Ahead of a new exhibition exploring his engagement with the triptych format, internationally-acclaimed artist Sean Scully talks to Gregory Perry, Pallant House Gallery Director
Gregory Perry Though abstract, your paintings have subjects; there can be elements of narrative, references to people, places, time, and to literature. They are about something in the world besides themselves or about art. What drove that decision?
Sean Scully I thought that abstract painting had lost its ability to communicate and was ready to fall – which it duly did. I wondered what I was going to do; was I going to stop painting, or be a figurative artist which is the way I started out – or find some other way? I took my minimalist work and my early figurative work that was influenced by the German Expressionists principally (Schmitt-Rottluff and
Müller and so on) and I blended them. I made abstract paintings that were very connected to subjects, to bodies, proportion, nature, and what I believed – and believe to this very day – is that abstract painting must be accountable. You cannot build abstraction on abstraction because it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. It doesn’t communicate anything and you can’t connect with an audience.
I am talking about a kind of conceptual abstraction that re-appeared in the ‘90s, that was all elegant and coloured and had a lot to do with the phenomena of what you do when you subject paint to a certain process. All that sort of stuff is incapable of breaking out of the art world lingo cocoon. I made paintings with titles like 'The Bather' or 'Secret Sharer' that forged a connection between the painting and a subject. I think the metaphor is what drives art and causes empathy. So, what I’m saying is that abstraction has to be accountable.
GP How do you communicate this to the viewer of your paintings? Is the title the first point of entry or is it, for example, information in a label?
SS I think it’s useful for people to have something written – not to explain the work – but if you’re making a painting that is black and white, it’s helpful for people to understand what the metaphor is. The kind of whites I was using for example in a painting like 'Stare' are referring to the colour of bone, dried out bone on the beaches of Long Island, and the black of the night to burnt out wood or old ships. And the title is about the painting’s ability to stare you down. I think it’s interesting for people to have an explanation about how they might relate to the work. Abstraction is like music without words and figuration is like music with words. Of course music with words is a lot more popular than music without words, but music without words is deeper: Beethoven, Miles Davis, the other stuff’s folk music in a way.
GP You’ve said you want your paintings to engender an empathetic response. Are you striving for a shared experience or are you open to the fact that people bring their own backgrounds and may respond to them in a way that was unintended?
SS Well, that’s what I love about abstraction. I’m trying for the latter, I want to give people maximum freedom and that’s why I chose abstraction in the first place. The viewer in a sense has to bring them to life. They need to be resolved by people looking at them – this is something you find a lot in Matisse, he provokes a great empathy in people. You see it in Picasso too, 'Les Demoiselle D’ Avignon'. You’ve got to put it together yourself, and I love that quality. I like people to play around with my paintings in their minds. A great American writer said that I used the "language of Lego" – and of course Lego is genius. The possibilities are infinite, an infinite kind of cannibalisation and remaking and re-creating; it’s like an IQ aid. So I make paintings that can in a sense be taken apart and put back together again. But to that I add the pathos of the history of art, so I paint them like Tiziano.
GP You mention art history–art historians would make distinctions between ‘disegno’ and ‘colore’ to refer to the spirit of design/line in Renaissance Florence and the use of colour by Venetian artists. You have described yourself as a linear artist, but you are also a great colourist - you apply layer upon layer, as you said, like Titian. Do you think there is a natural distinction to be made or can you embody both?
SS I think I want to embody both. I have grown to admire Raphael who was living in the time of Leonardo and many others – Antonello and Michelangelo. So, what does Raphael do? He just puts it all together in one body of work. He’s saying you don’t have to run from Leonardo to Michelangelo, you can have it all in my work – the School of Athens. And what I’ve done is work my way through a kind of linearity to become a very passionate body painter – extremely soft edges, complicated colours that can only be made on the surface – making it into a very emotional, poetic and deep experience.
GP Mark Rothko used to say that the ideal position to view his paintings was 18 inches away, so that you’re enveloped by the colour and you have this immersive experience. Is there an optimal way to approach a Sean Scully painting?
SS Well, I think people should be able to do what they want and if they want to stand 18 inches away, let them! But this brings up an interesting point because very few abstract painters have managed to touch people. There are only really a handful of abstract painters who crossed over: there’s Mondrian who made a lot of beautiful figurative paintings first, some that dealt with extreme spirituality, and of course there’s Mark Rothko, who made a lot of terrible figurative paintings but managed for a decade to make some radiant abstract paintings. The reason, I think, that my work has managed to remain engaging to people is this difference in the power of the metaphor. If the metaphor is not really deep and genuine and expressed it won’t cross over, it won’t get out of its art world cocoon. You’ve got to find a way to make a painting that touches people, that they can relate to. You can do that with Rothko because of the sense of the figure and the ground, the metaphor he talked about of characters on a stage – the canvas being the stage and the figures moving on it. In the case of Rothko, people have got on board and his work seems to have touched people universally. My paintings are a lot more energetic and a lot more positive in terms of drawing.
I make a kind of drawing that’s very directional and rhythmical which brings me in a funny way in correspondence with Rock and Roll, with Blues. What’s really amazing about Rock and Roll is that it’s been inexhaustible and it’s made with small differences. Yet, the results are full of personality and some of it is just miraculous; popular music can be very moving. I’ve tried to make my work rhythmical, not just compositionally correct because I’m not interested in perfection. I’m interested in imperfection and expression, because beauty is not something that’s static; it’s something that’s got some kind of grit to it, rough edges.
GP You went against the grain with painting in the late 70s/early 80s, when Neo-Expressionism was the predominant style. Did you consciously think that you wanted to reinterpret or revivify Abstract Expressionism?
SS That’s a good question. Basically what I think I’ve done is taken abstract expressionist vitality, passed it through Minimalism and came out the other side with a fusion of the two. So my work isn’t mystical in the way that a lot of Abstract Expressionism was. There was a lot of excessive nonsense written on that work that the public soon got fed up with. I’ve made it in a sense modular – like minimalist drawing because I was a practising post-minimalist for five years. The fusion of the two is a new kind of abstraction, an abstraction that has the advantages of both. I’ve made it a lot more physical, sculptural, and of course serialised. There is a sort of repetitive, modular quality to the drawing that underpins all the feeling that connects it to Minimalism.
GP You don’t use diagonals in your paintings. Do you find that this limitation frees you up in a way?
SS That’s a profound question. I’ve used diagonals in a very limited way, because I think I’m searching all the time for profundity; something deep. Of course, the horizon and the vertical – the figure against the horizon, or the tree, are just fundamental to human existence. I’m very attracted to diagonals, they would offer me a huge number of possibilities pictorially but it doesn’t make for better art. For example, Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg famously fell out over exactly that issue – the use or not of diagonals. These things have value, they have great importance. I’ve considered it a lot, I’m very attracted to diagonal lines but so far I haven’t given into it. But I must say I’ve got a couple of paintings with diagonals in that are very beautiful. It’s not a closed subject.
GP You’ve mentioned that your work is auto-biographical – you’ve had this transnational existence. You were born in Ireland, moved to London before you were four, moved to New York when you were about thirty. Now you paint a lot in Germany and Spain. How does that inform your work – that experience of being a world citizen?
SS If you go to different places and speak different languages, as I do, your mind has to function ‘newly’. You cannot avoid that, because life through the prism of Spanish is different than life through the prism of English, or German. So when I go to these different countries I have to construct my thoughts in a slightly different way, and I allow the place itself to influence me. I can’t be just in one place, and I don’t like the idea of somebody being a national artist in some way I’m not thinking about what it’s like to be a British artist or what it’s like to be an Irish artist. It’s necessary to be a little off balance, not to be too comfortable.
GP Is there a different look to the paintings you make in Germany versus Spain?
SS Yeah, I think there is. When I’m in Germany I’m in the countryside; my view out of the window is a field inhabited by cows. Nobody knows where the studio is and that provides a certain kind of freedom. The “Doric” paintings I made in a room at the very end of this huge amount of space, next to a window that had a diffused blind over it. I was convinced that was the only place I could make “Doric” paintings. Then I made these little stripey paintings and I made a version of Picasso’s 'Child with a Dove' for my kids’ bedroom. I do things like that when I’m there, and I feel very free.
When I’m in Barcelona the paintings tend to be smaller and darker and greyer, sometimes with a lot of red. In New York I make a lot of ambitious, more competitive paintings one might say. So, I use all three places, and I suppose my favourite place is New York. So there is a relationship between where I am and what I do. I had rough wooden floors in my studio in the 80s, it was dark, aggressive, and the paintings that I made then were dark and aggressive. But the paintings, as I’ve become older and more successful, have opened up and become a lot more lyrical. 'Dark Pink Triptych' (in the Pallant House Gallery collection), for example, is imbued with a kind of colour that I wasn’t using in the 80s.The birth of my son has lifted a great sorrow off me – because my first son died. Now I would say I am even a happy person, so he’s brought me an incredible amount of light and beauty.
GP The triptych is closely associated, at least in the West, with altar pieces or smaller works for private devotion, although the number three has an association with non-Christian traditions and religions as well. How much of these Western practices or non-Western traditions have informed your work or your decision to choose to work in a triptych format?
SS I would say all of it. Because it’s the basis of infinity and the number three is very beautiful; it’s not dividable in a certain sense. I have been inspired of course by Quattrocento paintings. I made an homage to my son, Paul, that’s in the Tate– it’s one of my greatest paintings, and a very important painting for me. I love the idea that the triptych is connected to religion in the Christian sense, but also to other religions and to the number three that is so special in so many ways. It’s interesting that ‘Winter Triptych’, which will be in the show, is owned by a Chinese collector, who absolutely adores it because it has some kind of relationship to a Zen feeling. So, in Western art of course, you have a hierarchy. In Duccio’s 'Maestà' you have a hierarchy. You have the Madonna and Child in the middle, with the angels at the side, and the apostles and the lesser figures on the sides supporting the central panel. They’re always very centrifugal. What I like to do is bust that open, so I make a narrative and I give them titles like ‘River’. The idea of the river is that it’s flowing from left to right, or from the mountains into the sea, so there’s movement in my triptychs.
GP As you’ve said, there’s not always a hierarchy. Certainly with 'Paul', there is, but in something like ‘Dark Pink Triptych’, for instance, there’s no hierarchy with the central panel. There’s more of an equal relationship among the three.
SS Well, I’m an equal opportunity triptych maker! They’re extremely democratic paintings, but I put these areas in a kind of competition, so that they’re in a sense figures that have to stand up for themselves in different ways. 'Dark Pink Triptych' has a very beautiful delicate area on one side which in its own way can stand up to the more strident area on the other end. So there is definitely a dialogue about different kinds of power in my paintings. In these triptych paintings there’s always this sense of areas standing up to each other.
GP You’ve said that your work has aspects of intimacy and monumentality. There are relatively intimate spaces at Pallant House Gallery. How do you think the work’s going to respond to being hung there?
SS In big spaces they can look majestic and take on the kind of spaces that sculpture can in a way that most painting can’t. That’s because of the lack of pictorial space, because they are so emphatic and emblematic. That said, my most successful exhibitions in New York, certainly in the 80s, were in the David McKee Gallery before he got a big space. The paintings just looked fabulous and terrible, all at the same time. People just loved it because there wasn’t enough space for them, and it made them very alive. There’s some quality about that that could be very interesting with relation to Pallant House Gallery. We’ll see!