Interview with artist Sean Scully

by Osman Can Yerebakan

edited by William J. Simmons

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“I’ve made 1,400 paintings by hand. You’d have to be a madman to do that,” recites Sean Scully in his 2015 interview with The Guardian. The Irish-born painter has been religiously studying color, form, and texture for decades. He depicts basic human conditions such as grief, fear, or ardor without the delineated boundaries of representation. Bulky lines bordered by hazy brushstrokes and complicated geometric structures encapsulate a dangerous mind’s journey. The Eighties, his current exhibition at the Upper East Side’s Mnuchin Gallery, focuses on the era during which Scully turned away from meticulous and “clean” forms in favor of less premeditated and sculptural paintings – all the while maintaining his devotion to abstraction. As a Post-Minimalist abstractionist, Scully’s work borrows a whiff of architecture from Minimalism; however, his handling of the canvas is almost like a wreck needing to be fixed or a lover yearning for connection – allusions that point to Scully’s personal attachment to his oeuvre. Traces of personal tragedies, losses, or victories meld into his dynamic works. Hauntingly repetitious forms convey tempestuous juxtapositions.



—Do you consider abstraction to be a kind of obsession you are loyal to or a force that you willingly submit to?


Abstraction, which, in a sense, is the heartbeat of American art, is something that is very free. When you work on an abstract painting, you can’t really edit the painting politically. I show a lot in China, and I learned that abstract painting was banned there. The reason was that it is impossible to edit this type of painting in any way: the government cannot touch it. The audience has to accept it the way it is or completely eschew it. Therefore, it naturally creates free thought, because abstract painting doesn’t directly insult anybody; instead it creates flexibility of the mind and emotion. What we need now is tolerance, and abstraction can promote that. I enjoy figurative painting as well. For example, I like Luc Tuymans. In addition, I made paintings of my son that I’m not going to sell, but I certainly trust abstract painting because it doesn’t need interpretation.


— Your paintings are highly autobiographical opposed to common notions about non-figurative painting. How much do you rely on colors to narrate your story?


My sense of color is something I’ve really had to work at, and I think I have been gifted in this sense. Colors inhabit the work tremendously. The range of my color spectrum is very wide: I can go from one color to the other. Bright blue for example is musical and lyrical. My color choices are extremely intuitive. I have no clue at all what color I will be choosing next. I have everything at my disposal. I title the paintings as I make them. In that sense, the process is a kind of archetypical form of abstraction, like de Kooning.


— You practice karate. How does this influence your work?


I used to. I stopped somewhere when I became a dad. Karate helped me be very relaxed in New York. When I lived there, New York was very dangerous. It wasn’t in good condition. On the other hand, karate interested me intellectually. I had to learn Japanese. I started to think about the relationship between the dance and the architecture of color. My painting method is similar to dancing; therefore, there always exists improvisation. This greatly improved my bodily movements as I made paintings. Bodily movement is very central to my work and it certainly is a result of my karate practice.


— Square is a very important form for you. Does this have anything to do with its perfect symmetry or perhaps its resemblance to a window?


I work with rectangles, too, but as an insert or a window in the center of an abstract figure. I like a painting to be non-directional. I don’t use squares as much as I used to anymore, but the paintings in this exhibition are all squares with two exceptions. You can see pairs, curves, and odd and even numbers. Pairing is an obsession with me and it comes from the idea of the relationship between pairs.


–       Osman Can Yerebakan

Art Editor – William J. Simmons


All Artwork © Sean Scully, Photography by Tom Powel Imaging, Coutesy of Mnuchin Gallery

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