There’s a lot of force to these paintings. There’s a lot of physical force to them, a lot of tactile sexual energy, a lot of sensuality. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the relationship between the parts actually means and I think that that’s a very important aspect of my work. I mean if I have to choose a course between Puritanism and extreme romanticism, I think it’s clear than I’m going to choose extreme romanticism. But I think what I can contribute is something that has both in it, something that has the possibility of both in it, and it’s that extreme stretch that I want to try to achieve in my work. That’s my ambition.
Sean Scully has come into international prominence as one of the most admired painters working in the abstract tradition. His individual painterly style is sufficiently established that all those familiar with contemporary visual culture would recognise his work.
It was not always so. Only his extraordinary perseverance and self-belief, despite periods of self-doubt and setback, have led to his sustained output of excellence for over three decades.
In 1981, while still a university student, I first saw Sean Scully’s work in the ten-year survey exhibition which came to Trinity College, Dublin, as part of a tour which had begun at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. Scully, born in Dublin, created quite an impact and it seemed likely his star would rise.
When I took up the directorship of the National Gallery of Australia in 1997, I was impressed immediately by the strength and depth of its collections. There were so many individual works of superlative quality. Among them it was pleasing to find a painting by Scully, and one with a powerful presence. Bigland 1987–88, although painted in response to the geographical scale of the USA, spoke also to Australia, a country of equal expanse but with only a fraction of the American population.
During my time in Canberra, the National Gallery’s curators, Jane Kinsman and Gael Newton, have complemented Bigland with excellent works on paper by Scully, especially his photographic series Art Horizon 2001. It is with a sense of privilege that I thank the National Gallery of Australia Council and Foundation for acquiring for the collection, as a farewell gift in my honour, Scully’s splendid painting Wall of light desert day 2003.
In June 2003, after meeting him in London, Sean Scully told me about a survey of his oil paintings, pastels, watercolours, prints and photographs, from 1990 to 2003 which was being organised by the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Tampere, Finland in cooperation with the second venue, the Weimar Classics Foundation and Art Collections in Weimar, Germany. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity if the show could come to Canberra. We could add Bigland and also the painting Secret sharer 1989, which is in the private collection of a member of our Foundation. We have also included in the Canberra exhibition Wall of light desert day 2003, and the beautiful series Holly 2004, made by the artist in memory of his mother, which is being seen for only the second time.
I acknowledge with gratitude the generosity and cooperation of Timo Vuorikoski, Director, and Riitta Valorinta, Exhibition Curator of the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Tampere. We also acknowledge Hellmut Seemann, Director of the Weimar Classics Foundation and Art Collections. Both my colleagues Ron Ramsey (now the Director of Cultural Affairs at the Australian Embassy, Washington DC) and Jörg Zutter, Assistant Director – International Art, travelled from Canberra to Tampere to see the Scully show. The interview with Sean Scully conducted in Mooseurach by Jörg Zutter is published here, and we are most appreciative that our Finnish colleagues have supported our wish to prepare a new publication with additional essays and a selection of short texts quoting the artist. It is a testament to Scully’s distinction as a painter that essays have been contributed by his friends Donald Kuspit, Arthur Danto and Jürgen Habermas.
We are most appreciative of the generosity of the lenders to the exhibition, Galeria Carles Taché, Barcelona; Galerie Lelong, Paris; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London; Hilti Art Foundation, Liechtenstein; Galeries Bernd Klüser, Munich and especially the Nordrhein-Westfalen Art collection of Düsseldorf and its Director, Armin Zweite, for lending us the museum’s most important Scully works.
The contribution of Shaune Lakin to the organisation of the exhibition, in assisting me with all its curatorial aspects, has been decisive and much appreciated. Adam Worrall and Mark Bayly coordinated and managed the exhibition and Patrice Riboust designed it; Kirsty Morrison designed this catalogue and Pauline Green edited the texts. Most importantly, Sean Scully has offered every possible support for both the exhibition and catalogue. It is a delight that the exhibition will offer Sean, with Liliane Tomasko, his partner and fellow painter to whom we offer warm thanks, the occasion of their first visit to Australia.
1 Sean Scully, public lecture, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, 11 March 1994; transcript, National Gallery of Australia file 03/0511, folios 185–201 (folio 192).
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