In the studio with Sean Scully RA

Published 4 September 2013

Sam Phillips meets Sean Scully RA in his Barcelona studio.

  • From the Autumn 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Characterised by rhythmic arrangements of rectilinear shapes, Sean Scully RA’s abstracts have always elicited associations with architecture. And as I walk with the artist through the streets of Barcelona’s affluent neighbourhood of Dreta de l’Eixample, where he has periodically lived for over a decade, he describes details of the elegant five-storey buildings we pass, from the warm colours of their 19th-century stone to the ornate patterns of iron at their imposing doorways.

    Soon one of these doorways is opened by Scully and we are plunged into the dark. As I strain to see where we are in the blackness, we move through into a larger space barely lit by what comes through its skylights. I say to Scully that most people would have turned on the lights by now, but he replies that he is at ease in the dark.

    “There’s something about the dark light of Barcelona and its gloomy interiors that provokes a relationship with dark colours when I paint here,” he says. “I’m very comfortable with that, because I’m a kind of melancholy person. I love the end of the day.” He tells me that his painting Dying Day (2007) – in the Pompidou Centre’s collection in Paris – is a eulogy to twilight: its crepuscular colours of “falling deep reds mixed with blacks” evoke “birds singing their lament at the end of the day, their song of dying.”

    When the halogens are on I realise the sheer size of Scully’s studio, which is one of three in which the Irish-born, London-raised artist works – the others are in Manhattan and Munich. Stretching back for 50 metres, with a similar size basement below, the sparse, white-painted space is on a scale one can’t anticipate from the building’s narrow fin de siècle façade. On the ground floor a low table hosts plastic containers of oil, while the focus of the basement is a pool table – when Scully moved from London to New York in the 1970s, he played as a bar-room pool shark to help make ends meet.

    Scully’s hustling days are over. Now acknowledged as one of the world’s leading abstract painters, the 67-year-old artist has been the subject of major shows at venues from the Metropolitan Museum New York to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He enjoys a peripatetic life with his wife, the Swiss painter Liliane Tomasko, and their young son, moving between the US, Spain and Germany, as well as the countries in which he exhibits.

    A constant is his commitment to paint. “Painting is an animal that is not a dodo: it will not become extinct,” he says. “It always has the ability to shape-shift itself into something different as an art form.” Scully’s signature style filters the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism through the serial structures of Minimalism. His application of paint is gestural, his choice of palette intuitive, but his repeated rectangles are “fundamental shapes” that connect to universal values. The columns of paint in his ongoing series Doric – now touring Europe – evoke ancient Greek architecture in order to celebrate the contribution Hellenic culture has made to European civilisation.

    Scully’s triptychs are the focus of a show at Chichester’s Pallant House this autumn. These works extend his abiding interest in serialisation, with the possibilities for repetition across all three panels of each triptych. A new triptych he has produced for the exhibition, Arles-Abend-Vincent (2013), has the same configuration of shapes across each of its three panels, but each is produced in different colours. “It’s like painting someone’s portrait again and again and getting a different result each time. It is serialisation painted as an expressionistic artist, which is an idea full of contradictions.”

    Scully has generously donated a painting from the Doric series to the RA’s latest fundraising auction. He sees the Academy as a “counterweight to an England which is addicted to popular culture”. This superficiality was one of the reasons he left London; he believes Barcelona, New York and Munich have, in contrast, “a seriousness, a connoisseurship that simply doesn’t exist in England.”

    He paints a picture of the British contemporary art world split down the middle between real artists and mere ironists. On one side he sees the RA, on the other Tate, which he claims is being run for curators rather than artists. “The Royal Academy is like the antidote to snake bite,” he continues. “A lot of people are interested in art as a form of entertainment or as a one-liner. I’m interested in mystic profundity, primitive utterance and the whole pathos of the history of painting. This is a deep ambition.”

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