The stripe is Sean Scully's building block, and it is the structure from which he fashions compositions of intense emotion. His alternation of horizontals and verticals plays like a musician's notes; each arrangement is a complex, nuanced reflection of universal and personal pathos and always more than the sum of its parts.
While smaller and lesser known than his large, heroic paintings, Scully's works on paper – pastel, watercolor, gouache, pencil, charcoal, ink, oil, acrylic and masking tape, monotype, and etching – record in their markings the physical energy of their creation. They are the private counterpoints of his paintings with their references to sculpture, architectural forms, and the human body. His pastels reflect hours of layering color over color and read with the intimacy of a book; they are sensual pieces as compared to his more temporal watercolors. Unlike his metaphorically titled oils on canvas, the works on paper are simply dated, like the entries in a diary. More than preparatory studies, they are individual works, many developing after paintings, as re-affirmations.
Scully is a leading representative of a new generation of abstract painters. An American painter of Irish birth, Scully was first drawn to minimalism, the movement that sought to reduce painting and sculpture to its absolute essentials. He is compelled by the "visually, edgy" potential of severe abstraction and the emotional power of certain works, like Frank Stella's black paintings and Agnes Martin's grids. With that in mind, he also wishes to return to the nuances of earlier abstraction – the pleasure of Matisse, the spirituality of Mondrian, and the anguish of Rothko. While minimalism forced the viewer to think about the way a work of art was made, Scully wants "people to think about things other than paintings – to think about the way human beings are or something you've seen." He uses dueling formal relationships – the vertical against the horizontal – creating space for contemplating life's profound ambiguities, such as ideals that are difficult to articulate or feelings that fall between the contemplative and the playful, the masculine and the feminine, a sense of loss and a driving life-force. Scully says, "the reason I don't use the diagonal much is because the diagonal is everything that is in between what the horizontal and the vertical have stated… I've come to believe that, in my work, the best way for me to represent everything in between is not to state it, but to capture it by stating the two ends, and somehow imply everything in between."
Born in Dublin and raised in England, Scully established a studio in New York in 1975. An American citizen since 1983, Scully lives and works in New York, London, and Barcelona.