Wadsworth Atheneum visitors are in for a treat: Sean Scully’s exquisite “Landline” series, just off a run at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., has arrived in Hartford. It’s here through May 19.
Works from this master of post-minimalist conceptualism enraptured viewers in 2015 at the Venice Biennale. The show explores the title through a variety of media with works inspired by his years in Ireland. The series also marks a significant shift in Scully’s work from what had until recently become increasingly complex arrangements of stripes and colors. Landline marks a departure from his earlier hard-edged minimalism to his current expressive style.
It has been Scully’s stated aim to give abstraction back to the people — and in recent years his paintings have been wildly popular, in some cases commanding $1 million apiece at auction.
Scully, who is also a poet and writer, has said the series initially served as a virtual lifeline, helping him emerge from an addiction to OxyContin that followed treatment for a serious back injury. It was in recovery that he found painting horizontally offered him the chance to conjure sea, land and sky. This touring exhibition includes nearly 50 paintings, pastels, watercolors and photographs, and two layered aluminum stack sculptures as well. Ahead of this show, in 2018, a large multi-layered sculpture was installed on the museum’s Main Street sculpture garden.
Because his art comes to us in the language of the contemporary world — from the patterns we absorb as we traverse on city blocks, or the other visual rows and lines that define our homes and working spaces, Scully believes his art is easily accessed.
Between these lines, the artist’s brushstrokes and brilliant rhythmic color packs a wallop, encapsulating vestiges of a Dickensian upbringing, a deep awareness of European art history and references elements from masterpieces created by a number of post-Impressionists. He credits Gustave Courbet, Paolo Veronese and Titian for teaching him about color.
His aesthetic sensibility has also been further shaped by his distinct cultural and working-class heritage, working as a young man in a Notting Hill printmaking factory and later for a cardboard box company north of London — fertile places to acquire skills and knowledge about people. While the daily commute served up lessons in sociology and politics, one can also see how his nascent-aesthetic ideas were percolating.