A Dark But Vital Light: An Interview with Sean Scully

Sean Scully is unique among contemporary painters in his ability to capture the visceral sublime. That quality has been realized most successfully in his ongoing series called “Wall of Light,” paintings and watercolours in which he arranges rectangles of colour in vertical and horizontal configurations, as if he were building a wall out of pigmentary bricks. The variety and quality of these paintings are astonishing. Like other great bodies of work–Robert Motherwell’s “Elegies to the Spanish Republic,” Barnett Newman’s “Stripe” paintings, Brice Marden’s “Cold Mountain” series–the “Wall of Light” has taken on an aspect of the monumental.

The series originated in a number of small watercolours he made in 1983 while in Mexico. He became fascinated by the way light played off the stone surfaces of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. What transpired was a lengthy gestation: 14 years later, while working on a painting called Because of the Other, he was reminded of his Mexican watercolours. His revisitation led to the first “Wall of Light” paintings, which began in 1998 with Wall of Light Black, and which have continued ever since, in a range of media that includes oil, watercolour pastel and aquatint.

These works, regardless of the medium, are insistently human. Scully has spent his entire life as a painter working “to personalize the brush stroke as much as possible.” The paintings that result reveal so much evidence of the hand that they could be signatures, inscriptions of his personal state in roughly geometric forms. “Nothing is abstract: it’s still a self-portrait, a portrait of one’s condition.” He regards his paintings as “a kind of simmering truce,” a place where “emotion and structure, beauty and difficulty, light and darkness, rising and falling are somehow at a point of resolution.”

In the following conversation, Sean Scully talks in a profoundly personal way about his belief in the transformative power of painting and in his quest to get at the universal rhythm of things. His notion of a resistant and difficult beauty is everywhere evident in his paintings; their surfaces show the genesis of their making, and they are all the more compelling for that transparency. In searching for a way to describe their character, he tries out “turbulent,” only to reject it before settling on the word “pugnacious.” The painter as street fighter. There is in his work a deep engagement with the visceral. Most telling for what it reveals about his sense of humour and his recognition of the task he sets for himself is his description of what painting is: “I always say you’ve got two options; would you like to go for a walk up a mountain dragging a bag of sand, or would you like to push a car up a hill? That’s painting.”

That’s a painter talking. “I have spent my life making the melancholic into something irresistible,” he says in the following conversation, which was recorded by phone from Barcelona on June 4, 2007. Has any contemporary painter been more successful in shifting the sombre tone of the melancholy into the irresistible lightness of being?

**BORDER CROSSINGS: ****I was thinking about Spain because it was Motherwell’s favorite country and the first sketch for what became the *Elegies to the Spanish Republic *was done in 1948 as an illustration for a Harold Rosenberg poem. My connection concerns your discovery of a small watercolour in Mexico in 1983, which is the point of origin for your ongoing “Wall of Light” series. Do you see any similarities in the way in which something small and ostensibly incidental turns into soemthing significant and monumental?

**SEAN SCULLY: **We hope that all the little things we do lead to bigger things. That would be a story of a celestial life. But it doesn’t happen in the majority of cases. Although I’ve had a lot of little probes; a little probe here and a little probe there and then I put them to the side to see if they grow into something. If nothing comes of them, then they’re still interesting little probes. The idea of personal history is very interesting because you do something and what you do afterwards is you work for that drawing. You make that little drawing more famous.***

***BC: **But it wasn’t an epiphanic moment? You didn’t look at that watercolour and say, this is really going to go places, this one has legs?

SS: **No. In fact, I stored it for later use. I actually did other things at the time I was in Mexico that involved complicated panels with insets in them. And those were much more exciting to me at the time than *Wall of Light, the little watercolour. But I have to say I didn’t do the paintings with the insets with quite the commitment that I might have done. I don’t know what would have come out of them, but they were more visually aggressive and dense. They were more like a response to Picasso’s work, whereas Wall of Light *was more of a response to something like C├ęzanne. You know it’s more hole-y. (See Issue 103 to read the full interview.)***