Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas June 20 – October 10 at the Modern

Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, features the artist’s most significant works and examines his contribution to the development of abstraction over a span of nearly five decades. The exhibition highlights the close relationship between the artist’s paintings, drawings, prints, and pastels, which are rarely shown together. The Shape of Ideas presents 49 paintings and 42 works on paper that reflect the many phases of a long and varied approach to artmaking.

The exhibition catalogue is available in the Modern Shop.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Presents Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas On View June 20 through October 10, 2021
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents a major retrospective exhibition of Sean Scully’s most significant works from the 1970s to the present. Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, closely examines the Irish-born American artist’s contribution to the development of abstraction in various media over a span of nearly five decades. These works, rarely shown together, highlight the close relationship between the artist’s paintings, drawings, prints, and pastels. The exhibition will be on view June 20 through October 10, 2021, then will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the spring of 2022.  

Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art said, “This exhibition will convey the richness and complexity of Scully’s vision and will demonstrate the important place that he occupies in the still-unfolding story of abstraction. We are pleased to honor one of this country’s leading painters through an exhibition that explores the full scope of his artistic evolution.”  

The Shape of Ideas brings together 49 paintings and 42 works on paper that reflect the many phases of a long and varied approach to artmaking.   Marla Price, Director of the Modern and contributor to the exhibition’s catalogue, notes, “Scully has spoken of his career as a ‘rolling cannibalization,’ in which he scavenges his own work and that of others to expand, develop, and move forward. The systematic elements in his early works have never really disappeared as he continues to explore different combinations of building units or motifs and then pair them with emotion and content.”  

The earliest paintings included are three important works created when the artist, then based in London, was awarded a year-long Frank Knox Fellowship to attend Harvard University in 1972–73. This experience afforded Scully opportunities to visit New York, a major center for minimalist and abstract painting at the time. (Scully would move to New York permanently in 1975.) In these works, such as Harvard Frame Painting, 1972, Scully made experimental use of the grid, applying tape and spray paint across the canvas to compose paintings made up of vertical and horizontal stripes. Green Light, 1972–73, and Inset #2, 1973, are early examples of the artist’s evolving motif of a “painting within a painting,” which remains a hallmark of his practice.  

Scully’s multi-paneled works represent a format that would occupy the artist’s attention throughout the 1980s. In these paintings, he combined and re-combined panels to create larger and more ambitious compositions. His work during this decade is characterized by its structured, simplified forms and increasing scale. Notable among these is Precious, 1981, his first large multi-paneled painting, and Backs and Fronts, 1981, an 8 x 20-foot work comprised of 12 attached canvases that drew considerable notice when first exhibited at P.S.1 at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982. These paintings are presented with ink sketches that illuminate Scully’s experiments in color, form, and scale.  

In 1982, Scully was awarded an artist’s residency at the Edward Albee Foundation in Montauk, NY. The small paintings made there used scraps of wood that he found in the poet’s barn, which he then pieced together to create sculptural compositions in relief. Swan Island, Ridge, Bonin, and Elder, all painted in 1982, reflect another turning point in the artist’s use of scale as his work became increasingly architectural. He continued to advance the ideas he explored in Montauk through Heart of Darkness, 1982, a colossal three-panel work, as well as The Fall, 1983, Tonio, 1984, and Falling Wrong, 1985. Around this time, Scully made the first of several trips to Mexico, where he was especially taken by its ancient architecture and local color. These travels spurred him to undertake watercolor, as seen in Mexico Azul 12.83, 1983, which refers to the visual stimuli he experienced there.   By the 1990s, Scully began to extend his exploration of the inset and experiment with variations of the stripe in paintings, drawings, watercolors, pastels, and prints. In Uist, 1991, the inset device appears to float within the canvas and introduces a checkerboard motif, one further emphasized in works such as Union Yellow, 1994, and Four Days, 1995. In some cases, the picture is physically set into the work like a window, as exemplified in Pale Fire, 1988, from the Modern’s collection, and Magdalena, 1993.   Scully’s most well-known series is Wall of Light. Beginning in 1998, many of these were made in response to a particular location, sensation, or memory. Painted surfaces of vertical and horizontal bars (Scully calls them “bricks”) suggest constructed walls of stone. His Wall of Light paintings led to closely related compositions, chief among them the Doric paintings.   Scully created his Doric series in homage to Greece, reflecting ideas of strength, resilience, and stability. These are also often painted on aluminum, which enhances the effect of smooth surface patterns and allows for new blended coloration. Many of the Doric works are shown together for the first time here, including the monumental Iona, 2004–06, as well as Doric Pink Light, 2012, and Doric Hermes, 2012.  

The exhibition concludes with work created in the last two decades that contains motifs and themes that Scully had been developing since the 1970s. Landlines, large gestural paintings comprising thick bands of color, are among the most minimalist that Scully has produced. These works announce a shift to a more expressive style, signaling new directions and possibilities for abstract painting.   Scully’s virtuosity as a printmaker will also be featured in a selection of color lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, and aquatints. Among the highlights are a series of color aquatints, each accompanied by the verse of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), as well as examples such as Wall of Light Blue, 2000, and Day, 2005, which reveal an ongoing relationship between his paintings and works on paper.  

Exhibition co-curator Amanda Sroka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, adds, “By integrating Scully’s paintings and works on paper throughout this singular exhibition, we can understand and appreciate the rich interrelationship among various media for which this artist is best known.”  

Publication Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas is authored by Timothy Rub, George D. Widener Director and CEO, with Amanda Sroka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, both of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is the first to thoroughly examine Sean Scully’s art within a biographical context. Co-published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press, the catalogue presents an in-depth account of Scully’s career and his most significant bodies of work, informed by extensive interviews with the artist and comprehensive art-historical research. The book contains a preface by Marla Price, Director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and author of Scully’s multivolume catalogue raisonné; an extensive biographical, contextual, and formal reading offered by Timothy Rub; and an essay by the poet and art critic Kelly Grovier on the unique contribution Scully has made to the history of abstraction. Featured contributions include reprints of key essays by William Feaver, Deborah Solomon, Donald Kuspit, Arthur C. Danto, and Michael Auping that contextualize Scully’s work over the decades. 256 pages. ISBN: 9780876332955. $45.  

About Sean Scully Sean Scully (b. 1945) works in painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and photography. Born in Dublin, raised in London, and having moved to the United States at the age of 30, the artist has tested the possibilities of abstract art to develop a style that is uniquely his own. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Harkness Fellowship, and he is a two-time Turner Prize nominee. Scully’s works are in numerous private and public collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2015, Scully participated in the Venice Biennale with his solo exhibition Land Sea at the Palazzo Falier. For the 2019 Biennale, the artist presented Human, a solo exhibition at the historic Basilica of San Giorgio. The upcoming retrospective will be artist’s first of this scale in the United States since Sean Scully: Twenty Years, 1976–1995, curated by Ned Rifkin, presented in 1995 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Scully currently divides his time living and working in New York and Bavaria.

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