Sean Scully

by Diana Rendon

Turner Prize nominee and Harper's Bazaar Art International Artist of the Year Sean Scully is currently the subject of a major retrospective, “Resistance and Persistence”
We had a chance to speak to the highly [rightfully] lauded painter and printmaker on the eve of his second major retrospective, this time at the University of the Arts in Nanjing.

In the early part of your career you used an intersecting line and grid system, resulting in an multilayered optical field, then you began using watercolor, and moved to freehand painting after that. What causes you to explore new techniques and mediums? What techniques and mediums are you anxious to explore next?

I moved to free-hand painting in 1980, before I began to make watercolors. I made between 1975 and 1980, minimal paintings. Then in 1980 I felt that abstract painting had to return to humanism and expressiveness: so I began to include more open color and more expressive, hand-painted edges, to give the paintings a human quality that connected them to the materials of the world, instead of hard-headed concepts.

Keeping in mind the significant influence that Catholic iconography played in your life as a young boy, how has this influenced your art?

Well, I suppose one could say that my childhood experiences with the Catholic Church, influenced the direction of my life and work, towards emotionalism. Since, after all, faith, is ultimately a disinterest in empirical truth. Faith is unbreakable if it’s deep enough. And this, may be the reason I was able to stay in ‘hostile’ New York, and prevail. So, perhaps, in some way, the Catholic Church helped me. 

Sean-Scully,-Floating-Painting-#5,-1996

Is there a specific piece that you feel exemplifies the exhibition in Nanjing as a whole? 

I can’t say there’s one piece of work, that exemplifies the exhibition in Nanjing, because it’s a second retrospective, that tells a story. Though, I talked in front of Backs and Fronts for a long time, with an audience, touring the exhibition. I talked about its renegade sense of mis-used structure. In that painting, I hijacked what had been the language of reason and order: to create difficult seemingly arbitrary relationships, that spoke of the simultaneity of realities in big cities. The Chinese audience was extremely animated while I was talking about it, as if they found it true. It was a very difficult painting for people to understand when I made it, in New York.

What does “Resistance and Persistence” mean to you? 

Resistance and Persistence was taken from a text I wrote on Morandi. Because it is musical in nature like most of my writing, and pretty much all of my work: it was attractive. My understanding of it, is that to be an artist one must resist the erosive pressures of commercialism and negative criticism. Then, it’s necessary to sail though difficult times. To keep your little boat pointed towards your star.

What impact do you hope to create with this exhibition as opposed to your previous exhibition: “Follow the Heart"? 

The second retrospective will, I hope, have a deeper effect in China than the first. Because now they know me. And since the first tour was so successful, it’s possible to build on that. Art is a better ambassador of values and understanding, than the politicians seem to be able to achieve. Art opens people’s minds, without giving them instructions, about how they should live.

Can you give us a little insight on the creative development or insight of China Piled Up?

China Piled Up, was invented out of necessity. My Father always told me that necessity was the mother of invention. I wanted to make a huge black basalt sculpture for my first exhibition in China. I had heard that Black in Chinese culture, is the color of heaven. This fascinated me, and I wanted to make a giant monument, in stone blocks of black, that was a solid impenetrable rectangle, with a sense of massive weight and spirituality. The floor though, in the Himalaya Museum, couldn’t support the weight. So I made it lighter, by taking out the mass, and showing only the drawing. In the form of frames. Now it’s a 3D drawing in rusted metal, that has the sense of an abandoned city.

Sean-Scully,-Four-Days,-2015

Has Chinese art influenced you? What do you find interesting about it?

China will influence me. There is no doubt of that. The people are the kindest I have ever met. The 21st century scale of China is immense. Size is different. So what is possible, changes. Like America, China is a visual culture. There is, like America, a refined brutality about its cities. This will influence me. Though I’m not sure how. At the moment, though, I am influencing China. 

You have traveled quite a bit, is there a specific location that you still wish to see or revisit?

I don’t think I put enough into developing my relationship with the West Coast of America. My first exhibition outside London, was in L.A. in 1974. I moved to New York though, because I couldn’t stretch that umbilical cord that attaches me to Europe, to 6,000 miles. I like the low level skyline of L.A. There, you can breathe.

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