Exile can be a fertile state for an artist, with its sense of not quite belonging, of being 'on the edge', of not fitting into the accepted mainstream. Picasso and Modigliani left their homelands for Paris. Nabokov and Joseph Conrad adopted new languages. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, both émigrés, caught the essential Irish soul from a distance. Born in Dublin in 1945, Sean Scully and his family took a boat across the Irish Sea, still filled with war-time mines, to find work in England. What significance, I want to know when we meet, did his Irish background have on his decision to become a painter?
His earliest memories are of living in one room at 82 Highbury Hill, north London. Life revolved around his convent school, St. Joseph's, and the Catholic Church. There is something almost prelapsarian about the description of his "little world" with its intimate backdrop of music, story-telling and Irish craic. His grandmother was a part-time pub-singer at the Highbury Barn and had a constant stream of itinerant Irish workers lodging in the place she rented for 5s a week from the butcher in Holloway Road. His mother performed torch songs in the local vaudeville theatre. "Unchained Melody" was a favourite. Theatre provided glamour in an otherwise bleak and bomb-ravaged London. Vic and Nan, who were also in show business, lived in the room next door. He was a transvestite comedian. Jewish and childless, Vic provided an endless source of good-natured humour for the young Sean. Sean's uncle was a heavy weight boxer who died an untimely death in a gutter outside a pub. His father, as a lad, had been in the Arsenal Junior team and had wanted to turn professional but his mother needed him to go out and work. He became an itinerant barber and worked a seven day week just to make ends meet. Sean's parents had ambitions for him. He was good at model making. In the 50s children made statuettes from rubber moulds filled with plaster of Paris. Sean Scully had two, one of the Virgin Mary and the other of a rabbit. In his games they often dated, and once or twice even got married. When he was six he also became a dab hand at making up songs and thought he might become an architect when he grew up.
Church was home from home. When it rained you could hear it thundering on the tin roof. Inside it smelt of incense. The walls were decorated with pictures of the Station of the Cross. This was his first real taste of art.
The nuns did not approve of Scully senior working on Sundays and told the son that the devil would move in under his bed. An imaginative child he was traumatised and became terrified of the dark. He still is. He was taken out of school and then sent to one in Gillespie Road. The Catholic school had been full of life, love and laughter but Gillespie Road was a dead thing. The difference, he says, between black and white and red and grey A woman of extreme positions, his mother turned against the church. The period at 82 Highbury Hill represents a golden age. He describes it as if it were a lost Eden. Everyday he walked to school with his two cousins and felt safe in the locality. Later the family moved to Sydenham, south London, by the gas works and all harmony seemed to break down. In Islington there had been a wealth of Irish and Jewish culture. South London represented the mean streets. It was fight or be beaten by the older, tougher boys. But Scully had a strong spirit and wouldn't back down. Often he came off worst. But he no longer felt the encompassing warmth of the church. He had lost his spiritual matrix.
So what, I ask him, is he trying to repair, to reconfigure, in his paintings? Something profound, human and permanent, he suggests. He also has an obsession with light. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that the threat of the Devil under his childhood bed has something to do with it.
The London in which Scully grew up was full of post-war mess and filth; some of the streets were still lit by gas lamps so that the smoggy urban cityscape often seemed to resemble a Turner or a Monet. His was a wild youth. He worked as a messenger, a plasterer, ran a discotheque, sang in a band with his brother and got into trouble with the police for brawling and burglary before going to Croydon College and then on to art school in Newcastle. And his boyhood experiences of the Church left him with a deep ambivalence for organised religion along with a hunger, a longing for something to take its place. This longing is embedded in the warp and weft of his art.
It is perhaps this quality that makes him, in this late postmodern age, a Modernist. He considers that careerism is rampant and that much of the art world has been hijacked by manipulating Sophists. For him the bigger picture is, all too often, lost and art is in danger of becoming an adjunct to sociology. He describes idealism and humanity as having been "parked in a lay-by with a flat tyre". Everything now is about the surface. But art which is too directly solipsistic, he feels, is in danger of becoming self-indulgent and sentimental.
So can painting still be a meaningful language? Or has it, as we have been told so often, run its course? Is there anything left for a painter to say in this digital age? We live in a time, he suggests, that sucks the guts out of everything. When Coca-Cola is sung about in Blues form, then you know form is finished. Yet somehow painting resists. It has a stubbornness, an impenetrability that allows for the possibility of regeneration and renewal.
As a young man he was influenced by Greenberg but felt, instinctively, that such a formalist approach would 'crash and burn'. He acknowledges, too, a debt to the Abstract Expressionists, to Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko; though he feels there is a gap between him and the Americans. Perhaps, I suggest, he is too European. He agrees. He loves the domesticity of scale of Vuillard and there are obvious connections between the two artist's palettes; the beige and greys, the putty colours. Making small paintings, he says, puts him in touch with the European humanist tradition. Abstract Expressionism was about the heroic. His own work is fundamentally philosophic, metaphorical and romantic. Greenberg came from a metaphysical position but, he feels, attempted to turn his ideas into a formula. From Greenberg's perceptive modern art achieved autonomy through a process of abstraction in which there was a gradual removal of all that was regarded as decorative and inessential. But art, Scully suggests, is not that easy. Greenberg's failing was that he tried to take the pain out of it. For Scully potential failure is built into the process of painting. He might well be echoing the sentiments of the poet Paul Valery who, when asked how he knew a poem was finished, answered that it was never so much finished as 'abandoned'. Sean Scully paints, in effect, the same painting again and again because he continually seeks the human, the tender and the poignant. The humanity of imperfection is woven into the painting's fabric. The essence of Modernism lies in the ability of a discipline to criticize itself, to be self-aware. To make work is to go on a voyage of discovery. The journey is more important than any notion of arrival or 'success'. Sam Beckett's sanguine words slip into the mind: "Fail again, fail better".
Our talk turns to Morandi and I say that I have always considered his bottles to be anthropomorphic, to be metaphors for human relationships. I suggest that something similar occurs between Scully's own stripes and rectangles; that these express, in abstract form, something about human feeling. What he always wanted to achieve, he says, was a fusion of the classical and the emotional. In his twenties he didn't know how to do it. He wanted, somehow, to combine the qualities of Mondrian and Pollock He immersed himself in Zen. He is Karate black belt. Gradually he began to paint shapes imbued with character and life. In 1969, after a summer of travelling, he made his first true stripe painting, Morocco, from glued blue, black and yellow stripes of dyed cloth cut to hang down against the white wall. This 'window' was to be the precursor to the inserted panels found in many of his later paintings. Masking tape was used to create taught grids, cages of horizontal and vertical lines that created tight spatial fields of woven colour and complex depths of field. At the time he felt isolated in the artistic provincialism of London and moved to New York. In the 60s America seemed to be about the future, it offered hope, a new utopia. He became seduced by the night-time city and its geometry of lights, though now he feels he could not live there full time.
He wanted to make something deeper, less decorative than the complex tartan webs which had been preoccupying him. So he metaphorically "burnt down his own house". What was left was the colour of ash. It was a new beginning. The 70s paintings, were in the strictest sense, classical minimalism, reminiscent in their stillness and spiritual quietitude to the work of Agnes Martin. He used masking tape to create canvases of horizontal and verticals lines of dense dark colour. Everything extraneous was erased. These might have been the paintings of a Buddhist monk. But Scully is a natural colourist. A big man, you might take him for a boxer or a bouncer rather than a painter. Eventually he rejected these self-imposed constraints. He has talked, before, of the sensuality of painting, of how his work is imbued with sexual energy, how it is a manifestation of his tactile and physical relationship with the world. He paints with his guts and his heart. There is a visceral quality, a relationship with the glop and stuff of paint that provides its own poetics, its own dialectic, beyond any theories about form. Something of this life-force seeps from behind and around the edges of his rectangles. It is as if his grid-like geometric structures had been superimposed on something more profound, something primitive and chthonic. Each block might either be interpreted as a cancellation, a textual erasure or, alternatively, a tabula rasa; it is as if in their varying arrangements meaning is both cancelled and sought in a continuous process of investigation and understanding.
And the size of a painting, I ask, how is that arrived at? He makes different drawings and sketches and then goes with what he feels he can best do at that moment. It depends on whether he wants to reach out with ambition or to be more personal, more introspective. He will then draw, like Matisse, with carbon on the end of a stick so that he can see what he is doing. He works flat, making a proposition and then putting down the colour. He leaves that to dry. At this stage the work has something of the quality of varnished watercolour. It is then that he can look at it and start to make changes. The form is set but colour evolves as he goes along. There are always options to be considered. The final layer is painted wet onto wet. As he works the gaps between the rectangles take on a profound poignancy, emanating emotional vibrations that are at the heart of each painting. Colour is his hallmark, his finger-print. The relationship to it can't be rushed. You can't force it. It grows out of the experience of both painting and living. There is a moment when you suddenly realise the incredible tenderness of a certain grey against grey. Something has to be built, to be learnt to express that tenderness. You can, he suggests, have two sorts of career in the art world. An early career where you burst onto the scene and which might not last or a long slow unfolding. What interests him is his relationship not with art magazines or curators but with his work. The worst thing an artist can do is to loose the ability to be profound or noble. The sorrow of things is what touches him. We each pay a price for what we do, for who we are. This is Sean Scully's territory.
Such sentiments are not fashionable in an age of fracture, of instantaneous celebrity where surface matters more than depth. Longing and a sense of something beyond this material world fills these paintings. Sean Scully is a romantic exile, a modernist in a postmodern age. In The Postmodern Condition Lyotard writes:
I shall call modern the art that devotes its 'little technical expertise', as Diderot used to say, to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something that can be conceived and that can neither be seen nor made visible: that is what is at stake in modern painting… The postmodern [by contrast] would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a state that would make it possible to share the collective nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable
Sean Scully strives for what is authentic, for that which is often unpresentable and cannot be said. He understands that art which can touch and reach out, art that is important - that is not simply a fashionable flash-the-pan but exists outside history - is not achieved simply by creating something that is accomplished, beautiful, polished or perfect. On the contrary it is arrived at by striving for what is true, for seeking that sense of the unpresentable that haunts all presence and in so doing humbly accepting the inbuilt human failures of such a project. To recognise this is what Roland Barthes referred to as the punctum. The wound. Reparation is sought in the tear that cannot ever quite be mended. Its acknowledgement requires that most human of emotions, empathy. The gaps between Sean Scully's forms, as with Barnett Newman's, open up a space for the sublime, a space where that sense of being in the moment is understood, as in oriental philosophy, as the Eternal Now.
Sean Scully at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London from 22 December 2006 to 20 January 2007