Sean Scully: The Passenger
On ViewMuseum Of Contemporary Art, Zagreb
November 16, 2022–March 12, 2023
This presentation of sixty-four works by Sean Scully includes works on paper, photographs, one sculpture (30 Also (2018)), and a generous selection of paintings, many of them large. There is a good selection of his early student figurative pastels such as Three Women Bearing Arms I (1966-1967) from the 1960s; the 1970s grids like Backcloth (1970); the intersecting striped panels that made him famous in the 1980s—Adoration (1982) is one; and then the “Walls of Light,” “Landlines,” and the very recent “Madonna” series that mark his return to figuration. The show starts with Cactus (1964), a small painting which sets the cactus against a field of wide vertical stripes. The cactus, Scully has said, “mirrors perfectly the life of a painter. It can survive drought and it flowers when it is ready.” And next to it is Passenger Light Light (1998), one of his majestic story-telling abstractions. The inserted field of stripes, which marks the presence of Scully’s subject, “the passenger,” breaks up the gorgeous background field of stripes.
We see here how Scully found his distinctive style, and how recently he has developed it in unexpected ways. And there are two of the most magnificently strange paintings he has (yet!) done: a painting on aluminum What Makes Us Too (2017), in which five windows are inserted in panels of wide and narrow stripes; and Figure Abstract and Vice Versa (2019), with a Madonna figure on the right, stripes on the left, and behind the figure on the right, and what look to be marvelous memories of the earliest figurative pictures inserted in three places. Here, then, we get a good presentation of Scully’s entire development. I cannot imagine a better introduction to his art.
Recently Scully’s work has been displayed in a large retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Often, however, the context of display can be important, a new display can provide the basis for rethinking interpretation. In Philadelphia, it was natural to relate the Scully paintings to the old master and modernist paintings in that important museum collection. Here, however, the setting was very different. Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a Kunsthalle with a collection devoted to recent art, including a great deal of Croatian art, is an enormous building with twelve-meter-high walls on the lower floors. It is a great site for Scully. Even his largest works have room to breathe. The contrast of Cactus and Passenger Light Light is a fantastic way of opening up the visual narrative. This is followed by his small, early figurative pastels, installed in a relatively narrow white tunnel. After the high-ceilinged gallery containing the grids, an escalator takes viewers took one floor to more recent paintings. In a very smart curatorial arrangement one is able to walk through the history of this great artist’s career.
As revealing as this exhibition setting is the significance of the larger site, Croatia, a country that was, as Scully recently said, “once a part of a bigger union that has fractured or been disassembled.” In that way, he is suggesting that the country, which was founded only in 1991, is like his larger paintings which are taken apart when they are transported. And so his concern with the healing power of visual and political unity here was especially important and instructive. Scully has, he has said, an “unfair advantage over all my American contemporaries,” when it comes to expressing the troubled spiritual life of contemporary life: “none of them,” he has noted, “were as traumatized” as he was early on in emigrating from Ireland to London and again to New York.
Initially I wasn’t sure that I fully understood how Scully’s life history was relevant to this exhibition; I didn’t know what to make of this analogy between political and visual unity. Then I attended the production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the National Theater. At the conclusion Sarastro sings of the triumph of the sun over darkness:
The rays of the sun chase night away;
the hypocrite’s surreptitious power is utterly destroyed!
And in a remarkably effective staging, which was possible in this relatively small opera house, the chorus completely surrounded the audience to sing to the concluding words:
Hail to the initiates! You have penetrated the darkness!
Thanks be to thee-, Osiris! Thanks to thee, Isis!
Fortitude is victorious, and, in reward,
crowns Beauty and Wisdom with its eternal diadem!
We wouldn’t let these performers leave—applause continued and continued in a way that is rare in my experience at the opera. And this performance was not merely the presentation of a very familiar musical museum piece, but a superlatively appropriate commentary on the political implications of Scully’s art. Out of conflict and strife, so his works show, it is possible to achieve harmony that respects real disagreements. That, of course, is a utopian ideal.
One significant power of Scully’s art lies in its ability to inspire commentary by diverse critics. In that spirit, I wish to acknowledge that I learned much from a review of Scully’s Philadelphia show by an art critic whose concerns are very different from mine. In Whitehot Magazine Donald Kuspit writes that Scully’s paintings “are fraught with transcendental emotivity . . . they have a certain sullen grace that bespeaks muted suffering, a sort of tragic sense of life managed, contained, and controlled by his geometrical forms.” This description of how Scully’s art draws strength from his position as a gifted outsider helps explain why his exhibition in Zagreb was absolutely timely at this perilous political moment.