Sean Scully is squaring up to doubters

Sean Scully is the subject of the most significant exhibition in Cork for many years. Not surprisingly, he’s dismissive about the recent controversy about his work on RTÉ’s Liveline, writes Alan O’Riordan.

Sean Scully is squaring up to doubters

THERE’S a lot of Sean Scully to be seen in Ireland as the artist marks his 70th birthday at the end of this month. A show in Cork’s Crawford Gallery that features early, rarely seen, works by the artist opens on Friday. In Dublin, there’s also an exhibition currently on at the National Gallery, and a selection of new works will be seen at the Kerlin Gallery next month.

It’s the kind of exposure most living artists can only dream of and, perhaps, that’s what ruffled some feathers locally. Radio show Liveline was the forum for some dispute about the devotion of so much space in the National Gallery to Scully, with Robert Ballagh, Mannix Flynn and even a tour guide weighing in.

Scully, though, is Olympian in his disinterest in the squabble. “In relation to the people who moan about giving me the National Gallery, it’s not a coincidence that both Beckett and Joyce left Ireland. They should think about that for a while,” says Dublin-born Scully in a London accent that comes from his family’s move to Britain when he was aged four.

Change 1, 1975

“Why did the greatest playwright of the 20th century and the greatest novelist of the 20th century have to leave Ireland? The answer is to be found in this complaining culture. Complaining about giving me the National Galley? The National Gallery should be happy that I showed there. It’s not me who is the fortunate one in this marriage. People should celebrate having someone as big as me coming from Ireland, not moaning about it.”

It’s the kind of direct, unabashed response typical of a man who doesn’t go in for false modesty. A man keenly aware of his reputation, one who reaches readily for names like Rembrandt, Manet and Caravaggio when seeking comparisons to his own practice.

Such honesty is often refreshing. Scully projects a kind of bullet-proof aura which you doubt is not simply a public face. If it is just that, then at least it is based on a considerable international reputation, which sees him exhibit all over the world.

As we speak by phone, he is in Barcelona putting the finishing touches on a remarkable commission: The interior of the recently- restored 10th-century church of St Cecilia at the Unesco heritage site of Montserrat near Barcelona. “You only do this sort of thing once,” he says. “It’s a serious thing. It’s going to be an icon for Barcelona. It will be there in a thousand years. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve done.”

Untitled (seated figure), 1967, oil on canvas


Scully has come a long way since leaving Inchicore for London. The Crawford exhibition encompasses that long journey and, in its very title, Figure/Abstract, it hints at the transformation of Scully from a figurative artist to the abstract artist of international renown.

“It starts with straightforward realism,” Scully says, “and it goes through to a very big recent painting called ‘Horizontal Soul’. You’ll see a lot of sculptural ideas I had, and works on paper that I think people will find fascinating. I takes you through my time with minimalism and my more expressionistic paintings up to the present.”

Perhaps the great surprise for viewers will be the early portraits — deft sketches that show a real engagement with the human form. Utterly unlike the works that made Scully’s name.

“When I started as an artist, I was a very competent drawer,” he says. “Very competent indeed but, once I had discovered abstraction and its creative possibilities, I dumped realism. Realism is kind of boring. Doing something to make it look like something else that already exists is not really all that interesting.”

Nude Female, Lying, 1964

Scully speaks of this transition as a rebellion against figure.

“I like Lucien Freud. I have a great admiration for him. And I have a great admiration for Frank Auerbach. He’s a fantastic painter, but there is something terribly hermetic and insular about their paintings. I didn’t want to be a part of that. My work engages with the way the contemporary world is put together.

“It’s like how forms and cells are reused in nature. It’s got soul. How great is that? Where else do you find that? I think that’s far more interesting, ultimately, than making a painting of a fat bloke sitting in a room. looking as if he’s gonna have a heart attack any minute.”

Figure/Abstract also charts Scully’s long engagement with minimalism and, while he says that the artist he is now is “significantly less evident” in these early and middle works, they remain important signposts on his journey.

“In those days,” he says, “I was trying to make a space for myself, to form a language. I spent many years forming the language that I now use with such confidence and, of course, this is necessary. You have to build your place in the world. You can’t expect to have it because you want it. You’ve got to make it.”


That language has been remarkably sustaining, both in terms of longevity and output.

“Most people who work like me have eventually hit the wall,” Scully says, “and people are fascinated that I just keep rolling along. There is something in my work that is secure and clear and defined. You can recognise one of my paintings immediately, but it’s somehow not closed, it’s never finalised, if you know what I mean. It has repetition in it like a lot of contemporary music. Glass, Reich, Part, it’s all based on repetition, but nobody complains about that, of course.”

Scully says his work is hooked in with the energy and structures of our time, but he’s not obeying the mathematical formulas of it.

“I’m making it very intuitive, so you have those two things going at the same time and it’s always capable of reorganising itself. It’s an imitation of nature in that way, capable of reorganising and reorchestrating itself. Very few painters who are using repetitive structures have that capacity. It’s in my work, the ability to do that.”


As Scully describes it, his practice is free of self doubt. He does not second-guess himself. He “invariably” finishes what he starts. He gives free rein to instinct and intuition, yet, at the same time, is a keen theorist of his own work.

It’s an unusual combination in an artist and, again, it speaks of that self-belief.

“I can make a painting now in the same time it took me to make one of those littler drawings,” he says, “because I’ve spent all my life doing it. I know exactly how to do it. I don’t have to beat myself up trying to figure out if I’m going to be able to do it. That’s not the question anymore.”

So what is the question now? “What do I want to do now?” he answers. “I am in overdrive. I’m really making mature full-on paintings. It’s very credible, because of the length of my story, the amount of time I’ve been painting. The amount of time I’ve been showing my work is close to unprecedented. Something like 44 years.

“You could have squeezed three careers into my career and it’s still got another 20 years to roll on. I’m only 70 and I’m certainly going to go till I’m 90. I’ve got a whole other life in front of me as an artist.”

You’ve been warned, world. Sean Scully is going nowhere.

Figure/Abstract opens at the Crawford Gallery in Cork on Friday. At 5pm on Friday, Seán Scully is in conversation with curators Marc O’Sullivan and Tina Darb (booking is not required, but seating is limited). All welcome

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