Star of Stripes

At some point in the early Eighties, Scully stopped using lines made with a straightedge, replacing them with quickly done marks made spontaneously. As a result, the later work is more expressive and less analytical--and more clearly Scully's own. In "Untitled 9.5.84," a 1984 pastel on paper, a childlike scrawl of horizontal black lines has been stacked against a golden ocher passage; this arrangement is set against a series of vertical lines in gray and black on the white background of the paper.

As viewers proceed to the large central gallery, they encounter more than a score of pastels in which Scully attempts to explore the variations possible when using only horizontal and vertical lines, scrupulously avoiding diagonals and curves. The pastels are so closely interrelated that some are virtually indistinguishable. In one type, exemplified by "Untitled 1.14.89," a pastel and watercolor on paper, Scully arranges broad vertical bands of color across the paper. Rothko-like, the bands seem to float above the paper, and they don't quite touch the edges. In another type, exemplified by "Untitled 12.8.90," a small arrangement of stripes or squares are laid over a larger linear composition. Some of the most recent pieces in the show fall into a third type, in which Scully lays out mazes of bars, with horizontal passages pushed up against vertical ones. In "Munich 2.15.96," a 1996 pastel on paper, dense multi-shaded dark tones fit together like a minimalist jigsaw puzzle. These works bear the most similarity to his current paintings.

According to Scully, the sight of a Moroccan countryside at sunrise first compelled him to embrace stripes as his subject; he was inspired by the buildings silhouetted against the sky. And even today, Scully paints abstract landscapes or cityscapes above anything else. This point is emphasized in an addendum to the show, set off in a side gallery as part of another exhibit occupying the Stanton wing. Welcome Back! features pieces from the DAM's permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, including a grid of twelve C-print photos done by Scully in 1990 and collectively titled "Harris and Lewis Shacks." The photos focus on run-down doors and windows; just like Scully's paintings, they place vertical forms in relation to horizontal shapes.

The Scully show hasn't attracted the crowds brought to the museum by Searching for Ancient Egypt, the exhibit presented next door in the Morgan galleries; DAM officials estimate Ancient Egypt will have attracted over 80,000 visitors before it closes next week. "Shows like Ancient Egypt or Toulouse-Lautrec [opening in the spring of 1999] bring up attendance and allow us to present less broadly popular shows like Scully," says DAM director Lewis Sharp.

Although the popularity of shows like Ancient Egypt is all too understandable, what's harder to decipher is why Egypt of the Mind, a display of local works now ensconced in Close Range, will overstay its welcome for another month after Ancient Egypt closes. It's a shame the museum didn't come up with a companion show for the Scully exhibit instead. (Since the museum has quite a cache of her work, why not a display of Agnes Martin?) In fact, it's a continuing shame that Close Range has never come close to being the exciting exhibition space that it could--and should--be.

After all, the museum took a chance a dozen years ago, when it became the first major institution to acquire a painting by a relative unknown. And judging from Sean Scully: Works on Paper, 1975-1995, that risk paid off very handsomely.

Sean Scully: Works on Paper, 1975-1995, through October 24, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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