Sean Scully: ‘Fatherhood has given my art a new lease of life’

The prolific artist on how doing the school run in his 70s has brought a fresh dynamism to his work

At the Longside Gallery at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Sean Scully is showing a bunch of hacks and liggers around his latest exhibition. It’s mostly paintings: thick stripes of intense colour splashed across sheets of aluminum, a motif that’s made him famous – one of the most prolific and successful abstract painters in the world. But Sean isn’t here to reprise his greatest hits. He’s come to show us something new. Amid these paintings are several sculptures: huge stacks of wood and metal that mimic the moody abstracts on the walls. Someone asks him whether sculpture has given him a new lease of life. ‘No,’ says Sean, a big bear of a man with a shaven head and pale blue eyes that pin you to the wall. ‘I think my lease of life comes from my son.’

Sean was 64 when his son was born, an age when most of us are beginning to slow down. ‘I thought, “I’ll just park my career and be a dad for a while,” but I found that when I dropped him off at school I was free to make paintings.’ His palette became brighter, his paintings became more diverse, and then he started making sculpture again, for the first time since he was at art school. He’s 73 now, but he looks and acts a whole lot younger. There’s something almost childlike about him: his lust for life, his appetite for art and his passionate opinions about any subject you care to name.

He certainly has the energy and productivity of an artist half his age. He currently has shows in London, Berlin and Washington, as well as here at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Next year, he has a one man show at London’s National Gallery, a rare honour for a living artist. Not bad going for a bloke who grew up in an impoverished, fractious family, and only ended up at Croydon College of Art after running with a violent street gang, and after every art school in London had turned him down.

Sean Scully’s Crate of Air, 2018, at yorkshire Sculpture Park (© Sean Scully, courtesy the artist and YSP. Photo: Jonty Wilde)

He was born in Dublin in 1945. His family moved to London when he was four. His parents fought like cat and dog. Sean wet the bed until he was 20 but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The house was full of colourful characters – relatives, friends and neighbours – from useless boxers to transvestite comics. He left school at 16 and drifted for several years before finally going to art school. From then on he never looked back. ‘Art, for me, has always had something to do with salvation,’ he told me, last time we met, in London last year. ‘Most of my friends – half of them, at least – from my childhood are dead, because they went to prison, they got into drugs – violence, of one kind or another.’ Sean might have gone the same way, if he hadn’t discovered art. ‘I am inhabited with an unstoppable ambition. I don’t know why, but I’m not discourageable. It just doesn’t work on me.’

From Croydon he went to Newcastle University, where he took a first class degree, and then on to America, on a John Knox Fellowship. A residency at Harvard and a professorship at Princeton soon followed. In 1983, he became an American citizen. He lives and works in upstate New York, but he retains his London accent. He sounds a lot like Michael Caine. Like Caine in one of his gangster roles, he’s impeccably polite, with an underlying hint of menace. If you met him in a pub you wouldn’t mess with him. He looks like a retired bouncer, or a hitman in a Pinter play. If he hadn’t become an artist, could he have become a villain? ‘There’s a racist in all of us, and a murderer in all of us, but then there’s a sublime artist in all of us,’ he says.

His relationship with America is ambiguous, to say the least. ‘Great art generally doesn’t come out of a beautiful culture,’ he says. ‘America, as a society, is shit. Twenty per cent of people in America live under the poverty line. It’s so cruel and heartless and indecent.’ Yet there’s a certain relish in the way he castigates the Land of the Free. ‘America is tearing itself apart. All the women hate the men, and half the men hate the other half of the men, and are now scared of the women – and everybody’s got a gun!’

We drive through Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to look at Scully’s monumental outdoor sculptures – two made of metal, two made of stone. They look like ancient monoliths, closer to archeology than modern art.

The artist at work (Photo: Liliane Tomasko)

After lunch, in the gallery café, we find a quiet corner and sit down together for a proper chat, one to one. I begin by asking him about his upbringing. It sounds like a childhood full of incident, I say, almost cinematic in its intensity. ‘It was very eventful,’ he concurs. You can say that again. His grandmother’s husband hung himself, in Ireland, during the First World War. His father was illegitimate. ‘My grandmother lost her husband, and then my dad was the issue of an affair that she had, with his best friend.’ His dad went to prison for desertion from the British Army, during World War Two.

Against this traumatic backdrop, his paintings make a lot more sense. There’s sadness in them, but also serenity. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular. ‘They’re an attempt at reparation. They’re not a picture of me – they’re an attempt to reach something better. They’re where I want to be – I don’t want to put pictures of me moaning about how I suffered into the world. That’s boring, because everybody suffers, in different ways.’ There’s something supremely soothing about them, like looking out to sea.

Evening classes were his redemption. ‘It saved me, in a way I never would have been saved in America.’ It was going to night school that gave him the appetite for art school. Vincent Van Gogh was an early inspiration, and John Bratby, whose vivid kitchen sink paintings owe a good deal to Van Gogh. ‘I loved them! I thought they were so honest, so accessible.’ Accessible isn’t the first word that springs to mind when you’re confronted with one of Scully’s paintings, but if you stop puzzling about what they might mean and simply let them wash over you, they become things of beauty. For me, they work better in domestic settings than they do in galleries. If you had a home that was big enough, wouldn’t you want one on your wall?

Scully spends a lot of time in Germany and he speaks fondly about Britain, but home for him remains America, a country with which he has a love-hate relationship. He’s no fan of Donald Trump, but he believes his power is finite. ‘I think the Republicans are going to lose the Senate, and then he’ll be a lame duck president – he won’t be able to do anything.’ For Scully, America’s problems run a lot deeper than Trump, stretching right back to the genocide of its original inhabitants. ‘That’s like having something vile under the carpet that you’re standing on, and pretending it’s not there.’ So what are the things that make him stay? ‘The dynamism of it, the energy of it, the can-do quality of it, the generosity and openness of it – these are all qualities that are alive and kicking.’ For Scully, like so many artists, America gives him something to kick against. In a perfect society would there be any art at all?

Sean Scully’s Blue Note, 2016 (© Sean Scully. Courtesy the artist and YSP. Photo: Jonty Wilde)

And at the grand old age of 73, Scully’s art is going from strength to strength. I used to find his paintings a bit samey, endless variations on the same old theme, but his latest work is more varied and more dynamic – the sculpture most of all. ‘Most people, when they’re 70 they decline. I’ve sort of gone the other way. Why, I don’t know, but I think it’s maybe my son.’ It’s what he said before, when he was showing us around the gallery, but what he didn’t say before was that this isn’t the first time he’s been a father. When Sean was 20 he had another son, called Paul. Paul died in a car crash in 1983 aged 18. A picture by Sean, called Paul, hangs in London’s Tate Gallery.

‘There’s a huge sense of tragedy in me,’ he says, but his spirit is indefatigable. ‘Unlike Rothko, who I have been compared to, I’m not passive. He was a sedentary person. If you are inhabited by sorrow in some way, which he was, I think then you have to do something about it, and I’ve done something about it by making my work more aggressive.’ It’s this aggression which has sustained him, and which ultimately keeps him alive.

Rothko committed suicide. ‘He was just doing the same thing all the time,’ says Scully. ‘He painted himself into a corner.’ Will Scully ever paint himself into a corner? ‘No,’ he says, and I believe him. Like he said at the start of our interview and again at the end, it’s all about his son. He’s been given a second chance at fatherhood, and you can tell from his paintings, and his sculptures, that this time he’s determined not to let it slip away.

Sean Scully: Inside Outside is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until January 6 2019. Sean Scully: Uninsideout is at Blain Southern, London W1, to November 17. Sean Scully: Landline is at Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, to January 6 2019. Matisse/Scully is at Kewenig, Berlin, until 27 October


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