Philadelphia Museum of Art to Present Work by Sean Scully

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present a major survey of Irish-born American artist Sean Scully, highlighting paintings and works on paper from the early 1970s to the present. The exhibition will be held from April 11 to July 31, 2022. “Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas will chart the artist’s contributions to the American and European history of abstract painting as it has developed over the past half-century.

The exhibition will showcase over 100 works that reflect the many phases of Scully’s practice. Several galleries will be devoted to the artist’s virtuosic prints, featuring color lithographs, woodcuts, etchings and aquatints. Among the highlights of this section will be a series of color aquatints from the museum’s collection, each accompanied by the verses of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936) along with a selection from the recently acquired portfolio “Landlines and Robes (2018).

The first paintings that visitors will encounter are important works that Scully created during a fellowship year at Harvard University in 1972–73. This experience afforded him opportunities to travel from London to New York, a major center for Minimalism and abstract painting at the time. (He would move to New York permanently in 1975.) In these works, such as “Green Light (1972–73), Scully experimented with the grid. On display nearby is “Inset #2 (1973), an early example of the artist’s interest in creating a “painting within a painting”—a hallmark motif within his practice.

An adjacent gallery will be devoted to the multi-paneled works created in the early 1980s. In these paintings, he combined panels of contrasting colors and formats into large and increasingly complex compositions, each structured by his signature “stripe.” Notable among these is “Backs and Fronts (1981), an 8-by-20-foot work comprising 12 attached canvases.

The next gallery will host a selection of works produced during the artist’s residency at the Edward Albee Foundation in Montauk, New York, in 1982. These small paintings were made using scraps of wood that Scully found in Albee’s former barn. Notable works such as “Swan Island,” “Ridge,” “Bonin,” and “Elder,” all from 1982, reflect a turning point in the artist’s use of scale as his work became increasingly architectural. His travels to Mexico spurred him to explore watercolor as a medium, as seen in “Mexico Azul 12.83 (1983).

In the late 1980s, Scully extended his experimentation with the stripe, using it in combination with compositional structures such as the checkerboard and the inset. Notable paintings include “Pale Fire (1988) and “Union Yellow” (1994).

Another gallery will be home to his best-known series, collectively titled “Wall of Light,” which Scully began working on in 1998. Their richly painted surfaces, composed in a quilted pattern of vertical and horizontal blocks are evocative of walls of stone.

The “Doric series, which will occupy another gallery, was created as a tribute to the heritage of ancient Greece, reflecting ideas of strength, resilience and stability. Painted on aluminum, these works are more austere in their palette.

A final gallery will focus on the work that Scully has made during the past decade, most prominently a series titled “Landlines. These large gestural paintings are made up of thick horizontal bands of color that harken back to the elegant and spare canvases that Scully produced after he came to New York in 1975. These are among the most freely painted and unabashedly romantic works Scully has ever created. The exhibition concludes with several recent works, among them “Black Blue Window” (2021), a work dominated by a gaping black square that reflects Scully’s personal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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