scully.

comments (0)