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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...
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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.

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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