UNSTOPPABLE: SEAN SCULLY AND THE ART OF EVERYTHING (Nick Willing, 2019)
260 West 23rd St. at Eighth Ave.
Thursday, November 14, 7:15
Festival runs November 6-15
“When I first met Sean, he told me, ‘I want to be the greatest abstract artist of my generation,’ and I thought, this is a lot of hubris. I didn’t know him then, and I believe him now,” says Sukanya Rajaratnam of the Mnuchin Gallery in New York about painter and sculptor Sean Scully in Unstoppable: Sean Scully and the Art of Everything. Don’t be surprised if you feel exactly the same way after you see Nick Willing’s bewitching film, making its North American premiere at DOC NYC on November 14. Born in Dublin in June 1945 and raised on the tough streets of South London where his family lived in squalor and he was in a gang, Scully was determined from early on to be more than just a successful artist, and he’s achieved his goal. “People want to see Scully like they want to see or Warhol or van Gogh, and that’s quite unique for an abstract painter to have risen above the fray and become an icon,” Hirshhorn chief curator Stéphane Aquin says.
Willing follows Scully through a whirlwind 2018 as the artist travels around the world, from his studios in Berlin, Bavaria, and Manhattan to gallery and museum shows in Washington DC, the National Gallery in London, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, De Pont Museum in the Netherlands, the Hugh Lane in Dublin, the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, San Cristobal in Mexico City, a church in Montserrat, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Mnuchin Gallery on the Upper East Side, and Newcastle University, where he went to art school, as well as key places from his youth. It’s exhausting and electric watching the driven, dedicated Scully make these rounds while also creating new work, forcefully slashing at the canvas with his bold brushstrokes. Willing traces Scully’s evolving style, from his initial figuration to his use of grids and geometric patterns and his famous stripe paintings. “The presence of the vertical and horizontal grid in his work, for me, is indicative of a person who knows he has a volatile temperament and is seeking to control it,” explains his Newcastle tutor Bill Varley. Meanwhile, fellow Newcastle student Moira Kelly proclaims, “The stripes are delicious. The stripes are about experiences. The stripes are like poems.”
Scully carefully manages his career, monitoring the market, giving generously to museums, participating in retrospectives and new shows, and delivering animated talks and lectures, but it’s about his legacy, not the money, and he doesn’t care one iota for trends or critics. “It’s not possible to discourage somebody like Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy; they believe so much in what they believe that they don’t mind if they get shot. I don’t mind either ’cause I’m doing what I believe, and that’s all there is to it,” he says, a tough, bald imposing figure of a man who looks like someone you would not want to get into a bar fight with. Writer and art critic Kelly Grovier notes, “Sean very much believes in the supernatural power of his paintings, that the works not only communicate a kind of truth but they actually have the power to affect change in this world . . . for the better.”
Willing also explores intimate details of Scully’s personal life, delving into his hardscrabble childhood; his relationship with his two ex-wives, Catherine Lee and Rosemary Henderson; the tragic loss of his first son, Paul; his distaste for Donald Trump and the American fascination with guns; and his life now with his third wife, Liliane Tomasko, and their son, Oisín. Scully usually works from instinct, attacking the canvas with his brush in ways that mimic the martial arts that he practices, but his deep love for Oisín has brought him back to figuration. He not only creates paintings of his son on the beach based on photos he has taken with his iPhone, he has also worked on a series depicting the US flag that replaces the stars in the upper left corner with a gun. I’ve seen several Scully shows over the last decade, including “Wall of Light” at Mnuchin in 2018, consisting of his magnificently meditative stripe paintings, and “Eleuthera” at the Albertina in Vienna, colorful, large-format oils of his son playing in the Bahamas. Unstoppable sheds new light on the artist, his work, his process, and his inspiration. “He’s a bit like the Ancient Mariner,” Grovier says. “He goes around the world, gallery to gallery, person to person, stopping almost anyone who will listen to tell them the great truth that his paintings portray.” It’s a gospel that Willing now spreads to an even wider audience.