Executed in 1997, the present work was produced just one year prior to the advent of Scully’s renowned Wall of Light Series. As such, Passenger Red White can be seen as a pivotal precursor to this prominent body of work. It was a formative trip that Scully made to Mexico in the early 1980s that would come to shape his entire artistic output. There, the artist became preoccupied by the monumental stacked stones of the ancient Mayan walls at Yucatan and the way in which the bright light danced off them, bringing them to life. In 1998, following additional trips to Mexico and after absorbing fully the aesthetic implications of his earlier studies, Scully began to create his Wall of Light series of paintings, watercolours, pastels, and aquatints. Recalling the extent this influence had on his art, Scully remarked, "I can’t exactly explain it, but seeing the Mexican ruins, the stacking of the stones, and the way light hit those facades, had something to do with it, maybe everything to do with it” (Sean Scully quoted in: Exh. Cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sean Scully: Wall of Light, 2005, p. 24).
The present work’s most striking feature is the complexity of its formal organisation, comprised of two distinct sections. A painting within a painting; the central portion is a separate canvas which is subsumed perfectly by the surrounding support. The canvas is transformed by dynamic and iridescent bands of golden light that emanate in a checker board formation. Suspended in time and space, a candy striped entity rests within a masterful pictorial field. The red and white composition refers to that which is temporary and ephemeral, perhaps a foreign object voyaging in a state of constant flux. The flexible structure tends towards firmness, repeating the paradox by which the static quality is off set by the sensation of movement. Motionless yet transitory, there is a dynamic interchange of opposing forces at play.
Within his succulently coloured paintings, the key hue, which is so magisterially depicted in the present work, is black, the only colour that the artist ever uses in its pure state. This fascination with black stems from the artist’s admiration of the rich black tones in the paintings of seventeenth-century Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya and is represented here in three masonry-like slabs. Scully also acknowledges the influence of Modern masters on his work stating that: “if you have Matisse, Mondrian, Rothko, then you’ve got my work” (Sean Scully quoted in: David Carrier, Sean Scully, London 2004, p. 61). More than any artist of his generation, Scully combines the formal traditions of European painting – the brooding tones of Manet and the spectacular colours and brushwork of Matisse – with a distinctly American abstract tradition, epitomised in particular by Rothko. With certain perplexity, one realises that Scully’s work recapitulates an entire century of painting.
Perfectly encapsulating Scully’s iconic aesthetic language, the compositional economy of Passenger Red White is strikingly powerful, with a single set of forms and sumptuous hues working in binaries to create a simply stunning architecture. With a mandate to put the rational operations of painting, guided primarily by the intellect and the challenge of the purely optical, but simultaneously to avoid any deviation from the purist canons of a highly restricted formal repertoire, Passenger Red White is of Scully’s most celebrated artistic endeavours to date.
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