Often dubbed the world’s greatest living abstract painter, Sean Scully (BA Fine Art 1971) has claimed the humble stripe as his own artistic statement. For the nomadic Irishman, it wields more power than his second love: politics. He tells Dan Howarth about his chequered youth, his life overseas, and why he’d never teach ‘cheeky’ art students in England...
When Sean Scully chose to make his mark on the world, it was the brush and canvas – rather than the brash canvass – that would be his tool of choice. Torn between art and politics, he opted for a path through which he felt he could make a greater difference. ‘I believe in politics, it’s very important. But I’d liken it to a skin graft that eventually falls off,’ says Scully. ‘What’s underneath is more powerful. It’s cultural values that control the way a society thinks and acts, and art is implicitly involved in the development of those values’.
Now 64, Scully has work in the permanent collections of some of the world’s most prestigious museums, from the Guggenheim in New York, to London’s Tate Gallery. His paintings might not reform healthcare, but they certainly have a place in the economy.
Given the context, asking Scully ‘why stripes?’ feels like a feeble question. Perhaps like asking his favourite colour. But he seems happy to spell out the basics: ‘Stripes are a signifier of modernism. They’re the basic building blocks of the world’.
The colours, he explains, are metaphors for the world. The milky green of young leaves. The crimson red of congealed blood. And every stroke is painfully serious. ‘I like to make fun of fun’, he states, a wry smile barely apparent.
Indeed, there’s nothing flowery about Sean Scully, and his surly air comes with the territory. He’s a self-made man, and everything he’s achieved has been done through unfaltering hard work.
Born in Dublin in 1945, Scully and his family moved to England when he was four years old. Growing up in the grim streets of post-war London, he got in trouble with the police for brawling and burglary. He worked as a labourer, a plasterer, typesetter and messenger, and spent time as a 15 year-old apprentice travelling from Penge West Station – immortalised by the French painter Camille Pissarro in 1871. It was this painting that first stirred Scully’s artistic ambitions.
Determined to go to art school, but without much tutelage in the fine arts, Scully would spend his lunchtimes visiting galleries. As he told the Daily Telegraph, at age 18 he found Van Gogh’s Chair hanging in the Tate Gallery. ‘I would roar down the road on my little Vespa, and spend 20 minutes of my 30-minute lunch break looking at this painting’, he remembers. ‘I’d eat my lunch on the scooter, and weave all over the road on my way back to work’.
Soon, Scully enrolled at Croydon College of Art in London, but struggled with the transition into further education. ‘In the beginning, it was very difficult to enter into the technique of study, and its sensibility’, he admits. ‘It was a psychological journey, and the problem was within myself.
‘But I was motivated not to waste my time and take the opportunity for granted, and I gradually got better. When I entered art school I was desperate, so I’m extraordinarily grateful to the night school system that helped me to succeed.’
After Croydon, Scully came to Newcastle to study Fine Art, and lived with his grandfather, a coal miner, at Hallgarth Street in Durham – next to the Victoria Inn where they’d often enjoy a pint. During his time at University, he had some life-affirming experiences – seeing an ‘earthstopping’ production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal; discovering the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Luc Godard; and following the mighty Newcastle United.
Working from a small studio near campus, Scully started to make paintings, and a couple of pieces were featured in newspapers. Visiting Milan recently, he found one hanging in the British Council Collection. But he wasn’t nostalgic: ‘It was kind of foreign to me’, he admits. ‘I was a different person then. An uptight, extremely ambitious young guy, who couldn’t paint then what I can paint now’.
Scully graduated with first class honours in 1971, and moved to the US soon afterwards. He saw it as a vital place to be, and held his first solo show in New York in 1977. He became a naturalized citizen in 1984.
Now he shares his time between New York; Munich, Germany; and Barcelona, Spain, where he’s just opened a new studio. ‘I’m interested in the cultural dynamics of those places’, he says. ‘Spain is very soulful and poetic and sensual; Germany is intellectual and philosophical; and America is of course still in the making, it’s a culture of violent rupture and change’.
Until 2007, Scully was a Professor at Munich’s Akademie der Bildenden Künste, where he taught a class for five years. ‘I would never teach cheeky art students in England’, he roars. ‘The responsibility to turn up and create solidarity is too liberalised. The professorial system in Germany is much more intimate’.
Now, Scully is back in the studio, after opening a retrospective of his work at the Ulster Museum in Belfast – its first major exhibition since reopening after a £17.2 million refurb.
And his reaction to being called the world’s greatest living abstract painter? He dismisses it humbly. ‘Great artists are made over time by consensus. But nobody is going to be all things to all people, and nor should they be.
‘You have to have the strength of character to survive contentedly surrounded by a small number of people who support you. It’s the sort of survival that allows you to work with a sense of happiness, belief and peace.’
Cut Grey Ground 08, 2008
Oil on aluminium
110 x 160” (279.5 x 406.5 cm)
Cut Ground Orange, 2009
Oil on linen
83.9 x 120.3” (213 x 305.5 cm)
published on: 19th February 2010
Return to Arches