Interview with Sean Scully: Bringing sex to the minimalist grid

After 25 years, the Irish artist is still going strong, subjecting his paintings to “tough love” and steering away from nostalgia

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For over 25 years Sean Scully has been doggedly exploring the power of the painted stripe, building up his distinctive, densely-packed horizontals and bands into sombre and often enormous paintings which he describes as “abstraction that longs to be figurative”. Born in Dublin and raised in South London, Scully moved to New York in 1975 but only dispensed with his Deptford studio in London two years ago. He is now based in New York, Barcelona and Bavaria. Scully has been shortlisted twice for the Turner Prize, in 1989 and 1993. In the late 1980s, he attracted less favourable attention as one of the artists unceremoniously offloaded by Charles Saatchi to make room for the then-young British artists. Yet Scully’s international career has gone from strength to strength. His major US touring exhibition “Sean Scully: Wall of Light”, which started at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, in 2005, is now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (until 14 January 2007) while an exhibition of new work goes on show at Timothy Taylor Gallery in London this month (22 November-20 January 2007).

The Art Newspaper: Tell us about your most recent paintings, which go on show in London this month.

Sean Scully: The paintings were all made in the countryside in Bavaria at the foot of the Alps on a farm where we have a big studio. I’ve been teaching in Germany for five years but that’s coming to an end in February so this is probably the last really big group of paintings I’ll make there. It’s a place that gets a lot of weather–there’s the outside weather and then in my case there’s a considerable amount of inside weather that accounts for the nature of the work, its tenacity, its rigour and at the same time its melancholia and its romanticism. In a situation like that you have both shade and bright light.

TAN: I can see chinks of light glowing between the blocks of darker colour.

SS: That happened midway through this “Wall of Light” series I’ve been working on for so many years. I made the first one in 1998 in my studio in Deptford on a Sunday afternoon and that led to the breakup of that regular façade I’d been doing—you get pockets of individualised relationships in an overall field. Something I’ve been doing for many years is a different kind of near and far, a sense of light that changes all the time and yet is underpinned by a tremendously austere sense of structure.

TAN: You have a rigorous vocabulary of blocks or stripes but your paintings are very rich. There seems to be a dichotomy between the sexy, skin-like paint and the rigorous composition.

SS: Well I’m also quite hedonistic! But I take your point and I’m glad you read them that way. So you read the sex in the paintings rather than the system. I’ve lived and participated in minimalism and I’ve taken its structure, or what could be seen as a minimalist grid. I’ve subjected it not only to my own sense of sexuality, sensuality, voluptuousness, romanticism and mood swings but also to the history of art. I’ve taken it and put it on its head and I think that is what gives the paintings their character. I’ve noticed that a lot of painters who want to make what we might call emotional abstraction, seem to be nostalgic and that is fatal in the art world. Also, it means the paintings are not competitive in the art world.

TAN: What do you mean by that?

SS: It means that they [the pictures] can’t survive in the world of art with all its rigorous examination and its constant pursuit of the new, which of course is serving the art market. You can’t make pictures and then expect people to look at them if you look hopelessly out of date, or if there isn’t some fascination about them.

TAN: Every time you pick up a brush it is freighted with art history; on the other hand paint can touch us all in the here and now. It must be a challenge not to be constantly looking backwards.

SS: The UK critic Laura Cumming wrote about my relationship to Cézanne and that’s interesting in a number of ways. There’s a tremendous stubbornness about the paintings: I keep coming back to the same thing, I keep turning it over. It’s almost a form of devotional painting and yet they are quite rugged. Cézanne was an obstinate old bugger, as I no doubt will become—I’m becoming more of a comedian curmudgeon as I get older. When you look at Mont Sainte Victoire, it’s like a big table, there’s nothing about it that’s attractive in the romantic Caspar David Friedrich sense and it’s interesting that Cézanne chose that as his muse, something that’s as stoically stubborn as he was. But at the same time you have this sense of the joy of life and the love of making work, and I also try and put a tremendous amount of love in my work.

TAN: The art market is a febrile and an overheated place at the moment but surely your paintings only have to meet your own criteria and compete with what you aspire for them.

SS: You’re right in a high-minded sense but you’ve got to have some edge in your work, and if you don’t, it’s easy for painting to be nostalgic. The problem with painting is it leads you up the garden path—it leads you into the enchanted forest and then when you want to get out, you’re lost. There has to be something in a painting that is intellectually hard, and my paintings are very relentless. I bang things together, the colours, the sections, it’s very concrete in a sense.

TAN: They are very much objects as much as paintings, and they feel hard won. You don’t make drawings do you?

SS: No, I don’t draw to paint.

TAN: Do you work on more than one at a time?

SS: Yes, I move them around and I put them in a big room in survival mode against each other. They have to compete with each other or else they get over-painted, again and again although some paintings do get finished in one go. I lay the paint down very thin in a kind of glaze so it looks like a varnished watercolour and then I stand a painting up when it’s dry and look at it for a while and then basically I crank up the music and then I paint. When I paint it’s very emotional because that’s basically what I’m trying to do—I’m trying to get at something emotionally deep.

TAN: Do you jettison paintings or do you keep painting over and over until you get it right?

SS: I never give up on a painting. It’s almost impossible for me to give up on a painting. I have this painting called Any Questions? and I’ve been painting it for 25 years. I can’t get the damn thing finished. It’s almost as if the painting says to me, “any questions?” And then I have to keep painting it.

TAN: You’ve said that a painting is only finished when it no longer needs you. How does that manifest itself?

SS: There are two ways to answer that question: there’s the Louis Armstrong way which is when somebody asked him what jazz was, and he says, “If you have to ask, you never know.” The other way is to say that, with a painting, I’m always looking for a form of revelation which is emotional but what I might call tough love. When the painting moves me, it’s done and then I leave it and it has to stand up as a structural reality in relation to the other paintings and that’s where the survival bit comes in. I can’t really predict how that’s going to be—a small piece can need a lot of attention and be overpainted several times. Sometimes I look at my paintings and I think, “Whoa, they’re really ugly!” And other times I look at them and I think they’re really great. For me, the paintings that go the distance are the ones that never stop being fascinating, the ones that I can’t overcome somehow, that I can’t conquer.

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