Museum guides share what inspires them about the artist’s tireless exploration of the possibilities of abstraction
What is it about a work of art that draws us? Sometimes it’s the image of a setting sun and the play of light on water that evokes a memory. Sometimes it’s the haunting expression in the eyes of the sitter in a portrait, or the enigma of a curiously arranged tableau that makes us lean in for a closer look. And sometimes it’s the how and why of a composition that piques our inclination to try and arrive at the resolution of a work that is a puzzle altogether.
In all cases our instinct is to interpret, to come away with a logical story or explanation. Connecting with the work of Sean Scully, however, becomes a unique and even emotional experience. It will not be a face, or a landscape, or a sunset that grabs us. Approaching Scully’s abstractions requires us to abandon all those inclinations to figure it out. Figuring it out is not required. What is required is feeling it, remaining open to feeling the artist’s energy as he weaves his intricate and geometric texturized patterns; to feeling the music in the explosion of color as he shapes and reshapes his signature stripes; to feeling his unbridled freedom and joy that are the essence of the “Landline” paintings which comprise his most recent works.
In short, once we agree to abandon the rules of interpretation and leave ourselves open to simply looking and, more importantly, to feeling, the art of Sean Scully will not only reach us, but resonate with us long after we move on.
Wandering through Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas, I was struck by how the work of this artist, who has spent his long career as a geometric abstract painter, evolved from the “super grids” of his early years to a looser, more gestural style. He was deeply influenced by literature and the places he visited. Scully clearly has a long visual memory, and his trips to Morocco and Mexico added depth and dimension to his paintings through color, texture, and more expressive brushstrokes.
His early acrylic works, which demonstrate serious technical expertise, have a more precise structure and energy. As you follow his development as an artist over the five decades covered in the show, you see his art progress to works in oils, pastels, and watercolors. One can’t help but wonder how any artist can continue to expand his oeuvre, constantly working with new media and developing his ability to use abstraction to create mood, express feeling, and suggest movement. I think many visitors will be as surprised as I was by how moving abstract painting can be in hands of an enormously talented artist like Scully.
Kathy Fitzpatrick has been happily guiding at the museum for three years. In a previous life and before retiring, she worked for the School District of Philadelphia for thirty-eight years, first as an English/Language Arts teacher and later as a middle school principal. She has always been an avid reader with a love of literature and an abiding interest in the intersection between visual art and literature.
James Pagliaro has been a weekend guide at the museum for almost 20 years. Since leaving a full-time legal practice in 2016, James has been invited to lecture on art history topics at various universities. He served on the museum’s Corporate Partners Board from 2005 to 2015, and he currently serves on several curatorial committees, including Conservation and European Painting, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. James has a particular affinity for the PMA’s Baroque gallery, especially Peter Paul Rubens’s masterpiece, Prometheus Bound.