Artists Dispatches

First He Takes Manhattan: Sean Scully Prepares for Global Domination with Shows In New York, Venice, and São Paulo

Portrait of Sean Scully. BRIAN BUCKLEY/COURTESY CHEIM & READ, NEW YORK

Portrait of Sean Scully.

BRIAN BUCKLEY/COURTESY CHEIM & READ, NEW YORK

My life is like some sort of fairy story sometimes,” Sean Scully said, sitting in a paint-covered chair in his Chelsea studio. “I can’t really believe it.” He was in a buoyant mood, showing photos on his iPhone of his five-year-old son and discussing his upcoming exhibitions—a retrospective in São Paulo and another in Neuhaus, Austria, both opening this month, as well as an upcoming show at Palazzo Falier in Venice, plus a “kick-ass museum” of his work in Barcelona. First would come a show at New York’s Cheim & Read gallery, nearby his studio, where the walls when I visited held a few works for the exhibition, tall paintings with meaty horizontal bands of color, just barely dry. They are instantly recognizable as Scully’s, but they’re warmer and more outgoing than usual.

Scully is 69 but still a hulking presence. He was born in Dublin and speaks with a heavy Irish accent. He has the look of a gangster, with a stern face and a bald head except for a wisp of white hair. We started talking about the painters who sometimes come up when his work is mentioned.

Rothko: “He was great for ten years. His figurative painting is crap. It is so fucking bad.”

Newman: “The best paintings are the oil paintings where there are kinds of mistakes and hesitations, where there is room for the viewer to inhabit the painting and empathize with the flaws of the painting. But the later stuff—that is bad, man.”

The appeal of Rothko, Scully said, is that the hazy blurring in his abstractions “causes a kind of longing for correction, but one enjoys, or one’s spirit can live in, this misregistered light in the space, this soft space.” That same effect emerges in the best of Scully’s work, in which subtle shifts in color carry metaphorical and even emotional weight.

“As you work it, the light goes out of it,” Scully told me as we examined a swatch of blue-greens—almost aquamarine in one section, browned in another. “You’ve got a whole narrative just in that stroke, which I hadn’t really allowed before.”

Other changes are afoot. Scully said he’s thinking about spending more time abroad. “What worries me is to bring up my child, as a teenager, in a country where the police shoot children,” he said. “This disturbs me.” (“I actually hate the police,” he added later. “I really hate them.”)

He’s also scored major success in China, where a retrospective recently moved from Shanghai to the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, running through April 23. “My show in Shanghai received 150 reviews,” he said, astounded. “It’s so sophisticated over there. We are already—as a friend of mine said—toast. It’s fucking done. We think we’re sitting at the chessboard, but the other player has already put us in checkmate and walked off to have lunch.” As it happens, he taught China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, at Parsons, in the same class as Jacqueline Humphries. “Ai Weiwei complains in one of his blogs that I paid more attention to her than I did to him,” Scully said, adding an unverifiable claim that I won’t reprint here.

Scully turns 70 this year. He is thinking about his place in the pantheon of great contemporary painters. “You know who I think I’m like?” he asked, joking around with an assistant in a nearby office between sips of coffee. “I think I’m like Leonard Cohen. You know, he’s not the most commercial, right? But he’s kind of the best.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “First He Takes Manhattan.” 

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