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Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective

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Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective

Hungarian National Gallery, Building A - 14 October 2020 – 31 January 2021

The Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery is proud to present the first retrospective in Central Eastern Europe of the life’s work of Sean Scully, one of the most important contemporary exponents of abstract art. His oeuvre combines formal reduction with referential complexity, geometric construction with vivid self-expression. Since the 1980s, Scully has developed his own unique pictorial language, built on a subtle synthesis of apparently contradictory qualities.

Starting with the early figurative experiments of the 1960s and the minimalist pieces from the 1970s, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery encompasses every major period of Scully’s career: works from the 1980s, based on expressive bands of colour and giving off a sculptural feel (Adoration, 1982); groups of works associated with window and wall motifs (Window Figure, 2002); his unique landscape interpretations (Landline series, Wall of Light series); and his recent – and to many people surprising – turn towards figuration (Madonna series). Without following a strict chronological order, the exhibition displays the most important groups of works in thematic units, showing how Scully ‘opened up’ abstraction to objective references and metaphorical content. One of the most outstanding pieces at the Budapest exhibition is a new painting entitled Black Square (2020), which harkens back to the “pure feeling” painted by Kazimir Malevich in his iconic work of the same title. In Scully’s picture – exhibited to the public for the very first time at the Hungarian National Gallery – Malevich’s motif is wedged into the incandescence of a “romantic landscape” like a black hole, an objectified manifestation of the virtually palpable Nothingness and a metaphor of the contemporary situation, fraught with existential angst. The exhibition features around 110 works by Scully, from monumental paintings to works on paper, as well as a sculpture and a photographic work. Visitors are aided in interpreting Scully’s art by the artist’s own writings, notes and sketches, which are presented on the walls and in glass cases. Scully’s dialogue with the art historical past is crucial for understanding his oeuvre. Separate sections focus on his reflections on such major artists as Vincent van Gogh and Pierre Bonnard. Interpolated into the fabric of the exhibition is a painting by Bonnard, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, which further modulates this dialogue with the history of painting.

R-SSp83_06_The_Bather_1983_300dpi

Sean Scully: The Bather, 1983, oil on linen; 243.8 × 304.8 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Trevor Good

SSp81 07_Araby_1981_600dpi

Sean Scully: Araby, 1981, oil on canvas; 243.8 × 198.1 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist

SSp73 03_Diagonal Inset_1973

Sean Scully: Diagonal Inset, 1973, acrylic on canvas; 243.5 × 243.5 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist

SS114_Adoration_1982_600dpi

Sean Scully: Diagonal Inset, 1973, acrylic on canvas; 243.5 × 243.5 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist

R-SSp91 05_Mariana_1991_300dpi

Sean Scully: Mariana, 1991, oil on linen; 243.8 × 213.4 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Christoph Knoch

R-SSp70 03_Backcloth_1970_500dpi

Sean Scully: Backcloth, 1970, acrylic on canvas; 198 × 304.8 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist

R-SS3742_Black Square_2020_300ppi

Sean Scully: Black Square, 2020, oil on aluminium; 215.9 × 190.5 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein

R-SS1378_M364_Wall of Light Zacatecas_2010_300ppi

Sean Scully: Wall of Light Zacatecas, 2010, oil on linen; 279.8 × 350.4 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Christoph Knoch

08-SS2898_M745_Oisin Sea Green_2016_300dpi

Sean Scully: Oisín Sea Green, 2016, oil on aluminium; 216 × 190.5 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Christoph Knoch

07-SS3526_Figure Abstract and Vice Versa_2019_300dpi

Sean Scully: Figure Abstract and Vice Versa, 2019, oil on aluminium; 299.7 × 381 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein

07-SS2510_M526_Landline Field_2014_300dpi

Sean Scully: Landline Field, 2014, oil on aluminium; 216 × 190.5 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Christoph Knoch

03-SSp87 13_Emty Heart_1987_300dpi

Sean Scully: Empty Heart, 1987, oil on linen; 182.9 × 182.9 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Robert Bean

03-SS3248_What Makes Us Too_2017_300dpi_installation

Sean Scully: What Makes Us Too, 2017, oil, acrylic, and oil pastel on aluminium; 299.7 × 571.5 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Robert Bean

01-SSp02 133_Vincent_2002_600dpi

Sean Scully: Vincent, 2002, oil on linen; 190.5 × 203.2 cm, private collection
© Sean Scully. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Zindman/Fremont

The title of the exhibition evokes Scully’s Passenger paintings, an enigmatically beautiful group of works in his oeuvre. In these pictures, the ground has another picture inside it – an inset, as the artist calls it –, which in every case is shifted from the composition’s vertical axis of symmetry. It is as though the inset had moved or were still in motion. The insets can be interpreted as lingering moving figures, solitary humans passing across the horizon. To use the artist’s own words, “The inset, or the inside, is a ‘Passenger’ within a bigger structure, that evokes a kind of mother-child association, something being protected or held by something bigger.” The association of the passenger and the mother-and-child turns the relationship between the ground and the inset into a metaphor for life: after all, what Scully deals with in his works is how forms and figures evolve and transform over time, and how their constellations progressively alter. All this is inextricably connected to personal experiences and memories, and there is also a possible hint at the role of travel and emigration in the artist’s life: Scully is of Irish origin but was raised in England, before settling in America, interspersed now and then with stays in Europe.

Over the years, Scully has devised a kind of emotional geometry, characterised by the dynamic of instinctiveness and intellectual reflection. The exhibition examines how Scully reinterprets the traditions and broadens the concept of abstract art: seen from the perspective of Sean Scully’s art, classical artworks and the history of painting appear in a different light.

The comprehensive picture of Scully’s art given by the exhibition is further enhanced by the accompanying bilingual (Hungarian and English) catalogue, with written contributions from the curator of the exhibition (Dávid Fehér) and from several eminent experts on Sean Scully’s oeuvre (David Carrier, Kelly Grovier, Raphy Sarkissian, and Arthur C. Danto). The catalogue also includes a rich selection of the artist’s own writings, many of which have never been published before.

 

The catalogue for the exhibition Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective can be purchased in the MúzeumShop and online from the MúzeumShop webpage.

 

Curator: Dávid Fehér

 

Highlights, curiosities

Sean Scully: Araby, 1981

During Scully’s trip to Morocco in 1969, he was deeply influenced by the repetitive structures on the striped textiles he saw there, by the music and rhythm in the ornamental bands and stripes that decorated their surfaces. Besides the presence of visual elements and musical motifs borrowed from non-European cultures, another constant feature of Scully’s art, even nowadays, is his use of literary references, especially to authors such as Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. The musical rhythm in the stripes of the Moroccan textiles resonates in the painting entitled Araby, although the motif can be traced to a short story of the same title by James Joyce. In the story, a boy from Dublin dreams about an enigmatic “Arabian” bazaar, from where he promised to obtain a gift for his lover. Scully produced this painting in 1981, the year when he radically re-evaluated his own geometric art: casting doubt on the purity of abstraction, he brought figural associations and cultural historical references back into his painting.

Sean Scully: Midnight Mirror, 2008

During his career, Scully has evolved his own iconography, which is built from a reduced set of forms. Besides the wall, the window, the figure and the ground, another of his most defining motifs is the mirror. The motif of the mirror and reflection can be traced to such key works in the artist’s career as Narcissus (1984), which recalls the legend from mythology. Scully later created the visual equivalent of reflection, in the form of diptych that juxtaposes “shifting” systems of bands of varying thicknesses. The significance of division, of the “Vita duplex”, was emphasised by the artist himself when he quoted W. B. Yeats: “No mind can engender till divided into two”. The mirror-structures Scully created are dialectic figures, which refer to mimesis as an abstract structure; they often also express human relations, besides alluding to visual memories and specific times of day, as suggested by the title of Midnight Mirror.

Sean Scully: Figure Abstract and Vice Versa, 2019

Among Scully’s most recent figural works, the painting entitled Figure Abstract and Vice Versa is crucially important. The work is a diptych, so it could be looked upon as a modified variation on his Mirror paintings. This composition, like the painting titled What Makes Us Too, is also built on associations of mismatching elements. Scully has arranged two panels side by side: an (abstract) landline and a (representational) human figure set against a ground. The surfaces of both picture fields are interrupted by insets at two points each. Above, the insets continue their respective grounds on both sides, but below they are swapped over, resulting in a unique chiasm. The fabric of the picture seems to have been split open to reveal another level of reality: looking through the windows, one can see the landline behind the human, and the human behind the landline. The two reflectionally symmetrical fields reinterpret one another. The panel on the left can be read as a radiant seaside landscape, while the figural field seems to be zooming into this abstract landscape. The artist’s son, Oisín, is playing amongst almost abstractly pure colour fields of blue and yellow, similar to the blue and yellow fields in the landline on the left. Here Scully is not abstracting an existing figurative structure, but concretising his own abstract system of forms – or more precisely, he is creating a dialectic structure that can also be interpreted as a synthesis of abstraction and figuration.

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective

14 October 2020 – 31 January 2021

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