Sean Scully: A Modernist Meets The Masters Beneath The Dreaming Spires

Sean Scully

Sean Scully Encounters: A New Master Among Old Masters is the first exhibition at the Christ Church Picture Gallery Oxford to juxtapose the work of a contemporary painter with its collection of old masters.

The exhibition is comprised of eleven paintings and thirty-three prints. The artist collaborated with the Picture Gallery’s curators Jacqueline Thalmann and Kelly Grovier to choose pre-existing paintings to be placed side by side with the Gallery’s collection to highlight formal and colour relationships between the 16th century works and Scully’s modernist pieces. Each painting taking the place of an existing work in the College’s collection; and of its approximate size. This installation of the artist’s work is a meditative pause to the figurative paintings that surround it.

Scully abandoned figurative work in the 1960s, instead developing an abstract language of strips and blocks. But the artist’s work shares a timeless concern with colour reflected in the relationships formed between his painting and that of the masters on display.

Scully’s painting ‘Yellow Robe Red Figure’ 2007 forms a dialectic with Jacapo Bertoia’s (1544-1574) ‘Mars, Hercules, Bacchus, and Jupiter’. Bertoia’s work is comprised of four panels at the end of the gallery forming a rich formal and conceptual relationship with the artist’s vibrant canvas through colour relationships and associations; as robed Gods surround the monolithic abstract and communicate through colour.

A similar yet murkier relationship is formed with Scully’s painting ‘Falling Dark’ 2005 in situ with Annibale Carracci’s ‘Butchers Shop’ 1578/80; evoking the dark corners and butchered red meat of ‘pre-Baconian’ hanging flesh that is present in the master’s work.

These relationships serve to highlight the importance and meaning of colour as a form of symbolism and metaphor in the early masters, referenced in the artist’s title ‘Yellow Robe Red Figure’, at the same time as highlighting the vibrancy and depth of the artist’s often monumental canvases.

The installation of Scully’s abstract paintings among the figurative forms of Christ Church’s old masters, creates a poetry of colour, creating a rhythmic journey through the collection, occasionally paused by the abstractly meditative and Rothko-esque hues of the artist’s paintings – in vivid or dank fields of colour residing between the representations of historical figures – as if physical spaces awaiting their migration.  

As stated this is the first time that the Gallery has juxtaposed its collection with a contemporary artist’s work, but it should not be surprising to the viewer how well modernist abstraction fits into this non white cube space; when all of its inhabitants share a painterly concern for colour that spans nearly five centuries, and lives on in Scully’s sensuous geometric fluidity.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 Images: Courtesy Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford
Sean Scully Encounters: A New Master Among Old Masters – Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford – 30th May – 31st August 2014.


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