Star of Stripes

Sean Scully occupies a peculiar niche in the history of recent art. An unabashed modernist, he came of artistic age in the 1980s, an era dominated by an anti-modernist zeitgeist. The assault on modernism generally, and on abstract painting in particular, came from both the front and the rear. While postmodernists were putting forth their politically correct, anything-other-than-paintings, the neo-expressionists were producing essentially conservative and backward-looking pictures. Ignoring the artistic debates, Scully continued to pursue a highly personal, geometric abstract style. And now, almost twenty years later, with modernist abstraction back in the forefront, the rest of the art world has finally caught up with him.

A quintessential post-war figure, Scully was born in 1945 in Dublin. When he was four years old, his family moved to London, where Scully developed an early interest in painting. In 1965 he entered London's Croydon College of Art; after graduation, he attended Newcastle University. He made his first trip to this country to attend Harvard University. He knew right away that he wanted to stay, settling permanently in New York in 1975. "The reason I came to the U.S. is very simple," he says. "At that time I wanted to be in the company of the greatest artists of the day, to be in the city that had hosted the greatest post-war art in the world: abstract expressionism."

Scully's work, which juxtaposes horizontal and vertical lines, often painted in multi-part formats, found a ready audience here. But his big break came in 1986, when the Denver Art Museum became the first public collection in the country to acquire a Scully painting: "Darkness, a Dream," an oil on canvas done in 1985.

Although it's not officially part of the Denver Art Museum's current exhibit Sean Scully: Works on Paper, 1975-1995, "Darkness, a Dream," has a prominent place on a wall facing the elevator lobby and so is the first Scully that viewers see, even before they enter the Stanton rooms where the sumptuous Scully show has been installed. "Darkness, a Dream" is signature Scully. The mammoth painting is a triptych, with each of the three panels a different size and a different depth. The left panel, the largest, has been painted with vertical stripes in black on a luminous golden brown. The remaining two panels are set one above the other and painted with washed-out tones of gray on tan; the stripes are set vertically on the bottom, horizontally on the top. This gives the painting an architectural quality, with the verticals evocative of columns, the horizontals suggestive of a cornice.

Scully was plowing new ground with "Darkness, a Dream," creating a distinctly different composition from earlier minimalist pieces on which it is based. Taking the minimalist device of the stripe, among the simplest of visual concepts, Scully adds gesture through his wavering free-hand paint application; he also infuses his surfaces with painterly flourishes. In purely minimalist paintings, margins between the colors are hard-edged and the paint is homogeneously hued.

It was this break with minimalism that first attracted Dianne Vanderlip, DAM's curator of modern and contemporary art, the department hosting the Scully show. "Scully took minimalism, which was cold and aesthetic, and added humanity," she explains, "which, internationally, had a big effect on painting." Works like "Darkness, a Dream" are what support Scully's formidable reputation, because--in retrospect, at least--they link the minimalists of the Sixties and Seventies to the post-minimalists of today.

Scully's debt to minimalism is clearly evident, especially in his earliest pieces. "Minimalism was popular when I came to America," he says. "I embraced the culture viscerally; I didn't protect myself from it. I stood naked in relation to American culture. It was quite biblical. And that was one of the principal reasons I stayed here where others left."

This exhibit, which focuses on Scully's lesser-known watercolors, drawings and pastels, was organized by Michael Semff, a curator at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, where the show was launched in 1996. After that, it traveled to Denmark, Britain and Ireland before coming to the U.S.; Denver is its last stop.

Vanderlip has laid out the show as "chronologically as possible," she says. She made an exception for the distinctive watercolors, which she considers among the exhibit's most significant pieces. "Young artists often don't understand that a little tiny sketch may be worth more than a grand gesture," Vanderlip says, adding that the watercolors have "a richness, an unfiltered attitude that is so important."

The diminutive watercolors work perfectly shown together in the small, intimate gallery to the left of the Stanton's main entrance; had they been mixed in with the rest of the show, they might have been overwhelmed. For a group of untitled watercolors from 1995, it looks as though Scully has torn pages from a notebook; he pairs checkerboards with stripes on pieces of paper that measure only four by five inches. Many of these watercolors are little more than napkin doodles, and they give viewers easy access to Scully's creative process.

The proper historical survey begins in the entrance space opposite "Darkness, a Dream" and proceeds around the corner into the large central gallery. Among the earliest pieces is "Untitled," a 1977 gouache and pencil on paper. Here Scully, using a ruler--a practice he has since abandoned--has drawn two sets of horizontal lines. By altering the pressure on the pencil, Scully creates two distinct squares placed side by side. One side is pale and vaporous, the other heavy and clearly expressed. Both "Untitled" and "Fort," an ink drawing from 1981, represent mainstream minimalism and are closely related to the contemporaneous work of Taos artist Agnes Martin. Not surprisingly, Scully names Martin as one of his principal sources of inspiration, along with Matisse, Mondrian and Rothko.

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