I think of land, sea, sky. And they always make a massive connection. I try to paint this, this sense of the elemental coming together of land and sea, sky and land…stacked in horizon lines endlessly beginning and ending.
Exhibiting radiant swathes of rich amber and ocher against deep sage-green, Sean Scully’s Landline Fire presents a brooding yet resplendent vision that makes for an exceptional example of the artist’s ongoing investigation of striped forms. The work hails from the artist’s Landline series which was exhibited to great acclaim alongside the 56th Venice Biennale. Inspired by the intense beauty of sun-drenched Venice, Italy, the Landline works marked a transition from his earlier hard-edged forms to his current more gestural and expressive style. Emblazoning the aluminum surface with thick and fluid bands of colour, Scully enlivens the pictorial surface with a luminous dimensionality that evokes the brilliance of Mediterranean light. The series made its U.S. debut at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2018, transforming the inner-circle galleries of the museum into currents of colour and energy. An ode to land, sea, and sky and the indistinct lines that separate them, the Landline works “navigate the elemental relationships that compose our world, and in doing so reveal the sublime character of those interactions” (Exh. Cat. Sean Scully: Landline, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, September 2018 – February 2019).
A nomadic artist who maintains studios in New York, London, Munich and Barcelona, Scully’s paintings are often connected by their titles to particular experiences, individuals and places. The different psyches and lights of each city he inhabits directly influences his works; for example, during a 1969 voyage to Morocco, the artist became fascinated by the richly-dyed wools and opulent carpets that were uncommon in his home city of Dublin. Subsequently, during a trip to Mexico in the early 1980s, Scully became captivated by the stacked stones of ancient Mayan walls in the Yucatan region and by the effect of the light reflecting off of their surfaces. The artist began to produce quilt-like structures of horizontal and vertical lines, over-painted with free use of impasto to create a luxurious paint surface.
Painted in 2015, the present work hails from the artist’s Landline series (2013-2015), which was inspired by his time in Venice, Italy. As the artist remarked, “In making these paintings I was preoccupied with my memories of Venice […] From my studio south of Munich I often get in the car and drive a few hours down to Venice. It was the impressions from these trips that I brought back into the studio; I was painting the memories of Venice into the works” (the artist in the press release for Sean Scully: Land Sea, Palazzo Falier, 6 May 2015). Formally, the series marks a shift from his earlier work where vertical and horizontal bands are compact, layered and at times executed in extensive quilted patterns. Scully is known for building up his compositions piecemeal, applying multiple layers of paint to emphasize the presence of the artist’s hand. In the present work, the artist’s handling has become extremely free with large ribbons of fluid, unconstructed strokes stretching from edge to edge of the composition. Scully’s magisterial mastery of pigment is further demonstrated via his nuanced layering of oil over aluminum, which achieves the unique glimmering ‘wet’ effect of pigment over metal. The artist has expressed his fondness for metal support, which in contrast to canvas or paper does not absorb pigment. The slippery nature of metal forces Scully to move his brush faster, resulting in heightened gesturality and movement.
While simple in composition, Scully’s horizontal blocks of colour, cascading softly in one another, powerfully dictate the ambiance of the painting’s surroundings: while emanating the all-encompassing stillness and calm of natural phenomena, the gestural stripes embody the unceasing currents and internal movements of the cosmos. In the present work, Scully’s rich smoldering earth tones stem from the artist’s admiration of paintings by seventeenth-century Spanish artists such as Goya. The influence of the classics is also seen in the narrative aspect of the Landline series, which can be viewed as expressing human relationships – with each grouping of paint indicating a response to a question, an agreement or disparity. Scully states that his “paintings talk of relationships. How bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Duisburg, Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Constantinople Or The Sensual Concealed The Imagery of Sean Scully, 2009, p. 8). More directly, Landline Fire is an elegy to the winding canals and sun-baked Palazzos of the Mediterranean. It was only appropriate that a selection of paintings from the Landline series was unveiled in Land Sea, a major exhibition mounted in Palazzo Falier that ran in conjunction with the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.
More than any artist of his generation, Scully combines the formal traditions of European painting – the ominous tones of Velásquez and Manet and the remarkable colors and brushwork of van Gogh and Matisse – with a strikingly American abstract tradition, typified in particular by Mark Rothko. Considering the heroic paintings produced during the post-war era as his direct heritage, it is with Rothko in particular that Scully shares a special affinity. In Rothko's work, light combines with darkness in a moody, melancholic drama – a singular effect that constitutes the cornerstone of Scully’s appreciation of his forefather. He says of his predecessor’s work: “The sky and the sea, as well as all the experiences the artist has lived and all the stories he would like to tell are distilled into rectangles that have the solemnity of Stonehenge” (the artist cited in Michael Auping, ‘No Longer a Wall’, in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Sean Scully: Wall of Light, 2005-06, p. 24). Condensing the splendor of the natural world into the simplest modes of colour and composition, Landline Fire exhibits Scully’s mastery of moderating palette, light, and movement to its most basic forms without eliminating its energy, demonstrating not only the possibility of colour in non-figurative form but also the singular fiery spirit of Scully’s artistic philosophy.