Art/Museums logo

Sean Scully

Wall of Light

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

October 22, 2005 to January 8, 2006

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

February 12 through May 28, 2006

The Cincinnati Art Museum

June 24–September 3, 2006

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

September 26, 2006 to January 14, 2007

Abstractions with Content

"Night" by Scully

"Night," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 84 by 96 inches, 2003

"I am very interested in the idea of creating something that has already gained experience by the time it enteres the world. some of my paintings look as though they have been slet in or living in."

-Sean Scully

By Carter B. Horsley

Sean Scully (b. 1945) picks up the abstract torch laid down by Mark Rothko (see The City Review article of a Rothko exhibition) and carries it afar.

Rothko's mature style consisted of relatively simple geometric compositions of only a few elements, usually horizontal, with a limited but luminous palette.

Scully's oeuvre is also limited in subject matter, but considerably more complex in composition and palette. His signature style consists of blocks of color arranged vertically and horizontally, as if masonry.

Both artists are very painterly.

"Bridge" by Scully

"Bridge," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 30 by 40 1/2 inches, 2002

In his catalogue essay, "Becoming Sean Scully," Stephen Bennett Phillips provides the following commentary:

"Rothko's mature abstractions foreshadow Scully's Wall of Light paintings in both form and intention, although his relationship is somewhat obscured by their respective use of unprimed and primed canvas. Rothko painted on unprimed canvas, so the paint permeates and stains the raw linen, giving his atmospheric works an amorphousness that is foreign to Scully's. The primed canvas that Scully paints on gives his paintings a solidity that Rothko's work lacks. Where Rothko's blocks never reach the edge of the canvas, Scully's generally do, in keeping with the three-dimensionality of his wall. Scully was ispired by Rothko's atmospheric use of layered color, the way the separations between his blocks of color reveal the layer underneath. Scully injected Pieter Mondrian's strict grid-like arhitecture into Rothko, animating his quiet meditations and giving earthy body and weight to his vaporous clouds of color. Where Rothko's blocks float on the picture plane, Scully's are tied into it and tightly integrated with one another. They are also more revealing of figure/ground relationships. Describing his relationship to Rothko, Scully says; 'Rothko was an open-armed romantic with a big belly. My work is much more agile and intellectual in a sense, more masculine and muscular than Rothko's.'"

Although at first glance, especially in reproductions, Scully's work might seems a bit trite and repetitious, in reality they are very large works that envelop the viewer with their nuanced and rich palettes and strong spatial sense and have a much stronger and bolder dynamic than much of Rothko's oeuvre.

Wall of Light Blue" by Scully

"Wall of Light Blue," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 108 by 132 inches, 1999

As in many great works of art, there is a sense of simplicity and clarity that gives birth to endless variations. Parts of compositions seem interchangeable yet it is to Scully's great credit and art that the specificity of each work enhances rather than belittles the overall theme and the key to that strength is Scully's painterliness and great color sense.

In his catalogue essay, "No Longer a Wall," Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth," makes the following observations about Scully and his art:

"Certainly, the most striking aspect of Scully's work of the past decade or so is its emotional resonance. These are abstractions with content, and Scully provides oblique glimpses of this content in his titles. Many abstract artists have avoided language in an effort to keep their imagery 'pure' and nonreferential, "Untitled' being one of the more unfortunate legacies of western abstracton. Scully's ambition has always been to reanimate abstraction, to inject it with the awkwardly beautiful impurities of life. His designation Wall of Light is often accomplanied by a subtitle that refers to a place, person, or condition. These titles are seldom just a convenient means of identifying a painting within a series. More often than not, the subject inspires the making of the image, either from the outside or in the middle of the process, a kind of recognition of what these colors and marks might mean. Obviously they are not specific landscapes or portaits but effects that suggest emotional conditions."

"Chelsea 2.3.04" by Scully

"Chelsea 2.3.04," by Sean Scully, pastel on paper, 29 by 41 inches

"Scully," observed Phillips in his essay, "prides himself on his complex palette. In this connection he regards Pierrre Bonnard, Gustave Courbet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Claude Monet as painters to whom he feels indebted. For Scully, their use of color brings up the same issues of opacity and transparency that he himself wrestles with. He has always loved Edouard Vuillard for 'the way his spaces open up and forms break down, because they were never totally filled in.' From Vuillard he acquired the painterly edges that we see at the sides of rhe rectangles of paint in the Wall of Light." (See The City Review article on an exhibition on Vuilllard.)

The "Wall of Light" series stems from the artist's travels he made during 1983 and 1984 to the Yucatan in Mexico and his observation of the play of light and shadow on ancient ruins.

Wall of Light White" by Scully

"Wall of Light White," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 96 by 108 inches, 1998

This major traveling exhibition originated at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which also "organized an installation of Scully‘s early paintings, pastels, watercolors, and photographs to place the large-scale Wall of Light paintings in a larger context and demonstrate Scully‘s great proficiency in varied media."

Wall of Light Red Red" by Scully

"Wall of Light, Red Red," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 45 by 55 inches, 2001

"A selection of the artist's pattern paintings and minimalist works from the 1970s and inset and stripe paintings from the 1980s and early 1990s represent the wide range of Scully's work. Works featured include Red and Red (1986), acquired by the Phillips in 1986 and the second of the artist‘s paintings to enter a museum collection, and Because of the Other (1997), a transitional work in the artist's oeuvre that sets the stage for the Wall of Light series," a press release from the Phillips stated.

"Because of the Other" by Scully

"Because of the Other," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 96 by 144 inches, 1997, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

"For 30 years Sean Scully's work has been synonymous with a kind of humanist abstraction," comments Jay Gates, director of The Phillips Collection. "He is universally regarded as the current dean of the abstract tradition. It is fitting that The Phillips Collection, with its history of close relationships with the most significant artists of the day, has organized and will premiere this extraordinary series by a contemporary artist whom we championed early on. The Phillips was among the first American museums to acquire Sean Scully's work, in 1986, so we feel it is especially appropriate that we are the first to bring this extraordinary series to the American public." The Phillips Collection is one of the nation's greatest small museums and has with nearly 2,500 works by such artists including Daumier, Renoir, Bonnard, Matisse, Monet, Degas, van Gogh, CÚzanne, Picasso, Braque, Klee, O‘Keeffe, Lawrence, Dove, Ryder, Avery, Diebenkorn, and Rothko. America‘s first museum of modern art, it was founded by visionary collector Duncan Phillips and opened in 1921. The museum comprises Phillips‘ 1897 Georgian Revival home and similarly scaled additions, retaining the intimacy of a private residence. The museum is located at 1600 21st Street, N.W., at Q Street, in the historic Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

"Floating Grey Wall" by Scully

"Floating Grey Wall, " by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 63 by 126 inches, 2002

In his catalogue essay, "Toward the Light," Mr. Phillips notes that the Wall of Light series now numbers over 100 works that the paintings "transform Scully's familar stripes and straps into masonry stacks of two to four 'bricks' placed in alternating vertical and hoizontal rows. Early in his carreer, Scully was a tape-and-spray minimalist who cared about precision. There is no precision in his pictorial bricklaying: the uniformity of the stacks is only approximate and nothing really lines up. The blocks themselves, differing in size within each painting and from painting to painting, tending to clunkiness as the series advances, are built up in layers of varying color applied in a deliberately crude way so that every brushstroke shows. Indeed, the points of non-abutment and the chinks in the mortar, so to speak, at the critical places in the paintings where light seeps through from a plane behind the picture plane. These are not 'allover' pattern paintings; in fact, Scully regards them as landscapes."

"Floating Red Wall" by Scully

"Floating Red Wall," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 63 by 126 inches, 2002

"Scully," Phillips continued, "often speaks in terms of longing and regret and the Wall of Light paintings are permeated with sadness nd melancholy. Fittingly, the music playing his studio as he works is often by Brahms, the composer he loves above all others. Scully responds to the sense of yearning he hears in Brahms, the result of subliminating emotions and form, and believes that same sonorous yearning is what viewers respond to in his paintings. He describes his work as both classical and romantic. The combination, in Scully's view, is more affecting than the overt, declarative expressionism of, for example, Willem de Kooning." (See The City Review article on a de Kooning exhibition.)

"Green Pale Light" by Scully

"Green Pale Light," by Sean Scully, oil on canvas, 84 by 96 inches, 2002

Born in Dublin, Scully was raised in a working-class district of South London where he apprenticed as a typesetter at a commercial printing shop. At 20, he enrolled at Croydon College of Art, later studying at Newcastle University. During his studies, he discovered the paintings of Mark Rothko and Bridget Riley and switched to abstraction. According to the catalogue, "his technically flawless paintings from this period consist of complicated grid systems of intersecting bands and lines, pulsing with a richly dense optical field. Later, on a visit to Morocco in 1969, he was deeply impressed by the stripes and colors of local fabrics as well as the intense southern light. His work has retained these influences ever since." Scully came to the United States in 1972 for a year-long graduate fellowship at Harvard and settled in New York three years later where his work consisted mostly of minimal, monochromatic paintings with seamless surfaces. He would eventually change his style. The Museum of Modern Art included his work in An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture in 1984 and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh organized the first major solo exhibition of his work in America in 1985, which traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Four years later, Scully had a major solo exhibition in Europe, which originated at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, and traveled to Madrid and Munich.

Painting by Scully not in catalogue

Work by Sean Scully shown at The Phillips but not in catalogue

The catalogue, co-published by The Phillips Collection and Rizzoli International Publications, contains more than 100 color reproductions and in addition to the above-mentioned essays has an essay on Scully's works on paper by Anne L. Strauss, associate curator, Department of 19th-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Work by Sean Scully shown at The Phillips but not in catalogue

The Wall of Light series is majestic and very luscious.

The exhibition, which is sponsored by UBS, delivers a snowballing knockout.

Click here to order the catalogue from for 37 percent off its $45 list price

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review