«Sean Scully Lecture- Kunstammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany. Armin Zweite: I am really happy Sean that you came, that you have come ...»
Sean Scully Lecture- Kunstammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany.
I am really happy Sean that you came, that you have come here again to see your show
and to talk to the public - who are a very enthusiastic public I have to say and we are all
looking forward to hearing what you will say about your development and about your
ideas of how to marry, let us the say Mondrian, with Pollock over all other approaches
with a rational structure of the painting. I think this is the main issue that you are involved in and I guess that is also very clear in this show that we have organised together.
As Armin has said, what I have tried to do, I guess, is to marry two extraordinarily important impulses in twentieth century art and one being classicism, a drive towards a spirituality that’s quite concrete and rather compressed, a kind of compressed emotion which interests me very deeply. I am extremely interested in the work of painters like Masaccio and Chardin, Cezanne and Valasques and a lot less interested in the work of artists such as Rubens who is too obvious for me. So the work that I always fall in love with has a lot of austerity about it as a kind of modesty or a sense of the reverential. The other impulse that has fascinated me is the drive towards a loss of subject. A drive towards all overness, expansiveness in going off the picture surface exemplified in Europe in the work of Yves Klein, who I think is a very important figure and in America of course by Barnet Newman, Jackson Pollack et al. The other little thing I would like to stress when I talk about my work I think as very important in understanding my work is that I am one of the few people involved in abstraction who really worked his way through figuration to get there. So in other words, I have made the journey that other artists like Matisse were involved in, of course Matisse never reached pure abstraction but I moved from figuration to abstraction in the same way as perhaps as Pollock or Rothko. This is very important when you are looking at my work because I think it gives it its distinctive quality.
The painting on the left is "Passenger White White" and the painting on the right is a very small painting called "Seal". Both of these paintings use the window motif and what I am trying to do in here architectural terms is make a figure ground relationship and also in just strictly painting terms to try to deal with the issue of something in a situation. An object or a person or personage, a form, a being, a personality in a context. I always try to paint my surfaces or my stripes, my forms with personality and in that respect I find myself very much at odds or certainly have a stand alone position in New York where I think that most of the people of my generation have developed a kind of sophisticated irony with regard to painting, emptying out gesture and making painting look like photography orrelating it to a pure process. In other words, distancing oneself from the surface. What I've tried to do, my painting is precisely the opposite so I am fighting for a painting, a painted surface that is very loaded up with personality, the physical fact of being alive and moody colour as you can see on the painting on your left which is called "Gate". There are two insets, one of them is real, a physical inset which is orange and next to it is painted black and grey inset and I think of these in a sense as two highly abstracted figures like two figures that are somehow jammed together, holding each other in an embrace in a landscape. They are floating in a landscape. So it is a highly abstracted, figurative painting and of course it is what we call an
painting but its extremely associational. The painting on your right which is a passenger painting again, is a cooler picture but again with colour that relates to things you can see in nature. The title "passenger" comes from the idea of something inside something else. The first painting I made called "passenger" - actually it wasn't called "passenger" it was called "precious" related to a boat trip that my parents and I had when we left Ireland when the boat got lost. This was after the war when the Irish sea was full of mines and I made a painting about the memory of it. In this way it is not a picture in the sense of a description, it’s a very distilled form of abstracted and highly stylised representation, if it is a representation maybe I even question that. But the feeling that the painting is supposed to give is the sense that something is inside something else. The painting is inside a bigger painting so it's a painting in a landscape or its also possible to see it as collage where you are looking at two things simultaneously which is of course very contemporary I believe. You know the world being so complicated. I wanted to show you these two paintings and you've probably realised by now that they have not been painted by me but they are very good anyway! The one on the right is Schmi?? And the one on the left of course is Nolder. When I was an art student in England I fell madly in love with the work of the German expressionists and the Fauve painters and I made a lot of paintings like that and unfortunately I haven't got any pictures with me so you will have to imagine it. They were quite big, brightly coloured, very free in the way that the colours were put down but always working out a drawing, figure drawings, people in rooms, two or three figures in a room and the relationship between the importance of the colour and the importance of the gesture, the way things are painted and the loosening of the relationship between how you feel about something that you're painting and how much you are prepared to represent it. It is in the loosening of that relationship that is pretty much where I entered the History of Art. So I painted very very much under the influence of these two artists and I was particularly fond of Andre Durand's wonderful sense of colour as a Fauve painter. I believe that he was the ultimate Fauve painter. He composed paintings with bright colours and soft colours, with slightly melancholic colour and very assertive colour all in the same picture very beautifully. And of course Matisse who has been an abiding influence on me. I hope that that helps you to see that the paintings are painted with a certain kind of personality and a relationship to nature that when I am entering my studio I am always looking at the sky and my paintings are full of the colour of the sky. So on one hand there is very strong classical sense of structure, or a very fundamental simple kind of drawing that I am working with and at the same time this is being subverted and informed by a very strong sense of mood so that my colour is always complicated. I have no idea at all of how a painting will turn out or what the colour will be at the end. I draw the painting out, usually I start working fairly softly and then I can change it up to certain point and then I can't.
The painting on your right, which is another "passenger" painting, so this is literally a striped painting inside a chequered painting. The inset is painted physically outside the painting and then put back into the painting so I am always trying to make the thing that I am painting the only thing that matters. So that has a relationship of course with all over painting. So when you are making an all over painting your sense of relationship is reduced as much as possible to one or two things working against each other. So the idea with an all over painting of course, is to free the emotion so that the painter is not thinking about how to make things work together. It's ambition is to be as emotional as possible. What I'm doing here is taking two all over paintings, painting them apart and then I'm putting them back together to remake a relationship so in a sense what I'm doing is undoing all over painting. I am using it and undoing it by putting them back together again so this is constantly asserting itself as a figure ground painting. So you've got two things working against each other or with each other, They're in competition for survival in a certain sense.
Now the painting on your left is a painting that's in the museum now in Bogota I think.
This is I think it's called "Dark Light' and there are a lot of titles like this in my work, titles that are rather moody. I always see light as an issue of hope and then I'm constantly fighting with impending darkness and these are the forces that are working within me.
This is a painting that’s painted entirely on one surface which is a very very different sensation to the painting on your right where the surface is cut and where the inset is really carved out so you've got a sculpted painting. You've got a romantic painting that's being brought into sharp reality by the fact that it's cut so the romance in the painting is being undermined all the time or checked or critiqued. So now using our memories - you know that faculty we call information - the painting that was on your right is a very romantic painting, there's nothing about it that's hard, all the edges are soft and there's a red light that's comes from the back that's being pressed down by black. So in a sense I think of it as a tragic painting, or a sad painting because the light at the bottom of the painting is a lost light, it's a light that's pressed down and weighed down by the weight of the material, the weight of the paint and the difficulty of putting the paint down.
Here there are two brighter paintings. Again the painting on your left, in a sense it's the simplest kind of colour I can use but even when I do that what's revealing about this painting to me is that even when I do that when I think of black, white, red I have to interfere with it so it's got mood attached to it. It's not white, it's got some other colour in it and it's laid on top of other colour. So the colour in my paintings is extremely complicated and it's always a subtext to what could be a very simple image. And they are very difficult to reproduce but lately I have been very successful at reproducing them.
The painting on right is quite a small painting and again it goes back to these two figures that are kind of ragged roughly painted, the paint is really banged down quite tough. The inset on the painting is pulled in and out the red and the yellow is painted outside the painting is put back in the painting so it gives the painting a kind of rough, tough, soft quality. I think there are a lot of things going on in the picture.
This might be a good point in which to talk a little bit about the influence on Matisse on me which is very big. What I think is wonderful about Matisse's paintings and still do, is that in my favourite paintings of Matisse which are usually painted in the teens, there's a kind of juxtaposition of difficult, unlikely decorative happy, sad relationships that are always somehow alive and living. Matisse isn't working towards perfection and this is something very important that I took from him and at a certain point after working in New York for sometime - you'll probably would be interested to know how that was - I went to New York in 1975 and I made a lot of dark, very classical, extremely rigorous, highly conceptualised paintings and at a certain point I had really had enough of it. And I really had had enough of the whole thing, I have to say. I went to a meeting one night where some painters said, "Oh let's have a meeting!" Okay fine, we'll have a meeting and the thing about New York is it is so profoundly competitive that you can't really have a meeting. In Europe you can, in Europe you can really have dialogue with people and with other artists and I do and its very nice but in New York there are so many people competing for so little that it's not possible. Or maybe it's the deeper ethic in the Culture, I don't know. It's the Culture itself that is based on competition. Anyway after sitting around talking about painting - you have to remember this was at the end of the seventies- what was agreed, not by me I might add, was that the only thing that was possible if you wanted to make a really pure painting was a square that was 1.5m x 1.5m and that was painted grey. Well that's really the end of the game I think. So I at that point began to check out and at the beginning of the eighties that were based on all the things that I loved about painting when I started painting and they were, as I said before, Kershner, Rottler, Durand, Noldler. And I thought about how it was possible to continue making paintings and whether they should be figurative or whether I could continue to make abstract paintings and it was a moment of deep crisis for me because I felt that painting itself had begun to lose the ability to communicate. I started to make paintings where I put everything back in, where I took everything out, I put it all back in and I did not revert to figuration - although I have considered it since and I have toyed with the idea from time to time and I still draw things from real life. You know, plants and chairs.
So this kind of painting and you can see this picture in the show is probably as close as I come to a return to figuration. It may not seem to you that that's a very figurative painting but it really is because the characters in the painting have such a lot of personality so seen in relation to other pictures of mine, I think it's a very figurative painting.