Unfinished business with art history, commence!

Sean Scully, Cut Ground Grey Grey, 2011

So a couple of days ago I was watching a dvd about the artist Sean Scully called, “Art comes from need.”  I went into it expecting nothing.  I’d seen a little bit of his painting and it didn’t grab me.  After watching about five minutes of the dvd, though, he grabbed me.  I found it fascinating that he could look at his past and see how it made him who he is.  And he was funny, which is always always good.  And get this:  “He abhors perfection.  For Scully, perfect paintings are dead paintings.”  My hero!  But his paintings are some of those I-could-do-that paintings.  Seriously, you or I could totally do aesthetically what he does, I think.  What makes it interesting to me is who he is.  And where his ideas come from.  And how he is as a teacher. (“When you teach you have to stop thinking about yourself. You forget yourself, forget your own problems and it’s like taking a little holiday from yourself.”  Don’t you love that? For a successful painter to say that you ever need to leave your ego at the door amazes me.  Most of the non-famous painters that I’ve known have never ever misplaced their egos, much less intentionally left their egos anywhere that they weren’t.)  He talks about painting now as being exactly the same as the paintings in the caves of Lascaux. Same process.  And painting, he says, is  “a contemporary art form, yet it reaches right back to our origins, so our line is unbroken and it’s unbroken through painting.” Wow.  But wait!  There’s more!  “. . . painting in the way I do it has the possibility to compress and embody in one moment all this history and longing and present and past in a form that’s very simple and quick to understand, yet utterly complex emotionally.”  Seriously.  Don’t you love it?  I could go on and on.  I listened to and watched him speak, spellbound.  And watching him paint became so much more interesting, the more I heard what he had to say.

How does all of this affect our experience of  his paintings when they’re hanging in a gallery or a museum?  (Unfinished art history business alert.)  My (can I say our?) experience is so much deeper, it seems to me, when you know something about the artist, where he/she was coming from, maybe how it was painted, particularly with abstract art.  I mean, his paintings are fine.  And after I’d read that the concept of the stripes originally came from a trip that he made to Morocco and the textiles that he saw there, I came around a little bit more.  But I don’ t really see all of the stuff that he was talking about in his paintings when I look at them.  I can look at abstract art, and notice and appreciate the structure, the line, the color.  But it rarely moves me. I don’t learn anything about myself, or my world, or anyone else or their world.  And I guess that that’s what I want from art.  So when I read a piece about John Singer Sargent’s painting “The Boit Children” in grad school, which was a sort of a Freudian study of the painting, talking about how one child stands erect like a penis, etc, what does that add to my understanding or experience of the painting?  For me, nothing.  Well, maybe annoyance. I groan (in an annoyed way) whenever I come across that painting.  Which, in all honesty, is almost never.  Anyway, Scully says, “Art is a way of playing out possibilities.  That is the role of art in the world.”  I smile now when I look at his paintings.  And I think about possibilities.  I’ll leave you with that.


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