Studio view

With "Sean Scully Paintings and Watercolors" at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisc., through January 15, the abstract painter shows his trademark stripes and experiments with new effects. His signature strips of color recalling architectural features like doors, windows and walls, creating an effect of familiar reality embedded in plane geometry.


The exhibition showcases 38 watercolors selected by the artist from his personal collection and never before publicly displayed, along with monumental, multi-panel oils. Inaugurating the space for temporary exhibitions in the Chazen's sleek, $43-million addition by Boston-based architects Machado and Silvetti are a quartet of oil-on-canvas paintings called Four Dark Mirrors (2002) and four panels of oil on aluminum titled Four Towers (2009). The composition of Four Dark Mirrors consists of rectangles stacked side by side like dominos, with each side segmented into horizontal bands of contrasting color, the lines blurred where the edges meet. The Towers' banded rectangles are more exact, painted with a more limited palette. Not until the most recent, smaller work, Cut Ground Blue Pink Red, from 2011, does Scully's composition become more complex and playful, with a lighter, brighter palette and almost slapdash application of paint. Scully's densely layered surfaces and blocks of color vary from Ingres-like precision (especially in his oil-on-aluminum paintings, embedded with sharply sliced panels he calls "passengers") to Delacroix's eruptive sensuality, evident in gestural brushstrokes and luminous colors.

The eight "Liliane" paintings on aluminum, done in 2010 and dedicated to his wife, juxtapose black blocks on top and grayish blocks in their bottom half, into which are inserted rectangles with variously colored stripes. A palimpsest of wide, textured brushstrokes revealing different grounds of color beneath, the panels suggest a door that's been painted shut, behind which lurk buried meanings, like light breaking through cracks in a wall.

It's been said the Irish-born Scully (a U.S citizen who works in New York, Barcelona, and Berlin) marries European love of order and discipline with the somewhat chaotic vitality of America, fusing clarity and sensuousness. In a recent interview, M. Russell Panczenko, Chazen Museum director, praised Cut Ground Blue Pink Red, which he acquired for the museum. "The first time I saw it in the studio, I wanted to sit there and keep looking at it. And not just because it was a pretty picture. There's something that held me. Maybe," he speculated, "it's the intensity of the man that comes through."

How can geometric abstraction be so engaging? "I want my brushstrokes to be full of feeling; material feeling manifested in form and color," Scully said in a 1999 interview in the Journal of Contemporary Art.

Scully grew up in a hardscrabble Irish ghetto in London. On a 1972 trip to Morocco, he was inspired to paint geometric forms when he saw banded kilim carpets, tents, and textiles. After being stirred by ancient stone walls on a trip to Mexico in the early '80s, his stripes turned to bricks of color. Since he developed his signature style of vertical and horizontal swaths, Scully has softened their rigor with underlayers of textured color showing through, making them more expressive than rigid.

Scully's work grows out of modernism and Minimalism mixed with Romanticism. More emotive than other work using a gridded stripe, like that of Agnes Martin, Frank Stella (in his black paintings), and Blinky Palermo, the work has more in common with Kenneth Noland's gestural painterliness and Barnett Newman's vertical zips ripping through monochrome fields of color.

Scully's loose, fluid strokes, applied with a broad brush, produce a vibrant, tactile surface. This sensuous application of paint, in contrast to his limited vocabulary of horizontal and vertical bands, makes the work vibrate with a complex duality. The paintings hint of fused opposites like harmony and dissonance, control and chaos, stasis and instability, solidity and fragility—metaphors for both outer reality and inner emotional states.

The most recent paintings are as strong and substantial as the bricks and stones they evoke and as delicate as the light they approximate.