Sean Scully is a talker. That’s what he tells me when joining me online after a conversation with Phong H. Bui, Publisher and Artistic Director of The Brooklyn Rail. In our conversation, Sean attributes his garrulousness to his Irish heritage, early childhood around vaudeville performers, and the difficulties and challenges of his early life prior to success as an artist. Unusual routes into the world of art have, he thinks, given him and Phong different perspectives from those which are normative in the US art world, where artists have tended to be monosyllabic and tongue-tied, enabling people like them to break the mould.
Sean is currently preparing to take over the grounds and historic interiors of Houghton Hall in Norfolk for an exhibition that will showcase the full range of his sculpture. At the same time, in the Hall and Contemporary Gallery, he will also show a significant group of paintings and works on paper, including iPhone drawings. He calls this tour de force ‘Smaller Than The Sky’.
Several new works will be included in the exhibition, including stacks made of sandstone, wood, glass and marble. The sculptures range in scale from small maquettes to monumental open structures in steel, such as Crate of Air, and a new Wall of Light sculpture, constructed from locally sourced limestone. A key component of the exhibition is his book, Endangered Sky, a collaboration with the poet Kelly Grovier, focusing on the plight of bird life, memorialising those already extinct and those which are close to it, which will be launched at Houghton and be shown in vitrines as part of the exhibition.
Sean has previously compared art to grass, as it needs to be nurtured in order to grow. Given that his own practice has grown considerably in recent years with work in photography, printmaking, sculpture, and, now, iPhone drawings for Endangered Sky, I asked him in what ways he thinks his work has been nurtured recently to achieve that growth.
“Art is something that is made out of love and commitment,” he responded, “and if those things are there, then it nurtures itself.” He thinks exhibiting regularly makes his work better, as that is where works are seen together. He has found the move into sculpture easy because of his youth, where he didn’t have an easy ride, experiencing poverty and trauma, but did have to “work like crazy” on repetitive tasks like staking shelves in supermarkets, operating baling machines, and typesetting in the Print industry. The repetition involved links to serialisation in art but also brought a proletarian ethic into his work, ensuring nothing was too fancy and grounding the work in actions like stacking or weaving.
One of his key early innovations was paintings within paintings. This innovation derives from illustrated manuscripts, such as the Book of Durrow, which have “beautiful paintings set into script.” In the 1980s, abstraction needed to be “reactivated” and “opened up”, and Sean achieved that with “pictures within pictures” “inspired by insets in type.” He sees the moment in 1981 when he made Backs and Fronts as a moment of opportunity in which his early experiences of trauma and difficulty resourced him to see an opportunity in the then-current state of abstraction rather than a defeat from which there was no escape. His US peers had only known success, so when the juggernaut of abstraction, to which they had been adding, crashed, they faced ruin. By contrast, his previous experience of ruin enabled him to see a problem to be solved and an opportunity to revitalise something he loved.
His latest new development – his iPhone drawings – came when sitting outside among the palm trees in Eleuthera in the Bahamas – “the most beautiful place in the world” – and was inspired to start what became the Endangered Sky drawings. Then, he says, “when I sent them to Kelly, he immediately came back with a poem, saying that the drawings reminded him of birds and their plumage, in particular.” From there, they developed the idea behind the book, that of giving voice to and highlighting the plight of dozens of vulnerable species of birds on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Sean is very aware of the paradoxes involved in using a technological device like an iPhone for a project like Endangered Sky. Still, he thinks technology is “a giant ship that’s very hard to turn around,” meaning it’s better to find ways to use it to “serve the interests of nature.”
He sees this as being connected to his “strong sense of spirituality that is floating around the world”, which means that instead of “doing horrible things to each other, humanity chooses to do kind things.” With this project, the music of the birds in the sky influenced him, and he was also affected by encountering a bird that was blind and in a panic by the side of the road and finding he was too sentimental to do the kindest thing for it. He is a spiritually inclined person, with St Francis as his favourite saint, and finds God, as human beings have done from ancient times, in moments of connection and kindness. One such came when driving in a queue of traffic towards the George Washington Bridge with his son. They stopped to give a donation to a homeless man and were overtaken by an enormous bulldozer which then became a source of frustration for Sean. However, the bulldozer driver pulled over and waved them through, having seen their earlier act of generosity. It is in such exchanges that he finds the experience of God.
Collaboration, of the kind he has enjoyed with Kelly, is most powerful, he thinks when done “purely for the love of it, without trying to get something.” He also sees this quality in the art critic Donald Kuspit, who says that “writing is its own reward” and, as a result, doesn’t wait to be commissioned but places work once it is done. Sean views human beings elementally as “pack animals,” meaning that it is “when we do things together that we are great.” That may be great art but could also be warfare, so we either “move towards light or we achieve darkness.” Fundamentally, however, he is not pessimistic and thinks “predictions about the end of the world are not true.”
One of his responses to our current climate-related crisis is to plant trees extensively on all his properties. Latest studies suggest that the world is getting greener and so our plight may not be as bad as some of the worst predictions suggest. The metaphor of the tree can be combined with the kind of friendships that generate projects like Endangered Sky. Friendship is like a plant; it has to have roots and these determine growth. His friendship with Kelly grew from odd coincidences, including Kelly’s use of a railway station in Wales where the café had a Scully print on display. Kelly’s hours spent studying this print caused their friendship to be seeded and nurtured.
He commends The Overstory by Richard Powers for his exploration of how trees communicate with one another. The book demonstrates an “almost religious relationship with nature, as do I.” Sean says that ancient religions involved nature worship, and we are now circling back. He says, “to the extent to which I can change anything I will,” “as the world is worth fighting for.” An incident in 1989, during his Whitechapel show, contributed to his becoming, over time, a vegetarian. He was stuck at a roundabout alongside an open-backed truck containing cages of live chickens and observed a motorbike rider gently stroking the head of a chicken. “Such a moment of kindness and connection knocked chicken off my menu.”
Becoming more deeply connected to nature has only enhanced the sense of humility that is to be found in the title of his Houghton Hall exhibition – ‘Smaller Than The Sky’ – as “nature makes you humble and happy because you’re part of something bigger.” The key to a more paradisal relationship with nature is to remove the transactional or profit-based element, whether financial or salvific. The key, as with his friendship with Kelly Grovier and the writings of Donald Kuspit, is that we don’t act or create in order to get something back.
Sean Scully at Houghton Hall – Smaller Than The Sky, 23 April – 29 October 2023.