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Sean Scully: Wall of Light

The artist Sean Scully explores the emotional and narrative themes of his abstract, bricklike forms.


Anne Strauss: Sean Scully was inspired to create his Wall of Light series, beginning in 1998, by visits he had made to Mexico in the early 1980s. In Mexico, he observed the play of light and shadow on ancient stone walls. This ongoing and distinctive body of work—which includes paintings, watercolors, pastels, and aquatints—explores abstract forms affected by light, evoking a range of emotional and narrative themes. Since 1998, Scully has created the works in this series with rectangular, bricklike forms that are closely fitted and arranged in horizontal and vertical groupings, as if in a wall. They are characterized by broad, gestural brushstrokes and a wide range of luminous colors built up in layers, and varying degrees of overall light and darkness. Created in Scully's studios in New York, London, Barcelona, and outside Munich, these works manifest a commitment to pure abstraction: to its emotional power, its storytelling potential, and, above all, its capacity to convey light.

This is Anne Strauss, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we are presenting the first major solo museum exhibition in New York of Sean Scully's work, from September 26, 2006, to January 15, 2007. Following are excerpts from a recent conversation with Sean Scully, who describes the evolution and the process of creating his Wall of Light series; his fascination with the work of particular artists and architects, past and present, and how they handle light and surface; and his thoughts on spirituality in painting.

Sean Scully: What I would say, then, is about my various sources, my various inspirations, is that they come from different points in history, and I don't make a distinction between current and old, between east and west, north and south. And I've traveled around quite a lot in my life and I tend to favor places that are in some way brutal or primitive, because I find some essential truth in those places. And I went to Morocco in the early 1970s, like a lot of other hippies, and came back painting stripes. And when I moved to the United States, I began to visit Mexico shortly afterwards. And I was fascinated by the ruins. I thought they had a kind of mystical presence.

I was sitting on the beach one day in Mexico. This was, I think, my second trip to Mexico. I was sitting on the beach in a place called Zihuatanejo, and I made a little watercolor, which I called Wall of Light. And I left that watercolor—I think that was in 1984—I left it for a long time. And it was a little wall made up of blocks put together that were vaguely geometric, as is my work. My work is geometric but it's a kind of geometry that's been subjected to personal intervention or a kind of drawing that is coming from the ability to draw the figure, let's say.

So if you take that and you combine it with the abstraction that one can find in the archaeological sites in Mexico, it makes something very interesting. The other thing is, of course, at different times of the day in these extremely hot places, the light is doing something different—the way that it hits walls, the way that it changes the color. A yellow in the morning will be pale and it will be deep orange in the afternoon. And a green will change to gray in the morning and to a strange blue-black color at night. And I'm very responsive to all these stimuli.

Now, Monet is a very great painter for me. And the other very great painter for me in relation to a wall is Cézanne. And, now, if you've ever seen Saint Mont Victoire [sic], you'll see that it rises up stubbornly and it creates a facade that was built almost in a grid, the way that Cézanne builds his paintings. And in a Cézanne painting you've got structure, luminosity, and a kind of erotic charge. And this to me is very profound. So his work is consistent and driven, systematic—as is my work—but it is not dry. It does not give itself over to the system. It does not abandon its humanity in favor of the system. And I think this, for me, is a crucial point in art.

The other little group of paintings I'd like to talk about while we're talking about the wall, is Monet's pictures of Rouen Cathedral, where he almost makes stone into spirit, which is, of course, what a church would like to be and is very often not. But what he's doing there is really a kind of metamorphosis and a metaphor at the same time. You've got a building made of stone. Monet paints it with an incredible, heavy surface, very worked-up surface-layered paint with bright, dull color, using a lot of gray in the colors. And the painting is at once a heavy surface and a dissolving surface. Now, of course you can't have a wall of light. There's no such thing yet. There might be in the twenty-second century, I don't know. But right now there's no such thing as a wall of light. You can have a curtain of light. But you can walk through it, so it's not a barrier. So what I'm trying to do, I suppose, in this little watercolor that I made on the beach in Zihuatanejo, is make something that is obviously metaphysical, because I'm trying to turn stone into light. Which has its roots, of course, in mysticism and alchemy from the Middle Ages.

And what I'm trying to do in my paintings is make a relationship that has emotion in it, that has the hand in it, and that has color, made with color, and that somehow has a sense of permanence. And this is the relationship with Cézanne, of course, who is a builder, in a way. It's not an accident that he chooses to identify himself with a mountain that's not a very glamorous mountain, either. It's not a mountain that rises up to a high, romantic peak. It's a stubborn mountain that has a very interesting facade. So it's this sense of confrontation with material, the materiality of things, the beautiful surface of the world, that my work is feeding off of.

Anne Strauss: Sean Scully: Wall of Light is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from September 26, 2006, through January 15, 2007.

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

Corporate support is provided by UBS.

The exhibition was organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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