Crate of Air, 2018. Corten steel, 19.2 x 7.2 x 3.6 m. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

All the Dirt of Life: A Conversation with Sean Scully

For Irish-born, American artist Sean Scully, autobiography and experience serve as correctives to the dry determinism of Minimalism. By making Minimalism “emotional,” he advances the personal over formal concerns, emancipating his works from a Sol LeWitt-like cage and introducing a freedom refused by Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman in their day. Throughout his career, Scully has used hardship as motivator and inspiration. Years of manual labor, for instance, stand behind his “stack” sculptures, which hang in space like monuments to a state of mind. Concentrating on feelings for materials, these and other works call on human experience as a point of entry. 

Like Cy Twombly before him, Scully sees art devoid of emotion as dishonest. He explains his work as an invitation for viewers to feel something and to apply what they feel to themselves. His work is a cathartic act that always comes back to what it means to have lived. Art, as he forcefully explains, has a duty to deliver something greater than intellectualism and lofty ideals removed from the aesthetic truth that lies in the humanizing force of toil and tears.

Brown Tower, 2015. Corten steel, 274 x 91.4 x 91.4 cm. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

Rajesh Punj: Could we begin by talking about your love-hate relationship with abstraction and its cousin, Minimalism? 
Sean Scully: My first encounter with Minimalism came when I was in New York, though it had already started while I was in England. I was very attracted to its austerity and moral rigor, because, dare I say it, I am quite a moral person. I found it very attractive because it was taking no prisoners. People called it “tough,” and there was a big thing about tough art at the time, which I was very attracted to. But then, I famously rejected it around 1980 and turned into a traitor accused of misusing Minimalism. I started with thick paint and things that didn’t fit together so well, creating portraits of the city by physically forcing things together that didn’t necessarily want to fit. The underlying relationship to Minimalism was still visible, but I decided to pair it up with “emotionalism,” and that makes all of it very different.

RP: Minimalism without the machine aesthetic.
SS: I see it as Minimalism “un-minimalized.” It is Minimalism transformed into something else. Because, of course, there was something there that interested me. But if I am honest, what I didn’t much like about it were the people who were engaged with it—they were all aristos, like Giuseppe Panza and Heiner Friedrich. They seemed to be somehow lofty or entirely disconnected from everything, above life in some way, and I really wanted to reintroduce all the dirt of life, collecting it all for the studio. 

Hans Ulrich Obrist, toward the end of an interview, once asked me for a one-word definition of art, and it was easy. I said “impurity.” I see myself as the enemy of purity, because out of purity comes nothing; and I thought that was what had happened with abstraction, which was hijacked by the Americans. They produced some wonderful things, but the work was so refined that it couldn’t be manipulated anymore. It is comparable to refined sugar; you cannot keep on refining it. Everything is like that—you have to have raw material, and so I decided to “rough it up.” I can recall when I was invited to talk about the issue of impurity at a New York public library, and a woman in the audience asked, “What is all this talk about impurity, what do you mean by it?” And I replied “interracial sex,” because I was quite fed up; and when I am fed up, I can become quite rude. Then she understood. It is the same in art, it is the same in nature, it is the same in human beings. Fruit trees require cross-pollination, otherwise they won’t grow; they can become entirely sterile. The royal families of Europe were inbreeding for a long time, and they suffered with stupid children. My point is that things have to combine, becoming anomalous, in order to make something and to keep growth vital.

RP: When I look at your sculptures in particular, it is almost as if you are creating human beings—objects imbued with all of the emotional sensibilities of a person, in so subtle a way as to suggest there are traces of life in everything. The body has been removed, but the aura, the emotional evidence, is still present in the application of paint to aluminum, in the arrangement of rocks, bricks, metal, and steel. Is that how you see it?
SS: If I can introduce the sensation of the human experience into the object, then I have done what I wanted to do. It is incredible you think that of my work—of it even being close to doing that. I have to say I find the stone triptych Wall Dale Cubed (2018), which I made for my show “Inside Outside” at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to be a stupefying sculpture; it leaves me speechless. I find it incredibly powerful, and it is beyond what I could imagine it was going to be. Crann Saoilse (Wall of Light) (2003), installed at the University of Limerick and the first of these big stone sculptures, is possibly more Minimalist, which may have had something to do with being in Ireland. The country has an automatic relationship to Minimalism, because of the stone houses and severe paint, which fit very well with the sentiments of the work. 

Wall Dale Cubed, 2018. Yorkshire stone, 3 sections, each: 4 x 8 x 6 m., overall: 4 x 28 x 6 m. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

RP: Compared to Wall of Light Cubed (2007), a granite work that you made for Château La Coste, Wall Dale Cubed has a greater physical coherence, perhaps due to the color of the local stone in Yorkshire. Both of them, however, possess grace in addition to gravity. It is unusual for works of such scale and magnitude to have subtlety and sensitivity. The interlocking of the individual stones recalls holding hands. How do these works become extensions of yourself? 
SS: Wall of Light Cubed was a fantastic thing. I was becoming more emancipated, because ultimately my work is incredibly emotional—deeply humanistic just as am I as a person. I suppose it naturally progressed to Wall Dale Cubed, which holds my attention. I look at it with total wonder. There are passages that are incredibly beautiful. The insets are wildly beautiful, as is the material, and that is where I separate from the Minimalists. LeWitt seems so dead in comparison. 

RP: LeWitt’s work, like that of Piet Mondrian before him, is closer to a kind of mathematics. It introduces a level of calculation and control that removes the human heart and hand entirely.
SS: Absolutely, LeWitt’s work is very inhuman. Almost like an American version of Bridget Riley, but much more clever, because LeWitt moved all of it off the canvas, so that you can see it for its physicality. He took Minimalism much further than Riley. There is something in America that is very hard, and not very attractive.

RP: The notion of hardness evolving against the American expanse of space fascinates me. Greater space allows for more light, greater volume, and a championing of scale. Does that vastness of space, and the emancipation that comes with it, deliver a greater confidence? Does it create a particularly American way of understanding and experiencing sculpture? 
SS: Well, for myself, the answer is no. I am not a “Marfa” artist. I cannot stand the work of Donald Judd—to me, it is like looking at IKEA furniture. I made Wall Dale Cubed in Yorkshire, and I think it needed to be made in England; it needed an English guy to help me make it. The sensitivities of such a work—of the material living and heaving, the stones pushing up against each other making this beast—could only have been made here. It has a soul entirely connected to the landscape that belongs here. 

Dale Stone Stack, 2018. Yorkshire stone, 3.23 x 1 x 1 m. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

RP: There is a level of sensitivity that makes the material transform from being entirely about its physicality to sensations of the ephemeral—the idea that this configuration of stone has within it its own emotional strength. Which leads me to ask you to explain what you are. At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, you appeared more sculptor than painter, more a master of materials akin to Richard Serra or Walter de Maria. Can you be both at the same time? To draw is to paint, is to sculpt, is to construct?
SS: I have somehow managed to do what few artists have done. You can go back to Matisse, who was a great sculptor; but on the other hand, Picasso wasn’t such a great sculptor. Who else has managed to pull it off, to work in both mediums so successfully? Not many at this level. I love Cy Twombly’s work. He was fantastic, and a lovely guy, too, a big guy like me, and he made super-sensitive work. 

RP: Twombly appeared to inject emotion into abstraction in a way that Mark Rothko camouflaged as clouds of color. With Twombly, you feel every jerk and jest of his emotions. Is that what you aim for with your own work?
SS: I can’t really use his influence very much, unfortunately, though I think about his approach sometimes, which encourages me to want to make some white-wrapped sculptures, or something of that nature, under his influence. But I haven’t been able to incorporate any of his ideas or manners into my work. I appreciate him, though, on many levels. I think he is hugely important to the art canon, and I see little similarities to my own situation. He was the American who had to go out and live in a palazzo in Rome to be ok, and I see myself as the European who went the other way, leaving England for the United States. I don’t think Cy would have been able to make his work if he hadn’t gone to Europe and become more of a European artist. That adventure gives his work a physiological breadth that you certainly don’t find in a lot of American art. 

RP: What led to your use of “stacking” as a process and as a psychological path? How do you explain this particular visual and physical motif?
SS: It all comes from work, the laborious grind of work, and the squeezing out of space from working-class life. 

Moor Shadow Stack, 2018. Corten steel, 4.57 x 3.66 x 3.66 m. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

RP: So, works such as Moor Shadow Stack (2018) and Dale Stone Stack (2018) are not a celebration of Minimalism, but a manifestation of your upbringing and an arrangement of everything you’ve experienced thereafter. Might we think of the “stack” as a kind of brutal beauty?
SS: There is something very beautiful about work. There is something beautiful about commitment, about actually doing something. I remember once I was in Holborn (London), and I was given a job to make a hole through the wall of a Tudor building on Holborn High Street. I had a hammer mallet and a cold chisel, and I must have hit my hand 25 times because there was very little light. I remember it was like making a hole through a piece of metal. The bricks were very hard, and it took me something like eight hours to make it through that wall. 

RP: Could that experience of facing a manmade material head on have been a greater influence for you than any artist alive or dead?
SS: It was strange, but at the same time incredibly challenging. I got through in the end, but the work was immense. I also wrote about the idea of stacking boxes onto a truck. It is a lovely text about a cardboard factory where I worked, back in the 1960s, with guys who couldn’t read or write. They would take their money at the end of the week and mark a cross by their name as a signature. It was an amazing place, unbelievably rough. These experiences enriched my life—I was not pampered, I didn’t go to art school, “get good” at one thing, and spin it out for the rest of my life, like so many artists. I can apply all of this experience. I think it is really fantastic that I am here creating these sculptures, and they are successful. I am not trying to make sculptures like anybody else either. There are no clear art world influences on my sculptures; they are entirely original because I am self-taught, and I also did the most obvious thing I could think of. I didn’t choose to second-guess myself. I just asked, “What is it that I can do?” Well, I knew what I could do, because I had done all of these manual exercises as a means to make money in the beginning. What I could do was introduce the stacking idea or look to the sensation of compression. In a way, my work is “non-sculpture,” in the sense that others like Mark di Suvero would apply similar ideas to space. But di Suvero was a compositional sculptor, and my work is viscerally elemental. 

RP: This all appears to be part of your humanist approach—creating works that are about human experience without human presence. It’s the complete antithesis of Minimalism’s concentration on anti-humanist ideals. 
SS: I agree entirely. It also has to do with my travels in Mexico; I have traveled through every corner of the country, staying in eight-dollar hotels. But I stopped all of that about a decade ago, once my son was born.

Installation view of “Inside Outside,” Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield, U.K., 2018. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

RP: Was it your Jack Kerouac moment?
SS: Yes, I would go in an old car, and there was a place where you could get fan belts. They measured your car with a piece of string, and then they would go in and tie it together and that was your new fan belt. Forget the make and model number—they put this improvised fan belt on my battered car, and it went like crazy. I went to far-flung places, and I have been in incredibly rough towns where, on Sunday mornings, you have to drive around guys sleeping on dirt roads because they had collapsed from drinking so much. 

RP: You have spoken before about darker music, and your work being melancholic—was Mexico part of that evolution in your emotions? 
SS: I am very attracted to brutal environments. Where I live in America, it has become very difficult; you can talk about a gentler, quieter society, and you can get shot for your troubles. 

RP: Is such “brutalism” reflected in your palette? 
SS: There is a huge amount of melancholia to my work, and I can’t do anything about that. The paintings are deep and dark.

Crate of Air, 2018. Corten steel, 19.2 x 7.2 x 3.6 m. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, © Sean Scully, Courtesy the artist and YSP

RP: I think of Mark Rothko. Does his work appeal to you? 
SS: I have written about Rothko; I tend to write about people who interest me. In a sense, what I have attempted to do is to popularize Minimalism and abstraction, to humanize them. To make it so people who are not specialists can love it—in other words, to make it the antithesis of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, who only appealed to the specialists. Rothko was the only one who came close to making abstract painting useable, and I want to do the next thing, or more than he was able to do. There is still a remoteness about his work—the paintings are barren in a way—while my work is more aggressive structurally and sensually. There is a lot of sex in my paintings. His are more the paintings of a mystic, while I have tried to make paintings that are more like Courbet, or Manet, or Rembrandt: paintings that people can revisit and love. Even if you don’t own the painting, you can see it in a museum, you can relate to it, and it helps your life in some way.

RP: I wonder if that was what you needed when you were smashing out holes all those years ago?
SS: Yes, because the work of a lot of these abstract artists was for just 500 people, which is not helping anything.