Sean Scully - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Thursday, October 13, 2022 | Phillips

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  • As one of the most influential painters of the twentieth century, Sean Scully’s legacy, bound to his abstract style and large-scale methods of production, has been cemented as one of worldwide renown and importance. His characteristic compositions of vertical and horizontal bands, tessellating blocks, and geometric forms, signify the unification of multiple key art historical and cultural influences. Unforgivingly raw, Scully’s oeuvre seeks to reflect true humanity, moving away from the clean aesthetic of minimalism towards his own form of abstraction imbued with the power of life.

    "A lot of the people who seemed interested in minimalism seems to me to be in some way aristocratic… they seemed to be disconnected from the street… I come from the street… it didn’t seem to include much of anybody’s life or the dirt of life"
    — Sean Scully

    Having moved to New York upon graduating from Harvard, Scully became emersed in the Abstract Expressionist movement. With exposure to the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Scully was inspired by this American new wave movement alongside the traditional bounds of Classical European painting, merging seemingly polar artistic languages into a wholly unique aesthetic.


    While monumental in scale, Scully’s works perfectly retain a serenity through their delicacy and emotional rapport. The dynamic rhythmic bands evident in Horizontals: Grey #2 capture a composition quintessential of Scully’s oeuvre. His global, yet wholly personal perspective, has seen him absorb the key elements of the visual world from open skies and fluctuating oceans to the grounding modesty of stone. Placing this within the mortality of human experience, from grief to the pain of fatherhood, Scully’s compositions become instantly readable through their great honesty, intimacy, and vulnerability. In an interview with Thames & Hudson at his gallery in Dublin, Scully recounts the painful memory of overcoming a painkiller addiction:


    "I had a lot of issues with my back from about 16… and it got worse and worse, so I had an operation and had terrible trouble after… I was horizontal for a very long time, addicted to oxycontin. When I returned to the studio, I felt very weakened, and I somehow imitated my own sofa posture, which was horizontal. [The] only one bright spot in the day was a visit from my kid… we’d watch a movie together and I just painted horizontally. I painted what I was. Horizontals were my world, so I painted what I knew."i


    It was in these intimate moments that Scully contemplated on the true experience of being human. His Horizontals series can be seen as a therapeutic reflection on the highs and lows of the emotional rollercoaster of life.

    "My paintings tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade"
    —Sean Scully
    Colour is a dominant method of expression in Scully’s works. Within Horizontals: Grey #2, Scully extends his artistic exploration into the subtleties of large-scale depth and volume. When considered within his wider oeuvre, the present work draws tonal links with his sculptural works completed in megalithic-esque stone blocks. Naturality filters through his distinctive style of abstraction, ensuring this work attains the fine balance between calm reflection and an intrinsic vitality. Scully explores paintings capacity for expressive power, using his trademark horizontal strips as a relentless painterly exploration in the opposition between two seemingly irreconcilable forces: the drive towards order and its greatest destructor: human emotion. This work does not seek to harmonise these forces but rather present the viewer to the subtleties at play within this singularly human process. He uses horizontal stripes inspired by nature’s horizon line to highlight the ‘elemental coming together of land and sea, sky, and land… endlessly beginning and ending’.ii The horizontal lines that work their way across the canvas seemingly create a hallucinatory effect of repetitive form that encapsulates the viewer to visually reflect Scully’s explorations on the human condition.

    "The paintings represent a collective emotion…they are not about my individualism, but our uniqueness"
    —Sean Scully
    The philosophical collective and its variable uniqueness, to which Scully refers, is explored within his canvases to define his works as a discussion integral to abstraction and its relation to wider artistic and social debate. The synthesis of his explorations merge upon the canvas in Horizontals: Grey #2, perfectly capturing the emotional portal his abstract vistas make possible.


    Sean Scully discusses the subject of his painting and the humble project of transformation, Sean Scully Studio, 21 April 2014. 



    i Sean Scully, quoted in Kelly Grovier, ‘Line: Conversations with Sean Scully’, YouTube, 14 October 2021, online.
    Sean Scully, quoted in ‘Sculpture in the City’, 2017, online.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1979)
      Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2013, lot 183
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner


Horizontals: Grey #2

signed, titled and dated 'Sean Scully HORIZONTALS: GREY #2 1976' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
213.4 x 213.4 cm (84 x 84 in.)
Painted in 1976.

Full Cataloguing

£120,000 - 180,000 ‡♠

Sold for £195,300

Contact Specialist

Simon Tovey

Specialist, Associate Director, Head of Day Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+44 20 7318 4084

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 13 October 2022