Sean Scully
Posted by Kasey on April 8, 2009 - 3:20pm
Categories: On the Walls

Sean Scully, Catherine, 1982

While working on the Scully project—our director’s upcoming catalogue raisonné of Sean Scully’s paintings—I have found myself returning regularly to the second floor gallery where his Catherine Paintings are on display. Simply looking at printed images of Scully’s work doesn’t do it justice. I came across several quotes by Sean Scully from the book Wall of Light, Figures which offer some insight into why the experience of seeing a painting is so much different than seeing an image of a painting.

"The difference between an image and a painting is profound, like the difference between a photograph of a person and a person. The only visual art form that can embody so much experiential structure and feeling in a single moment, a glimpse, is painting. And that’s a question of skin."

The first time I saw Scully’s Catherine Paintings here at the Modern I was confronted by a family of images that all seemed to be about stripes. For Scully, the stripe appears to be his way of applying order and system to his perception of the world. The color block characteristics in his paintings break up the optical experience and present it in a more rational way. As the artists states, “horizontals are the eternal horizon, where we see the edge of our own local world. Verticals are assertive, like us standing.”

After spending much time with the Catherine Paintings, I have reached the conclusion that each painting functions as its own environment. When standing in front of a striped Scully canvas, I can’t help but feel a kinship with the human-sized rectangle of horizontal stripes that rests in front of a sea of horizon lines. Depending on direction and size, the stripes can conjure up imagery of downtown skyline, sunsets, or even country roads. Instead of simply being an image hanging on a wall, the universal nature of the stripe allows us to relate to the paintings in the same way we relate to the natural world surrounding us every day. 

For me, the paintings create meaning through this interaction. When standing in front of a large multi-canvas piece composed of horizontal stripes I am suddenly very aware of my height, or rather, lack of height. Seeing an image of a painting in a book is unable to produce the same experience as the actual painting. Scully argues, and I agree, that a painting is “not just a sign; it is a sign with a skin and a body."