Sean Scully, Wall of Light will showcase the artist’s most important series to date and highlight his mastery of color, light, gesture, and range of emotional and narrative themes. Scully works and exhibits throughout the world, yet this is his first major solo museum exhibition in New York. Featured are more than 50 works in the Wall of Light series
- some 20 of which are large-scale oil paintings - that Scully has created in recent years, first inspired by his travels to Mexico.
“Sean Scully has long been admired for the power of his abstractions as well as his delicate sensibility of color and touch,” noted Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan’s Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art.
In the early 1980s, Scully made the first of several influential trips to Mexico, where he used watercolor for the first time to paint works inspired by the patterns of light and shadows he saw on the stacked stones of ancient walls. The artist became fascinated with the surfaces of Mayan stone walls, which, animated by light, seemed to reflect the passage of time; he described the Maya as a “culture of walls and light.” The experience had a decisive effect on Scully’s work in general and led to the development of the Wall of Light series. In 1998, following additional trips to Mexico, and after absorbing fully the aesthetic implications of his earlier Mexico watercolors, Scully began to create his Wall of Light series of paintings, watercolors, pastels, and aquatints. It was Scully’s recollection of the spectacular light on the ancient walls in Mexico
- so different from the fleeting, brooding light he grew up with in London - that most influenced this new body of work. Constructed with rectangular brick-like forms that fit closely together and are arranged in horizontal and vertical groupings, the paintings are characterized by broad brushstrokes, a wide range of luminous colors built up in layers, and varying degrees of light and darkness. Like all of Scully’s work, in which the formal traditions of European painting are combined with forms of aesthetic experience rooted in American abstraction, they manifest a commitment to pure abstraction: to its emotional power, its storytelling potential, and, above all, its capacity to convey light.
In spite of the Mexican genesis of the Wall of Light series, most of the paintings spring from other lights and latitudes. Scully painted them in his studios in New York, Barcelona, the countryside outside Munich, and London (through 2001). The individual works exhibit subtle differences of palette and tone, depending on the season and place in which they were created. The series, which Scully continues to expand, now consists of more than 200 works.
After coming to the U.S., Scully retained but simplified the stripes that characterized his earlier work: Moroccan color and pattern gave way to almost monochromatic paintings. In the early 1980s, Scully reintroduced color, space, and texture, through the application of multiple layers of paint, and thereby added an expressive element. He began experimenting with compositional and structural concepts that led him to break out of the two-dimensional picture plane, creating asymmetrical assemblages that take on a sculptural quality.
During the mid eighties, the aesthetic lessons of his Mexico visits, and the early watercolors they inspired, germinated quietly; in 1998 they burst forth in a new series of works, showcased in this exhibition. The Wall of Light works rely on two main formal elements: the vertical and the horizontal bar. Yet, the surface texture and the space between the forms create fascinating, highly complex structures. Some of the works evoke such architectural elements as bricks, post-and-lintel construction, even the hulking structure of Stonehenge. The spaces between the blocks frequently reveal the underlying colors and read as light shining between the bricks of a wall. The rectangles are often built up with several rich layers of color, and the broad, gestural brushstrokes emphasize the presence of the artist’s hand.
Sean Scully, Wall of Light begins with a selection of the earliest watercolors that reveal Scully’s lively visual discoveries from his first visits to Mexico in 1983 and 1984. The core of the exhibition features 30 small, medium, and large oil paintings (ranging in size from 16 by 20 inches to 9 by 12 feet) from 1998 to the present. Also included is a selection of later watercolors, pastels, and aquatints from 1998 to the present.