The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents a major retrospective Sean Scully exhibit containing 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 through October 10, 2021, then will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the spring of 2022.
“This exhibition will convey the richness and complexity of Scully’s vision and will demonstrate the important place that he occupies in the still-unfolding story of abstraction,” Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said of the Sean Scully exhibit. “We are pleased to honor one of this country’s leading painters through an exhibition that explores the full scope of his artistic evolution.”
“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. This experience afforded Scully opportunities to visit New York, a major center for minimalist and abstract painting at the time. (Scully would move to New York permanently in 1975.) 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.
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.
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.
About the artist
Sean Scully (b. 1945) works in painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and photography. Born in Dublin, raised in London, and having moved to the United States at the age of 30, the artist has tested the possibilities of abstract art to develop a style that is uniquely his own. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Harkness Fellowship, and he is a two-time Turner Prize nominee.
Scully’s works are in numerous private and public collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.
In 2015, Scully participated in the Venice Biennale with his solo exhibition Land Sea at the Palazzo Falier. For the 2019 Biennale, the artist presented “Human,” a solo exhibition at the historic Basilica of San Giorgio.
The upcoming retrospective will be artist’s first of this scale in the United States since “Sean Scully: Twenty Years, 1976–1995,” curated by Ned Rifkin, presented in 1995 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Scully currently divides his time living and working in New York and Bavaria.