The Miracle of Turning Stone Into Light
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By the time Sean Scully (b. 1945) began his career in the 1960s, two generations of the avant-garde had already established the legitimacy of nonrepresentational art. Pure abstraction was no longer revolutionary, nor was part of its mission an assertion of its right to exist.For many painters, this newfound acceptance was interpreted as a license to create undisciplined or merely decorative abstractions. Not so for Mr. Scully, whose art has consistently been rigorous, challenging, and accomplished. But with his latest body of work, known as the “Wall of Light” series, he has transcended this neat string of adjectives. Currently on view in a wonderful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the series situates the artist, pioneer or not, in the first rank of abstract painters.
“Wall of Light” was begun in 1998, yet it has its origins much earlier. In 1983–84, while traveling in Mexico, Mr. Scully became fascinated by the southern sun’s play of light on walls, in particular on the monumental Mayan ruins. He made a watercolor to try to capture the sensation, and this was followed by two more, the second of which was titled “Wall of Light 4.84” (1984). Years later, when his paintings evolved to touch on similar issues, he recalled those watercolors, and the series was born.
Discussing the first of the Mexican watercolors, but describing his ambition for the entire body of work, he has said, “What I’m trying to do in this little watercolor that I made on the beach in Zihuatanejo, is make something that is obviously metaphysical, because I’m trying to turn stone into light.” The genius of “Wall of Light” lies in its realization of the delicate balance suggested in its paradoxical title.The work discovers a meeting point of seemingly irreconcilable opposites — the durable and the fleeting, the impermeable and the diaphanous, the massive and the weightless — and forces us to consider whether something as improbable as a wall of light is actually possible.
As always, Mr. Scully’s art is based around the stripe. It has been his signature motif since he first discovered Moroccan textiles more than 30 years ago, his equivalent to Newman’s zip, Rothko’s floating color planes, or Pollock’s drip. Here, the stripes are gathered in groups of two, three, and four to form squares that interlock in an irregular checkerboard of horizontal and vertical blocks. The overall patterns look something like a patchwork of flags.
The exhibition begins with a gallery of works on paper. First are the three foundational watercolors from the 1980s, then the watercolors, pastels, and aquatints that are actually part of the series. Each medium emphasizes a different characteristic of light: The watercolors capture its luminous, translucent quality, while the denser pastels suggest glare and haze. The extraordinary aquatints, some of the most surprising works in the show, present floating planes that convey the three-dimensional quality of reflected light. Small paintings done in the familiar scales of the human — 5 feet by 6 feet — and the easel — 2 feet by 3 feet — fill another display space at the end of the show.
The expansive central gallery, however, contains the exhibition’s most dramatic works, large-scale paintings, several of which measure as much as 9 feet by 11 feet. These are weighty physical objects to be confronted, not simply glanced at in passing. Their imposing size generates sensations of solidity and durability — of wallness — but the longer one looks, the more this impression seems to arise from the fact that they have been so thoroughly worked, that a great artist has stood before them.
Mr. Scully’s paintings show the influence of previous generations of abstract painters, most obviously: Mondrian, in the grid-like understructure; Rothko, in the textured color planes of the stripes; and de Kooning, in the graceful, yet decidedly masculine, brushstrokes. “Wall of Light Red” (1998), a work whose palette emphasizes the bricklike nature of the stripes, exposes the shape and nature of these brushstrokes. Tiny pathways created by the bristles streak the surface like rake marks in the earth, while small waves of paint build up at the end of every stroke. Every movement of Mr. Scully’s thick 5-inch brush seems visible at first. But the paint is actually layers and layers deep, and as with a thick wall, it soon becomes clear that unseen depths lie beneath the surface.
Although the “Wall of Light” works are completely nonrepresentational — they do not depict specific walls so much as the more general phenomenon of light hitting wall — they are full of content, evoking places, times of day, states of mind, and different people. Mr. Scully splits his time among three cities, and the art created in each is shaped by the personality of these locations. The New York pieces, the most common in the show, are often cerebral and ordered. By contrast, those made in Barcelona, Spain, are brighter and less rigid. The aquatints “Barcelona Day” and “Barcelona Noche” (both 2005), the first yellow and orange, the second purple and gray, capture the soulful excitability of the Catalan capital. The spectrum of nature, so foreign in cities like New York and Barcelona, suffuses works like “Green Pale Light” (2002), made in Mooseurach, a small town in the German Alps where the artist maintains his third studio.
Mr. Scully is a master colorist, but his colors are notable for their depth and complexity, not their brilliance. The mood of his palette tends to range from subdued to somber, and even brighter hues often appear in a muted form. His favorite light is that of dusk. A painting like “Wall of Light Desert Night” (1999) is quite typical in this regard. Its bleached sandy tones and twilight blues evoke the solemn beauty of a desert night.
Because they are so rare, occasional bursts of brilliance stand out.The aptly named “Wall of Light Heat” (2001) has lively whites and intense crimson stripes, balanced by icy blues and grays, yet the canvas’s vibrancy is generated by a few fiery orange passages. A darker undertone shows through the thin surface layer, and the impression is of a crackling nighttime fire, with its play of radiance and darkness.
Rhythm and energy characterize all of Mr. Scully’s work, though the vitality of his canvases is usually subtle and understated.”Raphael” (2004) uses an almost entirely gray palette. This work was painted over the course of a year and the density of its paint is obvious. Cerebral in nature and almost monochrome in its surface, it may seem to hearken back to Mr. Scully’s origins as a more consciously minimalist painter, but the painting has rich feeling, an almost spiritual quality, that transmits something like a state of serenity.
The title’s allusion to the sensual Renaissance painter, creator of some of art’s most luminous surfaces, seems puzzling until one notices that some of the lighter grays verge on pink, fleshy tones.This work, which looks more like a stone wall than any other, also contains hints of skin, lustrous human presence. It is here that one realizes that Mr. Scully’s metaphysical alchemy has taken hold. Stone has indeed become light.
Until January 15 (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).