The world in which we live, the existential threat from COVID and the environmental problems we face, has influenced me greatly in my art. – Sean Scully, 2021
Sean Scully opens a dual-presentation across two sites in Chelsea, New York, unveiling new work created in his New York studio throughout 2020 and 2021, while the world was rocked by a global pandemic, extensive quarantine measures, Black Lives Matter protests, political instability and mass uncertainty. At Scully’s Chelsea studio, open exclusively for this showcase, the artist unveils a monumental new work entitled The 12 (2020), presented in its entirety for the first time. This twelve-panel piece is a grouping of Landline paintings, each with its own distinct personality ranging from spirited to sombre. A new Black Square Blue (2020) painting is also on view at Scully's studio. The dual presentation continues at Lisson Gallery's flagship space on 508 West 24th Street which houses a significant multi-panelled painting entitled Dark Windows (2020): a suite of works created during some of the bleakest days of the COVID pandemic. The work is presented alongside a series of new pastel drawings recently completed by the artist.
The 12, a work comprising twelve unique Landline paintings, is an expansion on Scully’s ongoing series of lyrical paintings in which, since 1999, he has endeavoured to “integrate all the parts” of the horizon – physical and philosophical, poetic and pastoral. The Landline paintings seek to reintroduce nature onto the canvas, keeping a sense of rhythm, of breath. In Scully’s horizons breath and nature are tantamount, and the series works as a guide for how to look at or feel the natural world. The title of the set is an emphatic departure from the metaphorical labels Scully has provided throughout his career, instead the epithet is indicative of the series’ focus on structure and surety. The twelve individual works come together to form a room of their own, an act of fortification or protection from the profound instability of the outside world – the global pandemic, a narrowing of views across the political spectrum, protests, inequality and climate change – all of which was occurring as Scully began work on the series.
In tandem with this off-site presentation, nearby at Lisson Gallery, Scully exhibits another significant work, conceived in the early months of the global crisis. While The 12 and Black Windows are undoubtedly connected, in Dark Windows, there is a new, alien pathogen that lurks on the surface, dislocating the harmony and simplicity of the Landline form. This shorter sequence of five panels is characterised by the haunting, sinister presence of a black square, referencing the nihilistic declaration made by Malevich in 1915. The advent of the Dark Windows paintings represents the first time in Scully’s career that his horizons have been entirely blackened or effectively erased, suggesting a symbolic act of protest, solidarity or even of shocked silence.
The refusal of this opaque viewfinder to reveal anything beyond is a moment of rupture in Scully’s own career, wilfully severing or ‘disbanding’ the horizontal continuity of his ongoing series of Landlines, paintings that have perpetually traced the world’s contours for the past 20 years. By incorporating these unforgiving and impregnable windows into this liquid continuum, Scully has effectively blocked out the sun’s rays and denied his beloved landscape its permanency, signalling a pause or a disconnect with the natural world. As Scully says: “There is no doubt that they are a response to the pandemic and to what mankind has been doing to nature. What really strikes me as tragic is that what is a relief for nature is a torment for us. And what is a pleasure for us is a torment for nature. That seems to be the conundrum that we've got ourselves into.”
This new body of work nevertheless serves as a reappraisal or a reckoning – suggesting that while the dark clouds hover and we remain in darkness, the blight will soon be over, and the world will heal itself. Scully adds, “What is going to triumph in this painting? What is going to triumph in our world?”
Following this presentation, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth will present a major retrospective of Sean Scully’s work from the 1970s to the present, from June 2021 before touring to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Spring 2022.