Abstract painter sees stripes

Sean Scully
Sean Scully leads a tour of his work at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Sean Scully is tall with hardworking shoulders. He's balding, and his 63 years show on his face. But he's light on his feet, almost dancing as he expounds about his work.

Scully is a master of the one liner. Speaking to a group touring the gallery he announces that his work is loved by women and philosophers.

'Planes of Light'
Sean Scully Planes of Light, 1991 Woodcut Image: 34 ¼ x 44 in. Sheet: 40 ¾ x 50 ¾ in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist.
Image courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

"Because philosophers don't actually invent words," he said. "They just put them in different orders and that makes different meaning. So in a sense, my process is the same."

He never did explain why women love his work.

Obviously, the stripe existed long before Sean Scully came along, but he said he hopes that his work has redefined it.

Almost 70 examples of his prints line the walls of an MIA gallery. They are patterns of uneven rectangles, all different shapes and sizes. They are sometimes arranged like ladders, sometimes like checkerboards. Some are a mixture of both. All different colors too, and each one strangely attractive.

Scully is a man of the world. Born in Dublin, Ireland, he grew up in London, and then moved to New York where he became a US citizen. But it was on a trip outside the US that got him thinking about stripes. I thought I read it was in Mexico.

'Durango 1'
Sean Scully Durango I, 1991 Etching, spitbite, sugarlift, aquatint Plate: 13 ¼ x 15 13/16 in Sheet: 19 ½ x 21 ½ in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist.
Image courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

"You got the first letter right. And it wasn't Minneapolis either. It was a trip to Morocco, which is actually South and East of Minneapolis," he said as he smiles.

Scully said he was amazed by the intricate decoration he saw on the buildings, patterns repeated again and again.

"I thought that the rhythms that I saw in this world were intoxicating," he said. "So I started to make paintings with stripes when I came back."

That was 35 years ago, and he has been painting stripes ever since. But not the same stripes. He has done huge canvases, tiny woodblock prints, and everything in-between.

As he leads the group round the gallery he points to how the stripes interrelate. He talks about how some become windows within a larger picture, and others stand out as he puts it, like Narcissus.

While he is known as being extremely prolific, Sean Scully can remember the exact circumstances behind the creation of each piece. He says it's easy to see the different ways he has approached his work over the years.

"For example, paintings I made in the 1970's are very austere," he said. "Paintings I made in the 80's are overtly physical and aggressive - very sculptural paintings. And in the 90's, I did more contemplative work again." He says he's been trying to take a more lyrical approach in his recent work.

Sean Scully Day, 2005 Aquatint, sugarlift, spitbite Image: 14 7/8 x 18 in. Sheet: 27 x 24 7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist.
Image courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art was originally mounted at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., by curator Joann Moser.

She says she's attracted to Scully's work, because of the way you can get something different from his pieces each time you see them. Moser says his work has a timeless quality, which puts him in the upper echelons of contemporary art.

"He has this universality, this classicism, this range of expression, that I think makes him one of the more important artists of the 20th century," she said.

When asked if it's taken a special strength of will to focus on one form, the stripe, for so long Scully, said other people perform similar feats.

"Millions of people go to work every day, and I doubt if I could do that without losing my mind," Scully laughed. "But what I do of course is in a sense as repetitive as that."

Scully admits it was tough in the early years, but now he says he has developed a following. He relates a story of how he found himself in the strange position of having to shell out $5,000 for one of his prints that he wanted back.

"People have kind of penetrated the apparent repetitiveness of it, because it is repetitive, but it is repetitive to show something," he said. "And now people get into it. And some people just think my work is great. And I am sure others think I am an idiot."

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts obviously does not.

The MIA marked the opening of its show of Sean Scully's prints by announcing it had bought one of his works for its permanent collection.

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