Sean Scully celebrated his 70th birthday this summer in Barcelona, one of the cities in which he works. He also has a studio in Germany, in the countryside near Munich, and a workspace in New York, on the Hudson River. “I live in a way that destroys the possibility of any kind of nationalistic or narrowly prescribed artistic viewpoint”, Scully says, when we meet him in Venice on the occasion of his exhibition Land Sea at the Palazzo Falier. “Nationalism I see everywhere. It’s still the world’s problem. I can’t subscribe to an identity that’s tied up with any sense of nationality. I think that’s what has made the world the difficult place that it is.”
Scully’s exhibition in Venice is one of the so-called collateral events, taking place parallel to the Biennale. It shows a series of smaller, monumental paintings, all based on stripes, bands or blocks of stacked colour. The vocabulary is minimal, with repeated motifs, and lots of different colours and combinations. Scully paints quickly, wet on wet, with a clear presence of the gesture, so the appearance is not only minimal but also loose and expressive. “I find minimalism very attractive. I’ve got photos in my phone of boxes, stacked up, that I see on the street. Or this very nice photograph of chairs with covers on them. Stacked, they look almost like hooded figures, hooded hats.”
How about Venice? Did he relate the choice of works to the location? “The paintings are related to Paul Véronèse – the light in them, the movement, the brushstrokes. I was thinking of Venetian painting. It affected me. I visited the city a couple of times, and I was thinking about the water that is somehow locked in-between the architecture – the way the city is made: you have water and stone. The paintings in the Landline exhibition have a relationship to that. I’m relating to a lot of the blues that you see in Venetian painting. My paintings are saturated with this kind of dirty blue.”
Scully was born in Ireland. Would he describe himself as a European? “Much of me is European. How could I not be? I think my work is an embodiment of the way that I’ve lived. It’s a kind of fusion. And there is no denying now that my work appeals to many different people all over the world. I just had a show in China that will travel to Indonesia, and I’ll be one of the first Western artists to have a big retrospective in Jakarta.” For Scully, these are signs that art can play a role in change or liberalisation. “I think that art is more powerful and has a stronger influence on the world than it has ever had in its entire history. Art is the opposite of war – I don’t agree with Picasso...”, he remarks, and yet he does not see his work as a political statement. “I was very politically active when I was young. But I made a choice between art and politics. I think political art, in a way, is not that interesting. For instance, I’m very good friends with Ai Wei Wei, but he’s a player.” Do you mean that he is using the polarisation between China and the West? “Exactly. He is a hustler. People were mad at me when I said that. But in China, the other artists don’t like him. He is damaging the image of China; he is making it difficult for China to open up. I think the power of art is more insidious.”
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Scully’s work may appear abstract, but the titles lend a clue to something more defined, such as the Doric series, which refers to Greek architecture, and Land Sea, with its obvious relationship to landscape. Is the artist never tempted to paint a ‘real’ landscape? He has a studio in the south of Germany, with land all around it, so you could say that his motif is always there. “I am and I am not; it is an interesting question. I’m tempted, but I should not do it. It’s not a good move for me. For me, painting is a parallel activity that is informed by the proximity to nature, but I don’t want to literally make a landscape painting. What would it be?” Scully then reflects on the history of landscape painting: “The first great Abstract Expressionist was William Turner. He is radical. He was a rough guy. He wasn’t sophisticated; he had a lot of animal energy, and that was how he was able to make those paintings.”
Scully hails from a rough background himself, which has affected his work. “I come from extreme poverty. Often people say they were working class, but we were not working class. We worked our way up to working class. Our ambition was to become working class – we were starving in Dublin at the time I was born. This affected my drive. My work comes out of the ruins of Ireland. My grandfather hung himself – he wouldn’t fight for the British. My father wouldn’t either. My family was just smashed to pieces. I come from this ruin; the drive in me towards restoration, to retrieve something that is smashed or broken, is tremendous. I would say that I’m a pretty unstoppable force of nature. You can see it in the work.”
But there is not that much aggression visible in his work. “My art is very rigorous, but it also includes a lot of human feeling. There is a lot of love in my work. It has a huge amount of emotion in it, and of giving. But the problem with painting is that it can fall into sentimentality. I also see this happening in video. Today you see video art in hotel entrances. And once the hotels get you, that is the end.”
Does Scully feel at home in this period of history, with his attitude as an artist? “Well, we all land where we can. I can quite easily imagine that I could have been a conceptual sculptor, for instance. I’m quite verbal; I have a strong intellect. But I think painting, when it is great, is so unbelievably moving. I don’t see anything else like it, it’s pre-verbal; it touches something incredibly deep in human beings. Although,” he says laughingly, “it is practically impossible to do.”
The Gatherer, 2014. Land Sea exhibition Installation view Palazzo Falier, Venice © Sean Scully