The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents a major retrospective exhibition of Sean Scully’s most significant works from the 1970s to the present. Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, closely examines the Irish-born American artist’s contribution to the development of abstraction in various media over a span of nearly five decades. These works, rarely shown together, highlight the close relationship between the artist’s paintings, drawings, prints, and pastels. The exhibition will be on view June 20 through October 10, 2021, then will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the spring of 2022.
The Shape of Ideas brings together 49 paintings and 42 works on paper that reflect the many phases of a long and varied approach to artmaking. Marla Price, Director of the Modern and contributor to the exhibition’s catalogue, notes, “Scully has spoken of his career as a ‘rolling cannibalization,’ in which he scavenges his own work and that of others to expand, develop, and move forward. The systematic elements in his early works have never really disappeared as he continues to explore different combinations of building units or motifs and then pair them with emotion and content.”
The earliest paintings included are three important works created when the artist, then based in London, was awarded a year-long Frank Knox Fellowship to attend Harvard University in 1972–73. In these works, such as Harvard Frame Painting, 1972, Scully made experimental use of the grid, applying tape and spray paint across the canvas to compose paintings made up of vertical and horizontal stripes. Green Light, 1972–73, and Inset #2, 1973, are early examples of the artist’s evolving motif of a “painting within a painting,” which remains a hallmark of his practice.
Scully’s multi-paneled works represent a format that would occupy the artist’s attention throughout the 1980s. In these paintings, he combined and re-combined panels to create larger and more ambitious compositions. His work during this decade is characterized by its structured, simplified forms and increasing scale. Notable among these is Precious, 1981, his first large multi-paneled painting, and Backs and Fronts, 1981, an 8 x 20-foot work comprised of 12 attached canvases that drew considerable notice when first exhibited at P.S.1 at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982. These paintings are presented with ink sketches that illuminate Scully’s experiments in color, form, and scale.
By the 1990s, Scully began to extend his exploration of the inset and experiment with variations of the stripe in paintings, drawings, watercolors, pastels, and prints. Scully’s most well-known series is Wall of Light. Beginning in 1998, many of these were made in response to a particular location, sensation, or memory. Painted surfaces of vertical and horizontal bars (Scully calls them “bricks”) suggest constructed walls of stone. His Wall of Light paintings led to closely related compositions, chief among them the Doric paintings.
Scully created his Doric series in homage to Greece, reflecting ideas of strength, resilience, and stability. These are also often painted on aluminum, which enhances the effect of smooth surface patterns and allows for new blended coloration. Many of the Doric works are shown together for the first time here, including the monumental Iona, 2004–06, as well as Doric Pink Light, 2012, and Doric Hermes, 2012.
The exhibition concludes with work created in the last two decades that contains motifs and themes that Scully had been developing since the 1970s. Landlines, large gestural paintings comprising thick bands of color, are among the most minimalist that Scully has produced. These works announce a shift to a more expressive style, signaling new directions and possibilities for abstract painting.
Scully’s virtuosity as a printmaker will also be featured in a selection of color lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, and aquatints. Among the highlights are examples such as Wall of Light Blue, 2000, and Day, 2005, which reveal an ongoing relationship between his paintings and works on paper.
Exhibition co-curator Amanda Sroka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, adds, “By integrating Scully’s paintings and works on paper throughout this singular exhibition, we can understand and appreciate the rich interrelationship among various media for which this artist is best known.”
Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas is the first publication to thoroughly examine Sean Scully’s art within a biographical context. The catalogue presents an in-depth account of Scully’s career and his most significant bodies of work, informed by extensive interviews with the artist and comprehensive art-historical research. Featured contributions include reprints of key essays that contextualize Scully’s work over the decades.
New works by Scully will be the focus of a dual presentation across two sites in Chelsea, New York from 6 May – 17 June 2021. Lisson Gallery's flagship space on 508 West 24th Street will house a significant new, multi-panelled painting entitled Dark Windows which was created during some of the bleakest days of the COVID pandemic. Nearby at Scully's Chelsea studio, open exclusively for this showcase, the artist presents the monumental painting, The 12. The twelve-panel piece is a grouping of Landline paintings, each with its own distinct personality ranging from spirited to sombre.