Reflecting Land and Sea


At the age of 70, seminal abstract painter and printmaker Sean Scully has seven concurrent exhibitions around the world, including one along the bank of Venice’s Grand Canal. At Palazzo Falier, a gothic 15th-century building, Scully presents “Land Sea,” a solo show featuring a selection of new Landline paintings as well as works from his Doric series (2011). When combined, the muted neutral colors of Doric works, the vibrancy of Landline paintings, and overwhelming lack of vertical lines speak to the history and landscape of Venice, mimicking the city’s land and sea.

Scully, who has received multiple honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Turner Prize nominations, was born in Dublin, raised in London, and currently lives and works between New York, Barcelona, and Munich. The artist maintains dual citizenship in Ireland and America and speaks with a slight accent, mixing both Irish and British expressions, refusing to adhere to one nationality.

Given the Biennale’s focus on national pavilions and national pride (many consider it the art world Olympics) along with the fact that Scully had only visited the event twice in his lifetime, we met the artist at Palazzo Falier to discuss the reasoning behind the show and what’s next in line.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: I know you’ve only been to the Biennale twice in your life, so why did you choose to exhibit this year?

SEAN SCULLY: I didn’t. I mostly do things that my friends suggest to me. The curator, Danilo Eccher, is a very famous curator in Italy and was the director of [museums] in Trento, in Bologna, then Rome, then Turin, and he already made two big exhibitions with me—one in Bologna and one in Rome. He wanted to leave the museum in Turin, so he said, “Let’s do something in Venice. You’ve never done something there.” People are always confused about what nationality I am, because I think countries are shit. Countries are the reason we have a fucked up world, because we’re all in competition with each other. I’m looking forward to world government.

MCDERMOTT: How do you think you explore that through your art?

SCULLY: That’s what abstraction is. It’s about unification. That’s why it always has to be very subtle; it has to be a language that everyone can agree. I can’t get baroque. That’s it problem and it’s possibility. I can’t stand nationalism—it leads to war, it leads to shit.

MCDERMOTT: How did you first come up with this idea for the exhibition? The idea of land and sea?

SCULLY: I was thinking of Venice and then about the works I was doing. The Landline works I was doing kind of sway. I know it sounds a little obvious, but it’s very much like the way the water heaves in the canals of Venice; it bumps up against the architecture and it goes back. So it’s like the water. There’s a lot of blue in the painting; I was thinking a lot about blue of the sea.

Then I thought the Doric paintings would look good in this setting, because it relates a lot to history. The Doric premiered in Athens a few years ago and they’re making a relationship between contemporary art, antiquity, and perfect order—the triptych, the two-to-three proportion. I wanted to put those together with Landline paintings, which are much more concerned with movement, a fluidity.

MCDERMOTT: There is a large gestural component.

SCULLY: There is a lot of that in my recent works. The architecture is broken down, which is interesting…I made the Doric paintings, which are very austere, making a clear reference to classical order, and right after that I made these.

MCDERMOTT: What was that shift like?

SCULLY: It was brought about by illness. I got very ill and hurt my back and was on that American drug that all the women die of—oxycontin. I was on copious amounts of that and I think that caused some kind of cocoon-like escape. I was on a sofa for three months. It’s very interesting that the first four letters of painting are pain. I was pain-ing.

MCDERMOTT: What you feel like you learned during those three months?

SCULLY: I learned that I’m very fragile. I learned that a human being can be wiped out very easily. We’re like flowers; we bloom and we die. When we’re 26, we start to die. Twenty-six is when I went to Harvard and I could feel that I was in full bloom. Then we expire, but very slowly.

MCDERMOTT: It feels like you’re pointing toward a lot of negative things… Do you have a pessimistic attitude toward life? 

SCULLY: No, I’m a very positive person. I’m not optimistic, but I’m a very hopeful person. I’m a person whose always does something about a situation and my work is extremely positive. Of course it has a lot of romantic melancholia, but it’s very assertive work. It’s very aggressive. I paint very aggressive. My work is like this [slams fist against hand]. It’s hammering away, banging away at something, and shape shifting enough to keep it alive. It’s repetitious, but not like Ad Reinhardt or Rothko. I learned something from those people: you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. You get in a corner and then paint yourself out of the corner, and paint yourself into another corner, and then paint yourself out of that corner.

MCDERMOTT: Kind of like walking around this city.

SCULLY: Beautiful metaphor. Yeah, it’s like walking around in Venice. Making abstract paintings is like walking around in Venice. It’s a beautiful imprisonment and escape. You want that confrontation with a space of being captured, but then you want to get out of it too. You don’t want to be the prisoner of Zenda.

MCDERMOTT: So what’s next?

SCULLY: I’m opening a church. I’m making all the art for this 10th-century Romanist church on the mountain of Montserrat. They gave me carte blanche and I imagine it something between the Rothko chapel and the Matisse chapel. It’s not as branded as the Matisse chapel and I’m not doing anything in it that is overtly narrative or in promotion of one religious order above another; I’m inclusive. It is in a pre-existing Catholic church, but when it comes to religion, I sleep with anybody. It’s the same with nationality. I keep it open.

There are paintings from various periods: I made a lot of paintings with windows, one is a beautiful steel painting with 14 windows; there’s a Landline painting; and there’s another with two insets, very vertical, giving you the idea of ascension. I’m not promoting a religious message, but it’s a spiritual center and they want to make it that. There’s going to be a library, a center, a coffee bar—let’s not forget the coffee bar! Coffee’s important. Croissants are important. I don’t want people to feel like they’ve got to go on a diet when they get there… So, as you know, these situations are tricky. It’s not easy to put this sort of art, which is emphatically 21st century—painting on metal, banging together, very unsentimental—in this [historical] situation. It’s bound to be contrapuntal.

MCDERMOTT: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

SCULLY: I want to tell you my secretary Emily is the greatest. But she’s from Korea.


For more from the 56th Venice Biennale, click here