Sean Scully (born in Dublin in 1945) is an Irish-born American-based artist working as a painter, sculptor, and photographer. Twice a Turner Prize nominee, he is included in major museums and private collections. Growing up in a working-class part of south London, moving from lodging to lodging for several years, Scully knew he wanted to be an artist since he was a kid. From the age of 17, until he turned 20, he attended evening classes at the Central School of Art; as an avid art lover, he made daily visits to the Tate Milbank to visit Van Gogh’s Chair, which made an impression on him. In September 1965, Sean Scully, age 20, began to study full-time at Croydon College of Art in London before moving on to Newcastle University. Scully’s first commercial show sold out at the Rowan Gallery in London. Scully taught at the Chelsea College of Art and Design and Goldsmith’s while continuing to paint. In 1975, he was awarded the Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship, which allowed him to attend Harvard University.
During this first stay in the US, Scully began experimenting with new techniques such as tape and spray paint. In these years, Scully helped lead the transition from Minimalism to Emotional Abstraction in painting, abandoning the reduced vocabulary of Minimalism in favor of a return to metaphor and spirituality in art. Scully has also been a lecturer and professor at several universities, and his writing and teachings are collected in the 2016 book, Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully. In the US, he began to develop meaningful friendships with fellow artists such as Robert Ryman and others in academic and artistic circles. Scully’s work throughout the 70s was influenced by Op Art, a significant current in Europe, leading him to create new jobs using overlays and “super grids” that bridged his style from Minimalism to this new phase. The minimalist influence survived strongly in Scully’s palette, which was reduced to the grey monochrome ‘Black paintings’ series.
Scully began working on the series known as The Catherine Paintings in 1979 while sharing his Duane Street studio with his third wife, the artist Catherine Lee. The idea behind the series was to choose the critical painting Scully produced each year together, which would then become part of a collection named after her. This was the beginning of Sean’s own private collection of his work. By 1980 Scully considered himself done with the movement of Minimalism in New York and wanted to bring more human elements into his art.
He made multiple trips to Morocco and Mexico during this time, as he considered these trips to have “a direct bearing on what I think art should be doing – which is concentrating on what’s interesting, engaging, perverse, and beautiful about human nature.”
In 1981 the first retrospective of Sean Scully’s work was held at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, where the return of color and space became apparent, and the freehand drawing of stripes and visible brushstrokes, rather than the hard lines of tape, marked his new approach. Scully had a breakthrough with the seminal 1981 painting Backs and Fronts, which profoundly impacted the 1982 exhibition ‘Critical Perspectives’ at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center. In 1982 Scully began to work with the gallerist David McKee, a meaningful relationship that lasted for a decade. During the summer of that year, Scully started producing small multi-panel works on found pieces of wood while staying in Montauk at the Edward Albee artist’s colony. These works were titled Ridge, Plum, and Bear, after the islands that surround Long Island. He also began combining rigid geometry, expressive texture, and color in larger paintings that year.
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art included Scully in their International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. The following year Scully’s first American solo museum exhibition was held at the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute in 1985, and he traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston. Other significant museums also began to acquire Scully’s large-scale paintings, despite the dominant trend of the time tending towards Postmodernism. Scully’s images from this period are heavy and physical in size and aesthetics and use large-scale stretchers.
By 1987, Scully’s work became less complex, flatter, and smaller in scale and began to include lighter color palettes beginning with Pale Fire in 1988. The same year, while experimenting with watercolors on a beach in Mexico, Scully created the first image that would become an extended meditation on architecture and light with the Wall of Light series. In 1989 the Whitechapel Gallery in London held a solo exhibition for Scully, which then traveled to Madrid and Munich. These were Scully’s first solo exhibitions in mainland Europe. The art critic, Robert Hughes’s 1989 piece for TIME magazine cemented Scully’s increasing reputation.
In 1992, while teaching at Harvard University, Sean Scully revisited Morocco to film the BBC documentary The Artist’s Journey: Sean Scully on Henri Matisse, with Matisse having visited Morocco in 1912 – 1913. In 1994 he opened a second studio in Barcellona, and he returned to Morocco in 1995 to spend more time in the country. Atlas Walls is a portfolio of Scully’s photographic works during this trip.
In 1995 Scully returned to New York, moving into a large new studio in Chelsea, Manhattan. Scully received several invitations to speak at academic institutions and participated in the Joseph Beuys lectures on the state of contemporary art in Britain, Europe, and the US, held by the Ruskin School at Oxford University, England.
In 2001, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, acquired the complete Catherine series, eighteen paintings that each represent a year from 1979–1996, which was given a dedicated room for permanent exhibition in the new Museum building opened in 2002.
Sean Scully’s Wall of Light series was displayed at museums around the United States.
In 2014, Scully opened a new studio space set on three acres in Tappan, New York, where he continued extending the Landline painting series begun in 2000. That same year, Scully opened fourteen solo exhibitions worldwide, including the first major retrospective by a Western artist in China. The exhibition, Follow the Heart: The Art of Sean Scully opened in Beijing. The show included China Piled-Up, a new monumental sculpture in corten-steel, and traveled from the Shanghai Himalayas Museum to the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing to critical acclaim. Another outdoor sculpture, Boxes Full of Air, was commissioned at Chateau La Coste in France.
In 2015 Scully completed his restoration of the 10th Church of Santa Cecília de Montserrat in Spain and opened it to the public. Commissioned by the Museum of Montserrat to make a holistic artistic intervention in the sacred space, Scully not only permanently installed paintings but also worked on site-specific frescoes and the altar and cross design. The chapel is now a working church and the Espai d’Art Sean Scully. Scully was awarded the V Congreso Asociacion Protecturi for his contribution to Spanish religious heritage.
Throughout 2015 – 2017, Scully’s work expanded in two directions: sculpture and figuration. During this period, Scully began working on sculptural projects, including the Tower series using various materials such as corten steel, marble, and stainless steel, and the Stack series in raw and painted steel was introduced. A new series of Block paintings were begun, in which Scully self-referenced his sculpture in paint. This new direction was the focus of the solo exhibition Wall of Light Cubed at Cheim & Read, NY.
Scully has been a member of Aosdana since 2001 and the Royal Academy of Arts since 2013. He received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Massachusetts College of Art and the National University of Ireland in 2003 and a Doctor of Letters degree from Newcastle University. He received an Honorary Doctorate from Miguel Hernandez University in 2006 and 2008.