Sean Scully: The Art of the Stripe

Posted on March 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, winter 2008
Brian Kennedy, Director

The exhibition Sean Scully: The Art of the Stripe explores the persistent use of the stripe motif over three decades of work by the celebrated artist. Although Scully is renowned as a painter of stripes, this is the first exhibition to take so demonstratively the stripe as the overarching motif in his work. The show, which is being displayed on the entire upper floor of the Hood Museum of Art, includes twenty-four large paintings and a film room. The works date from 1970 through 2006 and demonstrate the variety and diversity of stripemaking that Scully has employed so successfully throughout his career. He has stated that the stripe is "a signifier of modernism"(1) and, therefore, an ideal vehicle for exploring the nature of contemporary society, established as it is within constructed cities that are often laid out on grids with slim-line skyscrapers, strung-out suburbs, and features ranging from railway lines to motorways, telephone lines to air routes.

But Scully's art is much more than a lifelong examination of architecture through color; it is a single-minded effort to unite the Western tradition of painting with a deep philosophical understanding of the nature of human relationships. Every Scully painting is about relationships, those themes that each of us must deal with in life: union and disunion, harmony and disharmony, masculinity and femininity, dependence and independence. In Scully's works, stripes and colored shapes stand in for people. But because his images are not figurative, they can seek a universal appeal, color and form being understood by all cultures. Scully powerfully presents his beliefs in the spirit of painting and in his abstract language as a means of artistic communication for people of all religions and none.

Recent articles in the news media have proclaimed that "abstract painting is back," but, of course, it never really went away.(2) Painters like Scully have continued to explore the possibilities of non-representational art even through the recent decades when it was thoroughly out of fashion. Today, however, Scully enjoys a most distinguished reputation at the highest rank of painters working in the abstract tradition. The recent major touring show Wall of Light, organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., concluded with overwhelmingly positive reviews at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A large retrospective show is currently touring in Europe.

Scully's family moved to London in 1949, four years after he was born in Dublin, and he grew up a tough, working-class kid in a poor Irish Catholic neighborhood. He later received his artistic training at Croydon College of Art and then Newcastle University, beginning his career as an artist in the late 1960s and early 1970s amid the dominance of Optical Art in Britain. He had a number of sold-out shows of hardedged striped paintings that he made with acrylics and masking tape, but he felt as though he was moving toward an artistic dead end. He then moved to America and endured a difficult five years in New York, supporting himself through various casual jobs and painting predominantly dark, densely striped paintings that were both highly disciplined and contemplative. He burst back into colored stripes in 1981, establishing an individual style in which brushstrokes became more visible as he dispensed with tape and worked his lines by eye. He soon attracted a steady and growing group of supporters and collectors. Scully became an American citizen in 1983 and divides his time today among studios in New York and Barcelona and at Mooseurach, near Munich.

The philosopher Jurgen Habermas has wondered about Scully's work, "What gives a roughly painted surface of canvas, which has been stretched over a frame, such sensual power?"(3) He decides that Scully's paintings appeal to "the viewer's feelings and intuition, rather than his intellect," because his

focus is directed at the interplay between the coarsely saturated colors that emerge from an economic repertoire involving sequence, variation and repetition of horizontals and right angles. It is a dynamism [that] is full of tension . . . the linearity of the geometric syntax is undermined and made to withdraw. There is a sense of intimacy . . . The eye's sense of distance evokes the hand's sense of closeness.

In this way, Scully's painting can become "an object of passion." He is a supreme colorist whose works are frequently discussed by critics as sharing the import of a Mondrian or a Rothko. Scully has made stripes his own, developing through them a visual language that comprises a sustained examination of classical painting traditions. His work also offers us, as viewers in an exhibition, a way to better understand each other.

Sean Scully: The Art of the Stripe, curated by Brian Kennedy, is on display at the Hood Museum of Art from January 12 to March 9, 2008.


1. Sean Scully in an interview with Mark Glazebrook, April 14, 1997, quoted in Mark Glazebrook, Sean Scully: Summarizing Living and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1997, p. 9.
2. For example, Barbara A. MacAdam, "The New Abstraction," Art News (April 2007): 110–15.
3. Jurgen Habermas, "A Modernism That Turned into a Tradition: Glosses and Associations," in Brian Kennedy, et al., Sean Scully: Body of Light (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2004), p. 39.

Related Exhibitions

Related Stories


Written March 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan