Sean Scully now increasingly seems like the most remarkable abstract painter of his generation – this, at a time when abstract art, abstract painting, in particular, is increasingly under attack. We have, however, just received a reminder of how powerful and moving it can be from the magnificent Abstract Expressionist show now on view at the Royal Academy.
Though Scully belongs to a different, younger generation, the big canvases he currently has on show at the Timothy Taylor Gallery would look quite at home in that context. Yet, at the same time, they don’t seem in any way derivative. Throughout his career, he has been very much his own man. Painting, for him, is a declaration of belief – belief in the importance of the activity he is undertaking. Belief in the power of paint on canvas to communicate ideas and feelings – feelings in particular. But there is a lack of the rhetorical egotism that marks a lot of what the major AbEx artists produced. He doesn’t hector the audience.
His new show is sparsely hung, in large high rooms, which give the paintings plenty of room to breathe. If one thinks of them in relation to the works from various phases of Scully’s now long and distinguished career that one has seen previously, they seem notably more relaxed, and – dare one say this? – they evoke an adjective much abused by critics: they seem lyrical.
The title of the exhibition is Horizons, and this of course carries with it a figurative echo. The paintings seem in some ways like Turner’s Colour Beginnings, and in another way like seascapes by Monet. One notes that the paint, presented in broad horizontal bands, always seems fluid and confidently used, One notices, too, that these bands are never totally monochromatic. There is a movement of tone and colour within each of these of the big horizontal areas so that the surface seems to flow, it is never perfectly still.
Since Scully himself has supplied a title that suggests a link to what one does, in fact, see in the ‘real world’, it is permissible, I think, to read the paintings figuratively as well as abstractly, as a kind of landscape of dreams. At any rate, I found I couldn’t resist doing so. The Puritanism of the Minimalists, the generation of painters and sculptors who dominated later developments of 20th-century abstract art, particularly in the United States, always seemed to me to evoke dismal emotional states. There is none of that atmosphere of repression and reproval here. You don’t stand in front of these pictures thinking you are being scolded for your frivolity, or for the irrelevance of any extraneous personal ideas and feelings you may bring to them. They allow you to have your own fantasies, dream your own dreams. Looking becomes an act of collaboration. There are, alas, too few examples of absolutely contemporary art about which you can confidently say that.
The exhibition also includes, in a smaller, separate room, a series of notebook pages – essentially brief texts of various kinds, with some illustrative diagrams attached or included.
There are more, in this case just drawings, all black-and-white, without texts, in the handsome (but in my view rather pretentious and trickily designed) portfolio-type catalogue that accompanies the show. Some of the drawings illustrated are entitled ‘Terra, Mar, Cielo’, which further confirms the landscape content of the big paintings.
I wish I could say that I found the exhibited texts enlightening, but the fact is that I didn’t. The one thing that was perhaps illuminating was that these texts seemed to cover a fairly long period, confirming that the big paintings I admired had been part of a slow ruminative creative process. As for the rest: ‘Guilty, m’lud. My mind was pretty much a blank however attentively I looked at them. Perhaps the Prime Minister can now organise a parliamentary vote on the subject.’
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016