Exhibitions/ Sean Scully

Sean Scully: Wall of Light

September 26, 2006–January 15, 2007
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

In the early 1980s, Sean Scully made the first of several influential trips to Mexico, where he used watercolor for the first time to paint works inspired by the patterns of light and shadows he saw on the stacked stones of ancient walls. He became fascinated with the surfaces of Mayan stone walls, which, animated by light, seemed to reflect the passage of time; he described the Maya as a "culture of walls and light." The experience had a decisive effect on Scully's work in general and led to the development of the Wall of Light series. In 1998, following additional trips to Mexico, and after absorbing the aesthetic implications of his earlier Mexico watercolors, Scully began to create his Wall of Light series of paintings, watercolors, pastels, and aquatints. It was Scully’s recollection of the spectacular light on the ancient walls in Mexico—so different from the fleeting, brooding light he grew up with in London—that most influenced this new body of work. Constructed with rectangular bricklike forms that fit closely together and are arranged in horizontal and vertical groupings, the paintings are characterized by broad brushstrokes, a wide range of luminous colors built up in layers, and varying degrees of light and darkness. Like all of Scully’s work, in which the formal traditions of European painting are combined with forms of aesthetic experience rooted in American abstraction, they manifest a commitment to pure abstraction: to its emotional power, its storytelling potential, and, above all, its capacity to convey light.

In spite of their Mexican genesis, most of the paintings in the Wall of Light series spring from other lights and latitudes. Scully painted them in his studios in New York, Barcelona, the countryside outside Munich, and London (through 2001). The individual works exhibit subtle differences of palette and tone, depending on the season and place in which they were created. The series, which Scully continues to expand, now consists of more than two hundred works.

This exhibition begins with a selection of the earliest watercolors that reveal Scully's lively visual discoveries from his first visits to Mexico in 1983 and 1984. The core of the exhibition features thirty small, medium, and large oil paintings (ranging in size from 16 by 20 inches to 9 by 12 feet) from 1998 to the present. Also included is a selection of later watercolors, pastels, and aquatints from 1998 to the present.

The works from the Wall of Light series rely on two main formal elements: the vertical and the horizontal bar. The surface texture and the space between the forms create fascinating, highly complex structures. Some of the works evoke such architectural elements as bricks, post–and–lintel construction, even the hulking structure of Stonehenge. The spaces between the blocks frequently reveal the underlying colors and read as light shining between the bricks of a wall. The rectangles are often built up with several rich layers of color, and the broad, gestural brushstrokes emphasize the presence of the artist's hand.

The exhibition is made possible by Paula Cussi and Ignacio Garza Medina.

Corporate support is provided by UBS.

"Sean Scully: Wall of Light" was organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Sean Scully, born in Dublin in 1945, grew up in a working-class neighborhood of south London. He learned typesetting and graphic design as an apprentice in a commercial printing shop in his late teens, and then studied painting at Croydon College of Art, London, and Newcastle University. He discovered the work of Mark Rothko and Bridget Riley, and switched from figurative work to abstraction. After a trip to Morocco in 1969, Scully incorporated the bright light of North Africa and the stripes of local textiles into his work. A year's fellowship at Harvard University brought him to the United States for the first time in 1972; a second fellowship in 1975 allowed him to settle in New York, and he became an American citizen in 1983.

After coming to the U.S., Scully simplified the stripes that characterized his earlier work: Moroccan color and pattern gave way to almost monochromatic paintings. In the early 1980s, Scully reintroduced color, space, and texture, through the application of multiple layers of paint, and thereby added an expressive element. He began experimenting with compositional and structural concepts that led him to break out of the two-dimensional picture plane, creating asymmetrical assemblages that take on a sculptural quality.

By the mid-1980s, Scully had garnered international recognition, and many major museums began to acquire his paintings. In 1985, The Metropolitan Museum of Art became the first U.S. museum to acquire his work, with his painting Molloy (1984). His work was included in The Museum of Modern Art's 1984 exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. The following year, the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh organized the first major exhibition of his work in the U.S., which traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Four years later, his work was the subject of a major solo exhibition in Europe that originated at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and traveled to Madrid and Munich.

During this time, the aesthetic lessons of Scully's Mexico visits, and the early watercolors they inspired, were quietly germinating; in 1998 they burst forth in a new series of works, showcased in this exhibition.