Making his mark on the art world

Seán Scully traces the subversive streak in his painting to the trials of growing up in an immigrant Irish family in London in the 1960s, says Arts Editor Marc O’Sullivan.

Making his mark on the art world

It was a terrible childhood. Goddamn. It was like having a breakdown for 18 years

NEW York-based, Irish-born artist Seán Scully’s works are among the most sought-after by museums and collectors around the world. His exhibition of paintings, Doric, runs at Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane until Jun 9.

Scully last showed in Dublin in 2011. In the previous few years he had undergone four operations, on his back and shoulders. “I’ve had another operation since,” he says. “I’ve used my body excessively, and I have to pay the bill now. The last operation was on my lower back. I had terrible sciatica, but it’s been a great success.”

Scully, who is also a printmaker, photographer and sculptor, has published several books on art. He speaks as he writes, in short, precise, assertive sentences. “I grew up in London, but I don’t speak like an English person, really. My accent’s been modified slightly, since I’ve lived in New York. There’s a little Irish in it, a little American and a lot of London.” He laughs: “People think I’m Australian.”

Since the late 1970s, Scully has lived in the US, where his career went stellar, but he is best defined as London-Irish. He was born in Dublin, in 1945, but his family moved to London when he was four. London is where he grew up, where he went to art college and found his way as a painter. His work, he says, is what happens “when you put the Irish heart and spirit in a disciplined relationship with the English work ethic.”

His grandmother kept a boarding-house in Highbury. “We used to have men come over from Ireland and rent rooms there. I remember them as being slightly built, wistful men. Men who were alone in the world, and who came to London to work for the conqueror.”

London is not just in Scully’s accent, it’s in his attitude too: as a young man, he trained in karate and dabbled in crime; there is much of the street fighter in the boldness of his art and his robust defence of painting.

Scully’s father, John Anthony, was a barber. Theirs was a difficult relationship. “He was a great worker, a great provider, and a man of great constancy and integrity. But, in a way, it was a terrible childhood. Goddamn. It was like having a nervous breakdown for 18 years. There was such pressure and tension in the house. It was electric. The aggression. The endless criticisms of us, my little brother and me. The endless discouragement.”

The Scullys came from Clonmel, Co Tipperary. Scully’s grandmother had seven daughters by her husband, John, who hanged himself rather than be bullied into joining the British army. “The British were such bastards,” says Scully. “They put ‘alcoholic dementia’ on his death cert, when the man took his own life out of principle. And as his occupation they put ‘traveller’.”

Scully’s grandmother, in grief, had a relationship with her late husband’s best friend, “and my father was the issue of that.” She had to leave Clonmel, moving to Dublin, and then to London, with her eight children.

“My father knew he was a ‘bastard’, but he always kept it a secret. He had a very difficult life, this little boy with seven older sisters. He was consumed, his whole life, by guilt and a sense of worthlessness. And he was an extremely traumatising father. But he did say to me, on the balcony of the house I bought them in the south of Spain — when I became a ‘rock star’ — he said, ‘I didn’t have a father, you know, I didn’t really know what to do.’ And it was sweet that he said that.”

Scully came of age in the late 1950s and early ’60s. He was a born rebel. “One thing I’ll tell you that shows I had the soul of an artist. My father used to worry about every penny. You know, if you went out of the room in the winter, he would shout at you, ‘Shut the bloody door!’, ’cos there was only one room heated. Our bedroom wasn’t heated. We had to put our feet against the wall because of the cramps, to shock the muscles,” he says.

“We had a mynah bird, a black one who could talk, so all summer I spent teaching this mynah bird to say, ‘Shut the bloody door!’. It got to the point where the mynah bird would be under the blanket at night. And I would go out, and my father would say, ‘Shut the bloody door!’. And then the mynah bird, from under the blanket, would say, ‘Shut the bloody door!’. And my father couldn’t say it anymore.”

Scully chuckles. “It was a fantastic move,” he says. “That shows the spirit of an artist. Because an artist is, in some way, subversive. Art works its way from underneath and is some way anti-power. And, of course, it’s very powerful, but not in the obvious way, not in the political sense. It’s making the fabric on which everybody walks, it’s making the culture, the underpinning, and this was a wonderful example of how a boy can turn something upside down and use it as a weapon. I was about 12, 13. The first time it worked perfectly, when I achieved my goal, I was covered, bathed, in satisfaction and triumph.”

Scully’s first job was as a compositor, with Wetherby’s printers, who produced the British racing calendar. “But I broke my apprenticeship. This man, who looked like Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, said, ‘Do you know, boy, you are the first boy to break your apprenticeship in 150 years of Wetherby & Sons’ sterling history?’. And I thought, ‘God, I am the reason this edifice is going to have a crack in it’.”

He left anyway. “I became a graphic designer, because, again, my father wouldn’t let me go to art school. I met tremendous resistance. But that was another apprenticeship I broke. I was like the horse that would not wear the bridle.”

For a brief time, Scully played in a rock band with his brother. “But I was more interested in high culture, as opposed to popular culture. I eventually got into art school: I felt very powerfully about it, that painting was almost a religious calling. For me, it was a matter of life and death. I had no education, no school certificates at all, but I got into Croydon. There was no stopping me then.”

Scully knows his parents were proud of his later success, though they could never express it. He recalls the one time he persuaded them to visit him in New York. He took them to the Museum of Modern Art, where, as it happened, one huge painting of his was hanging in the foyer. “It was the greatest achievement, you know. My mother looked at the painting for the longest time and then said, ‘That’s…’. I could see she was really struggling. ‘That’s a blue you don’t often use, Seán’.” Scully shakes with laughter: “And my father said, ‘Right, that’s enough of that, then’.”

A thinker’s homage to Greece

Scully’s Doric exhibition features seven monumental new paintings in oils on aluminium, a series of smaller watercolours made on the Greek island of Simi, and drawings and paintings from the collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Scully has a long association with the Hugh Lane: in 2006, he donated seven works to the museum.

The Doric paintings were inspired by Greek architecture, and specifically that of the Doric order, which prized simplicity and lack of adornment. The paintings are mainly comprised of different shades of black, grey and blue, whose darkness is mitigated by their warmth.

“These Doric paintings are like an homage to Greece,” says Scully. “They’re strange, as a cycle of paintings. I mean, I’m still in the middle of it: when I made the first one, I didn’t know there were going to be so many of them, and now I don’t seem to be able to stop. They’re quite unique in the recent history of art, there’s nothing like them. I just wish I had more of the small ones in the show: they’re more intimate, like Manet.”

Scully works quickly, in intense bursts, but his paintings have a long gestation period. “I’m contemplative, I think very deeply about everything. I think the reason my paintings have been so successful is because they have this quality: they’re not remote. They’re abstract, but they’ve got the ability to communicate. I have so many exhibitions now, it’s quite extraordinary.

“These other painters, they’re so hermetically sealed in the art world they need critics to define them. Whereas, me, I define my own fucking position.”

The Doric paintings can be seen as part of an epic cycle that Scully began when he moved to New York more than 30 years ago. “I think one of the reasons I have been so successful is because when I went to America, I didn’t try to hold onto anything. I think that, somehow, because I already had a broken relationship with Ireland, I could start over again. Tabula rasa. I could be kind of ruthless with myself.”

America, Scully says, is “Darwinian. It’s a brutal society. People got to look after themselves, or they get left behind. It’s not admirable. Something happens, they say you didn’t take care of yourself.

“There’s a kind of brutality about it that responds to someone like me, ’cos I’m equal to it. But that doesn’t make it right. You can’t have a society that’s just based on winners. It’s ridiculous.”

Scully’s response to his own success is simple. “I give away at least 10% of what I earn,” he says. He is determined that other children should have the same opportunities as his son, who will be four in May. “I work mainly with Save the Children in places like Latin America, India and Pakistan. I support 200 children now, and I hope to step up to 300. They’ve never met me, these children. They don’t need to, they just need to meet my money.”

Politically, Scully says America is moving to the left. “I talked about this the other day. I was doing an exhibition in this little arts centre, with two German artists, and I talked about how America is not the same country I came to in the ’70s. It is developing.

“They say, for example, that if Hilary Clinton were to run for president, it wouldn’t be worth running against her. The Republicans are virtually unelectable. The only way, now, they could get elected is to move to the centre. But they can’t. The Democrats are just going to get in serially.

“It just goes to show, it’s not governments who decide things, it’s the people.” * Seán Scully: Doric runs at Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane until June 9.

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