Sean Scully - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Sean Scully, 'Robe Green Gold', Lot 24

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Provenance

    Cheim & Read, New York
    Private Collection, Switzerland

  • Exhibited

    Mexico City, Cuadra San Cristóbal, Sean Scully, San Cristóbal, 7 February – 24 March 2018, p. 10 (titled and dated Untitled (Robe), 2017, illustrated, p. 45)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Evincing passages of mulberry red, ocean blue, ochre and pine green in twelve loosely defined blocks, Robe Green Gold, 2018, is a fantastic mature formulation of Sean Scully’s acclaimed Wall of Light series. Commenced in the early 1980s, this ongoing cycle of works was first conceptualised when Scully visited Mexico in 1983, and witnessed the rippling shafts of light projected on the noble stones draping Mayan monuments. It was not until 1998, however, that the effects of this ineradicable vision began to reflect in his own work, veering towards an increasingly organic approach to painting, and echoing the ‘culture of walls and light’ residing in pre-Columbian constructions and vernacular ruins. ‘When light and wall meet, strength and fragility can become symbiotic, as well as symbolic,’ Michael Auping wrote of the series. ‘It is this unique effect that Scully increasingly has come to investigate in his paintings … one brushstroke at a time’ (Michael Auping, ‘No Longer a Wall’, Stephen Bennett Phillips, Sean Scully: Wall of Light, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 23). Though the brick-like formations of the present work suggest a heavy architectural presence, the artist’s pigment-loaded gestural brushmarks belie the composition’s two-dimensional nature. With each horizontal and vertical stroke traversing the canvas, the work reveals a complexity of colour which seeps through the cracks like light.

    Highlighted in the 2018 exhibition, Sean Scully, San Cristóbal at Cuandra San Cristóbal, which featured fifteen paintings and three sculptures by the artist, Robe Green Gold partook in a poetic dialogue with the architecture of the Cuadra San Cristóbal estate where the show took place – one of Luis Barragán’s modernist masterpieces, located on the outskirts of Mexico City. The site-specific exhibition, coinciding with the 15th edition of Mexico’s leading art fair Zona Maco, was the first to occur at the equestrian and residential complex, privately owned by the Egerström family since it was completed in 1968. Coexisting with this spectacular space, the present work allowed its autumnal hues and methodic construction to converse with the brash colours and elegiac linearity deployed throughout Barragán’s architecture. ‘Sean’s had hundreds of shows with white walls, concrete floors and harsh lights,’ wrote Oscar Humphries, the curator of the show. ‘When you’re working with a great artist, there’s room to be more nuanced, and make installations like this’ (Oscar Humphries, quoted in Benoît Loiseau, ‘The abstract artist taking on Luis Barragán’s famed modernist estate’, Wallpaper Magazine, 7 February 2018, online). Further testament to the artist’s enduring prominence, Scully will be bestowed a major solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May to August 2020.

    Constructed in what Scully referred to as ‘bricks’, the brashly filled boxes of colour within Robe Green Gold allow glimmers of layered pigmentation to be revealed. In this sense, Scully’s architectural attitude towards form brings to mind an art-historical narrative that captivated many of his predecessors, including Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd and Piet Mondrian. ‘Scully injected Piet Mondrian's strict grid like architecture into Rothko, animating his quiet mediations and giving early body and weight to his vaporous clouds of color', wrote Stephen Bennett Phillips (Stephen Bennett Phillips, 'Becoming Sean Scully', Sean Scully: Wall of Light, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 19). Similarly studying the relationship between colour and space, Scully demonstrates an exquisite painterly discernment that aligns his gesture and vision with that of his minimalist forebears.

    Revealing Scully’s idiosyncratic painting process, Robe Green Gold was created employing thick layers of variably-coloured paint, built upon one another to compose a dense structure. 'The way I’m painting directly affects the weight of the paint and thus the color', the artist said. 'Everything is painted into its place, as the title “wall” implies I’m building a surface, but I’m building out of feeling directly, and this feeling has rhythm’ (Sean Scully, quoted in Kevin Power, ‘Questions for Sean Scully’, Artist's website, April 2003, online). As a result, the horizontal and vertical bricks within Robe Green Gold impart the composition with rhythm and emotion, only heightened by the interplay between opaque and translucent slabs. Lending support to one another, the bricks are still slightly spaced apart, allowing for an under-layer of paint to sneak into the surface of the work. The consequential perception of depth engenders an illusion of light, whose juxtaposition with the physicality of the dense brick suggests a world that is inaccessible, literally walled off to the viewer.

    Striking a beguiling visual resonance with Mark Rothko’s atmospheric canvases on a visual level, similarly stacking elongated expanses of paint atop one another in what seems to be a single harmonious blend, Scully’s paintings nonetheless contain a vivacity that his Abstract predecessor’s eludes. ‘There’s a huge sense of tragedy in me,’ Scully elucidated in 2018. ‘Unlike Rothko, who I have been compared to, I’m not passive. He was a sedentary person. If you are inhabited by sorrow in some way, which he was, I think then you have to do something about it, and I’ve done something about it by making my work more aggressive’ (Sean Scully, quoted in William Cook, ‘Sean Scully: “Fatherhood has given my art a new lease of life”’, Life Spectator, 3 October 2018, online). Pouring his emotions within each block, mimicking the hesitancy with which they manifest in brash brushstrokes, Scully conjures an image of his own soul, an iteration of his meandering moods, truncated as a lone piece within his broader series.

    Highly emotive, Scully’s abstruse compositions seem to invoke contradicting notions, spanning the colossal and the frail, the formidable and the fleeting. Musing on the quasi-spiritual aspect of his abstract works, the artist remarked: ‘Abstract art has the possibility of being incredibly generous, really out there for everybody. It’s a nondenominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time’ (Sean Scully, quoted in Judith Higgins, ‘Sean Scully and the metamorphosis of the stripe’, Artnews, vol. 84, no. 9, November 1985, p. 106). Lorand Hegyi expands upon this numinous possibility, declaring that ‘Perhaps it might seem something of a paradox to talk about narrative in relation to the abstract, non-representational paintings of Scully, but the whole style of his composition forces us to consider the allegorical aspects surrounding the duality in his pictorial structure in the light of narrative’ (Lorand Hegyi, ‘The Possibility of Emotional Painting: Sean Scully’s Hidden Narrative’, Sean Scully: A Retrospective, London, 2007, p. 21).

    Upon sustained inspection, a deeper spiritual meaning indeed makes itself obvious in Scully’s seemingly formulaic arrangements. 'My paintings talk of relationships, how bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony ... Its edge defines its relationship to its neighbour and how it exists in context. My paintings want to tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade. How it is possible to evolve as a human being in this' (Sean Scully, quoted in Walter Smerling, ‘Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed’, The Imagery of Sean Scully, exh. cat., MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg, 2009, p. 8).

    Conveying a light that is different from the fleeting, brooding visions Scully grew up around in London, Robe Green Gold evinces the breakthrough he reached upon experiencing the scintillating ruins of Mexico in the 1980s. Purposefully reunited with the country upon showing his work within Barragán’s modernist estate, Scully manifests a commitment to pure abstraction: its emotional power, its storytelling potential, and, above all, its ability to convey light.

Ο ◆24

Robe Green Gold

signed, titled and dated 'ROBE GREEN GOLD Sean Scully 2018' on the reverse
oil on aluminium
215.9 x 190.5 cm (85 x 75 in.)
Painted in 2018.

£700,000 - 1,000,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £987,000

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Olivia Thornton
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Rosanna Widén
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020