Arts / Museums

Irish-American Artist Sean Scully on His New Seminal Exhibit at the Modern in Fort Worth

"Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas" Spans over 50 Years

BY // 07.13.21

Irish American artist Sean Scully recently turned 76 but shows no sign of slowing down. His work can be found in the collections of every major art museum around the globe. In June, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth opened the exhibition “Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas,” which encapsulates each era of the Dublin-born artist’s ever-evolving oeuvre.

The Modern exhibition focuses on Scully’s significant contribution to the development of abstraction in various. media over a span of nearly 50 years. The earliest works date back to his time at Harvard; more recent works, including Doric Pink Light (2012), are from his Doric series, created in homage to Greece and reflecting ideas of strength, resilience, and stability. “The Shape of Things” features 49 paintings and 42 works on paper rarely seen together. Scully has also created a limited-edition silk scarf (only 55 are being produced) based on his painting Wall of Light Desert Night, 1999, to be sold in The Modern’s Gift Shop.

PaperCity gathered key players who created this seminal exhibition for a little Q&A: Marla Price, the Modern’s director for close to 30 years, who wrote the preface for the show’s catalog, as well as the artist’s multi-volume catalogue raisonné; Amanda Sroka, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and co-curator of this retrospective; and the man himself, Sean Scully, who currently divides his time between New York and Bavaria. The artist sent his answers via audio recording. Who doesn’t love hearing an Irish accent (he draws out the second syllable to dramatic effect when saying Texas) when contemplating the work of one of our modern masters.


Sean Scully The Modern Fort Worth
Irish American artist Sean Scully’s newest exhibition is now on view at The Modern. (Photo by Felix Friedmann)

How did the COVID lockdown impact your work? Did it initiate any new themes or change your studio rhythm?

Sean Scully: Yes, it did. And I made five Dark Windows. I made a lot of paintings with black squares in them, which, of course, referred to Malevich’s sense of nihilism. But I also lightened my palette and fought back with some new wall-of-light paintings set in a square format, rather than rectangular, which create a kind of circular energy. And I’ve taken out the ombre from my work. I’m not using many grays and the paintings are quite vibrant and positive. So, the work is separated into two categories: the depressive and the positive.


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What are some of your favorite memories of past visits to Texas?

Sean Scully: Well, of course, a couple of visits to the Fort Worth Modern. Absolutely beautiful museum. And I’m a friend of the architect, Tadao Ando, who I think is fantastic. And the other one was to the building, Judge Roy Bean Courthouse, which was quite amazing. Quite tiny. I thought it was amazing how the West was in some way so rough and small.

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

Sean Scully: This is a typical day [referring to the day he made his audio recording in response to PaperCity‘s questions.] I have to do various things, like sometimes I have an interview. Sometimes I’ll have somebody ask me to write something. Usually, my kid’s in the studio, and our dog is running around. I tend to my trees outside. And then I get down to some work — usually by the afternoon.

You’ve been outspoken about politics. Has that impacted your recent work? Perhaps more optimistic or lighter given Biden’s 2020 win?

Sean Scully: We need freedom of speech and freedom of thought. So Biden’s win has buoyed me considerably. And I’m a great environmentalist. I think that [Biden’s] concentration on the environment and the infrastructure of this great country would do huge amounts of good for the future. Which we will see in the next 10, 20 years. So, it’s possible that he’s going to be a great president.

Do you listen to music while you work?

Sean Scully: I listen to music all the time. Agnes Obel is one that I listen to. I listen to a lot of old American music because I had a blues club. Bo Diddley, for example. Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and a lot of music from the 1960s. Bob Dylan, I adore. So, it’s very, very, very varied. And Lykke Li is wonderful. A new Swedish singer. There are a lot of very interesting female singers around at the moment.

When did you first meet Sean Scully and what was your initial attraction to his work?

Marla Price: I first encountered his work in 1984 in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I followed his career closely. In 1988, shortly after I began as curator at the [Fort Worth] Modern, I met him for the first time while on a studio visit in New York, when I purchased the great painting Pale Fire (1988) for our permanent collection, which is in the exhibition.

This exhibition has examples of works throughout his artistic evolution. Which work or series is a personal favorite?

Marla Price: I have too many favorites to choose one, but Backs and Fronts (1981) is very special — his first large and really ambitious work. The Modern has a long history with Scully. We hosted “The Catherine Paintings” exhibition in 1993 at our previous location. The artist gifted this series to our permanent collection in 2002, and we have it on view frequently in our second-floor gallery. A few years after we moved into our Tadao Ando building, we presented his “Wall of Light” exhibition, which featured Wall of Light Desert Night (1999) from the Modern’s permanent collection.

How do you think this presentation and Scully’s work resonated with artists emerging now?

Amanda Sroka: Chronicling the development and breadth of Scully’s work from the 1970s to today, this presentation is an affirmation of the infinite possibilities of abstraction that are made available through the medium of painting. The relevance and ingenuity of this work across five decades serves as an inspiration for artists of Scully’s generation and those to come.

“Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas,” through October 10, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St.,

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