Critique | Sean Scully, ‘SQUARE’

Kerlin Gallery; 14 May – 25 June 2022

Sean Scully, ‘SQUARE’, installation view; photograph courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery. Sean Scully, ‘SQUARE’, installation view; photograph courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery.

From Kazimir Malevich to Josef Albers, the square has been valued for its objective flexibility, helping to shape ideas from the purely optical to the iconic. In this show of 100 works, presented non-chronologically and spanning more than five decades of Sean Scully’s career, the ‘square’ is also a useful, common denominator. Our place in time is important to Scully, who in a recent interview asserts, “The question is, are you wrapped rigidly in the cloth of your time, or can you fly out of it and travel time, and I was always very aware that I wanted to do the latter”.1 Time may be the arbiter, but in the swim of the here and now, no one asserts the authority of Sean Scully better than Scully himself.

The most surprising thing here is Wrapped Grid Orange (1972 – remade 2020), an aluminium lattice, tightly wound in strips of coloured felt. The metal grid (it was originally made of wood) is softened and – à la Christo and Jeanne-Claude – made extra-visible for being hidden. The variously coloured fabric complicates the uniformity of the structure, with an uneven corner of orange giving way to areas of dark red, grey and black. The work is genuinely odd; a curious mixture of repressed feeling and matter-of-fact form, like a prosthetic limb coddled in superfluous bandages. 

Also mysterious, but more conventional, a large painting on loan from IMMA is called Brennus (1979). Named for a fearsome Gaul, its sombre bands of wine and black are a shadowy blind, drawing you into darkness. To its left, the much smaller, punchier, monochrome canvas, Small Blue Painting #3 (1977) is equally austere, with very thin, slightly wavy horizontals creating a finely corrugated surface you want to strum. 

Scully’s work oscillates between the monumental and the intimate, a dichotomy most obvious when he switches to paper. The absence of large statements in his prints, pastels, and watercolours lends them subtlety, a quality that can feel overwhelmed by the grander aspirations of his more forceful works in other media. A recent watercolour, Robe Diptych (2020) is beautiful. Rectilinear in overall shape, the composition contains 24 squares of muted colour, snugly contained in a horizontal grid. I was reminded of a watercolour set, the cakes of colour side by side in functional, unwitting harmony. I’ve no idea if this allusion to its own making is intentional, but it makes looking at it particularly satisfying. Beside it, the larger watercolour, Black Square 1. 26. 20 (2020) looks flat by comparison, its five differently coloured bands lacking sufficient tension to lock or be locked into place by the below centre, titular shape.

Several paintings are on aluminium panels. A little one, Black Square Coloured Land (2021) is perfectly proportioned – it’s about the size of a large format book – with jellybean-coloured bands punctuated by a black insert. But somehow it feels slightly off, as though the metal support was uncomfortable in its jacket of paint. That might sound odd, but the variety and proximity of works in the gallery prompt you to notice such details. Impervious to atmospherics, an aluminium panel has the advantage of stability, but it’s an autonomy unsympathetic to paint, the support seeming to tolerate more than welcome it.2 The paintings on linen – the luminous, Wall Pink Blue (2020), for example – feel more at ease, the material and support more reciprocal. 

In a large series of archival pigment prints made on the artist’s iPhone, ‘The 50’ (2021), the screen may have been touched, but the drawings printed out from that surface encounter lack any real sense of feeling. Blown up in scale, they become smoothly homogenous, like ghost-works in search of a body.3 With feeling more intact, the most recent work here is also the roughest. Wall Plena (2021) holds butty oblongs of broadly brushed paint in a jostling configuration of jarring colours. The liquid paint drips and runs into neighbouring areas, a sense of contamination increased by constellations of small bumps and paint fragments, dispersed like floaters across your vision. However time flies, this painting – along with many other works here – maintains a sense of arrival, the often difficult experience of coming into the world.

John Graham is an artist based in Dublin.


1 Quoted in Kelly Grovier, On The Line: Conversations with Sean Scully (Thames and Hudson, 2021).

2 Blinky Palermo’s paintings on aluminium fare better; perhaps because the panels themselves are more discreet.

3 Andrea Büttner’s more successful iPhone prints avoid this problem by translating her initial – and incidental – touching of the screen into the more physical medium of etching.