Last night I watched the documentary on Sean Scully that lots of people in my social media feed are talking about. A fascinating biopic about one of the most successful artists in the world, directed by Nick Willing for the BBC. Lots to unpack and consider but some things that struck me on first viewing:
His unshakeable confidence in the power of his work. One of his critics (and there are quite a few people in the film who are not entirely enamoured with him) describes Scully as “brilliant at intimidating the dealer, enthusing the buyer, with a sense of belief, an aura that he hangs around himself…”. He loves his work and genuinely thinks it is wonderful. This certainty encourages me to engage more.
His business acumen. This is not about money but about fame, legacy and his position in the art world. Scully has bought back a lot of his paintings (for ease of availability when galleries want to hold an exhibition of his work) and tightly controls the supply and demand balance. He believes that technology has changed everything for the artist “distribution, man”. Some of the curators reference his artworks being conducive to a vertical iPhone photo format and publication on Instagram.
His desire to explain his work. Even so far as learning Spanish to help communicate it and command respect! He thinks it is arrogant to make an abstract work and not explain it – this, he says, can imply that the audience is stupid if they don’t get it. He describes his own work as ‘meditative, unifying, healing and profoundly emotional’ and thinks there is a mysticism in the lines and shapes. “I believe in God and he believes in me.”
His ongoing dialogue with the past. Growing up poor and often homeless in a family where there was a constant threat of violence, he then became involved with street gangs and wet the bed every night until he was 20. Scully was later estranged from his son who was killed in a car crash (“this is the way boys die when they are 18”) before they could be reconciled. He says his childhood is always talking to him and thinks it is because he is trying to ‘fix it’, whilst knowing he never can. He claims that a therapist sent him away because, although there is a lot wrong, Scully likes the way he is.
His contempt for the art market. Says he is at odds with it (but doesn’t much care what people think of him). This is possibly because he has so much obsessive control and wants to debunk the idea that dealers and gallery owners know more about art than anyone else. “They don’t know shit from shinola.”
His global perspective. Scully believes in the power of a shared international language. “I want to make paintings that people everywhere can relate to.”  Born in Ireland, brought to England aged four, lived in the US for many years, inspired by Mexico. Back now in London because he believes America is just “about weapons” and is not a safe place to raise a child. He has studios in New York and Berlin. Believes that Britain is not a sublime nation. We are pragmatic and tolerant and full of false modesty. Not a good place for a dynamic artist to thrive.
I came across this interesting analogy by Emyr Williams whilst reading about Scully: “Artists often have a feeling or idea in their heads that they wish to realise. Think of this as a boxing match, and the thing in the head is the perceived champion. As we proceed and start to make our work, we produce the challenger. It is our jobs to knock the champion out (if one exists at all); to have faith that the qualities this challenger brings are in fact the right way forward, to let go of preconceptions, to respond to what is actually happing in front of us. The work must take us to places we could not foresee. There can be a role for set intentions, but it must be transcended by discovery.” 
Inspiration for me:
- the way he uses insets, and making them relational
- “the way a simple subject could be given a compressed complex history, by being overpainted in uncertain colors”  – I plan to experiment with overpainting with images of my neighbourhood
- choice of colours – he talks in the documentary about the reds he uses
- his work is rooted in experience: “something felt and something seen”  – images do not have to exactly articulate what their referent is
- repeated use of a visual leitmotif (Scully on Morandi: “The sameness of his subject amplifies the imaginative response. He has learned the lessons of abstraction. He has understood how powerfully repetition, and visiting the same or similar motif again and again can open up emotional depth and interpretive range. Abstraction abstracted reality to reach the non-objective shore of new experience.” 
- “teaching is a benign manipulation”
- although art comes from sorrow, transformed, it is a powerful force for good: we need beauty; it makes us what we are. This is how we are human.
- Abstraction – revisit some of the principles and key proponents
- Experiment with overpainting and textures
- Experiment with relational insets
- Research overpainters (Saul Leiter, Gerhard Richter, Anja Wülfing, Anna Louise Simpson, Robert Rauschenberg, Ian McKeever, Arnulf Rainer, Peter Beard, Luigi Ontani, Youssef Nabil, Koen Lybaert, Pierre-Louis Pierson, Rohn Meijer and and and?)
- https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/07/sean-scully-painter-interview (accessed 13.4.19)
- https://abstractcritical.com/article/paintings-by-sean-scully-and-mary-webb/index.html (accessed 13.4.19)
- http://www.artcritical.com/2008/09/01/giorgio-morandi-resistence-and-persistence/ (accessed 13.4.19)
- https://www.blainsouthern.com/artists/sean-scully (accessed 13.4.19)