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‘Walls of light and sound’: Temporal and Musical Dimensions in Sean Scully’s Work

Pedro Ordóñez Eslava
septembre 2013



The aim of this text is to study the temporal and musical dimensions of Sean Scully’s work, after making a bio-bibliographical revision – since the 60’s to his latest pieces at the beginning of the 21st century. Secondly, I seek to exemplify the interdisciplinary link with music in the corpus of the Irish painter, as a visible example of this temporal fact. I therefore suggest the study of Scully’s texts –which stand as a main source to analyze his æsthetic thought– and those of the critics. The article continues with the analysis of the cycle Wall of light and of certain musical examples inspired by it, written by the Spanish composer Mauricio Sotelo. Thus, I shall demonstrate the relevance of temporal and musical dimensions to appreciate Scully’s entire work.


Index by keyword : Sean Scully, Art in Time, Art and Music, Æsthetic, Abstraction.

Texte intégral   

I. Introduction

[…] I would like my art to aspire to something like the condition of music, but a condition that can be felt and experienced in a deep moment. I think with painting you can get rid of the problem of time. You can feel it abstracted in the rhythms, in the layers of paintings, but you are, for a moment, free.1

1With these words, the Irish-born American painter Sean Scully (Dublin, 1945) expresses his thoughts and aims as to the act of painting, conceiving music and time as inner conditions of his creations. Moreover, these intimately related dimensions combine as a constant presence in Sean Scully’s work almost from the beginning of his painting career.
In this text2 I seek to analyze the aforementioned dimensions in Scully’s entire artistic production by firstly focusing on the conceptual frames of his whole catalogue in order to contextualize the significance of time and music in his æsthetic thought, and, secondly, by attending the Wall of light cycle, starting from the premise that this stands as a paradigm of the Irish painter’s work.
In order to achieve our goal, we shall use two types of sources: one encompasses Scully’s own testimony in his essays and interviews, which will delineate the conceptual frame of his thought, while another addresses the ways in which critics characterize his work. Both of them provide various ways of understanding, defining and giving expression to the time and music dimensions in Sean Scully’s creation.
Last but not least, I shall refer to the possible interdisciplinary connections with contemporary music, mainly visible in several pieces, inspired by Wall of light series, written by the Spanish musician Mauricio Sotelo (Madrid, b. 1961). We shall thus confront a relevant example of the way in which a composer can understand the temporal and musical projections of the Irish artist’s paintings.

II. Biographical premises

2To start with, a brief overview of Scully’s biography should take into account the different stages of the painter’s life, as these completely correspond with the various cities where he has resided and whose direct influence on his pictorial program is clearly acknowledged, as stated, for example, by Armin Zweite. The latter correlates, for example, Scully’s series of paintings generically entitled Wall of light with the painter’s transfer to Barcelona,

It is without doubt the Mediterranean light which fascinates Scully and cast a spell on him. [...] The relaxed, luminous, and soft aspects of the Wall of light pictures [...] allow us to sense something of the atmosphere of Barcelona, where the painter installed a further atelier a few years ago.3

3Born in Dublin in 1945, Sean Scully moved to London when he was four. To his initial education at the Croydon College of Art in this city, we must also add his stays at Newcastle University and Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts). He begins his career as a teacher at the Chelsea School of Art and continues at the Goldsmith’s School of Art of London, between 1973 and 1975, when he was awarded the Harkness Fellowship.
It is during this time that he decides to change his residence and he opts for the United States where he will work at Princeton between 1977 and 1983, the year he becomes a beneficiary of both the Guggenheim Fellowship and the North American citizenship. In the early nineties he travels to Morocco where he directs a documentary on Henri Matisse for the BBC and he discovers the ‘Mediterranean Light’, the very light that, as we stated before, he will find again when he opens his studio in Barcelona, since the middle of this same decade. In 2000, he was appointed honorary member of the London Institute, while nowadays he divides his time between London, New York and Barcelona.
During these years,

The rigid structure in the sixties became a more flexible configuration of horizontals and verticals; the smoothness of the work disappears in favor of the texture; the colours are now richer and more blending; instead of uniformity, complexity; instead of close spaces, open surfaces; instead of defined lines, imprecise and transparent stripes4

4Although it is not the subject of this study to make a careful analysis of the formal evolution in Sean Scully, we reckon it as appropriate to specify the stylistic background the artist himself feels indebted to, since it places him in a very precise and relevant line of creators, as it was duly quoted by Zweite: ‘If they talk about Matisse, Mondrian and Rothko, they are also talking about my work. Certainly there are other painters, but if you consider just these three of this century, that says a lot about my own work’5. However, Jackson Pollock should not be overlooked, as Zweite also explains: ‘From Mondrian there remained only the right angles, the stripes and the primary colors, from Pollock the all-over principle and the attempt to reduce the distance between viewer and picture through the thematizing of the perceptual process’6.
To detail some of Scully’s plastic proposal keys we must refer to the bibliography that has been published by him and about him; the former will offer us the opportunity of entering the painter’s poietic7 dimension while, by means of the latter, we shall have the chance of getting informed on the contextualization of his technical and stylistic contribution.

III. Light, Sound and Rhythm in Scully’s discourse

5It should be noted that the Irish painter has developed a broad activity as a writer and lecturer, which has led to producing a wide range of texts; it is in his volume Resistance and Persistence: Selected Writings –which collects much of his speeches, interviews and articles– that he refers to his stylistic precedents in terms of the poietic keys of his creation.
It is therefore interesting to note how Scully identifies one of these stylistic precedents in Mark Rothko. In his article “Rothko. Bodies of light” he writes: ‘The sonorous temperament of the colours is the same, and the compulsion to layer paint thinly (dark over light, light over dark) is unchanged’8. And later,

The belief that Rothko’s paintings also aspired in some sense to the emotional condition of music can be justified by what he said about his favourite work, The Red Studio [Matisse]. Rothko’s canvases, with their multiple veils of colour, are also musical but in a different way. They do not emphasize linear rhythm, but rather seem to suspend sound in colour –radiating visually as if two or three deep sonorous chords had been struck at once and held indefinitely9

6It is mandatory to note Scully’s ability to see in Rothko’s creation his own ‘musical condition’. The North American painter’s work has been rooted and installed, as written, in the School of New York, where he worked closely with the composer Morton Feldman, who, at the same time, demonstrated in his music a decisive influence of Rothko’s plastic process as well as of others such as Philip Guston or Jasper Johns.
In fact, the ‘musical’ description of Rothko’s painting by Scully –who envisages the temperament of this treatment of colour as ‘sonorous’– also seems to detail precisely the analytical optics assumed for the creation of the New Yorker composer, in which the behaviour of sound speech acts ‘as if two or three deep sonorous chords had been struck at once and held indefinitely,’ in an interdisciplinary set of internal references.
On the other hand and, as it also appears in this last quote, it is also relevant to notice the importance of concepts such as ‘light’ in Scully’s poetics, this showing the dimension of the ‘utopian’10 in his pictorial idea:

“I am trying to give light a feeling of body […]. Light means hope or illumination. The words ‘light’ and ‘spirit’ are interchangeable, in my opinion. I’m trying to capture something that has a classical stillness and, at the same time, has enough emotion or dissonance to create an unresolved quality… I am looking for a new kind of transcendental realism.”11

7We can therefore assert the significance of this concept in the Dubliner painter’s catalogue, a concept which appears as early as in Red Light (1971). Referring to this painting, Maestro asserts:

It’s the combination of complementary colours which makes the composition vibrate. Also the width of the stripes is essential so they change in themselves and in the distance between them. So, the structure perceived at a first glance as something uniform is really a net complex with a different axis.12


Red Light (1971), fragment

8These appreciations are very useful in underlining the capacity of the colour to vibrate and the combination of multiple layers proposed by Scully in Red Light and later, less obviously yet in a deeper method, in the Wall of Light series. It is equally appropriate to spend some words on this painting from the beginning of the seventies given the fact that, in it, the painter insists on his doubt about his stylistic precedents.

The idea was to try and reconcile two major examples: one, Jackson Pollock, and the other Mondrian. Pollock represented for me a kind of desire and freedom, sensuality and sexuality. Mondrian represented conscious structure and morality and the way that they can be impacted into a very intensely layered, worked surface, where an extreme kind of modesty is also at work, where the expressionism at work is repressed.13

9We should remark this last idea of ‘a very intensely layered, worked surface’, since here we have the expressive goal of the painting, as Scully asserts; in a more latent way, this also applies to the chromatic fight between different colours that occurs within the boundaries of the stripe, as in Back and Fronts (1981):

The reason I don’t like to paint the end of the stripe is because I don’t want to be in a position where I feel that I am describing something, where I have to take into account things that might somehow interfere with the velocity of the painting of the form. What I do is to let the stripe, or rather the way it is painted, go off from another panel. So there’s collision.14

10If this is how Scully referred to his painting a few years before finishing it, D. Carrier wrote about Back and Fronts too, but focusing on another main idea of the painter’s thesis:

Rather suddenly, after a decade and a half, Scully had found his fully achieved personal style. Here, then, we arrive at the key moment in our narrative. […] Now in this painting Scully’s passionate love for African-American music, the urban rhythms of Newcastle, and the high modernist grid all come together to yield an essentially unpredictable, extraordinarily original synthesis15

11In Back and Fronts Scully sets up the beginning of a more physical dimension in his canvas, a sculptural projection that gradually conquers the pictorial: ‘There is another dimension to it which is sculptural, the ability to make a relationship.’16
Up to the middle of the nineties there must be noticed an essential step in the temporal extent of Scully’s work, which is, as announced, one of the goals of this text:

[…] the different versions of Any Questions make clear that the painter is not concerned with the combination of heterogeneous elements in the sense of collage technique, but through the addition of largely autonomous individual parts to achieve a synthesis at a higher level. It is not least of all this dialectic between parts and whole which has intensely occupied Scully since Heart of Darkness [1982]17

12The painter envisages indeed a whole process of creation by addition of layers, something performed in the seventies as well, but now to a deeper, more complex and subtle extent. The three pieces which form Any Questions –painted in ten years, between 1985 and 1995– show the organic growth of the same work in time:

When the picture [Any QuestionsI] returned to the atelier following the exhibition, Scully painted over it. The large verticals to the left now became light grey, brownish black, light grey, and in the case of the right-hand panels, dark brown and light brown stripes alternated, whereby lighter lines marked the borders. The structure was admittedly not changed, but the sequence of heavier and lighter tones in the right row modified18


Any Questions (I-III) (1985-1995)

13This description shows how the work is modified by the progressive addition of different colours that changes the final result but which, however, does not affect either the structure or the form, these always staying clear and unaltered in terms of the composition. From this perspective, it can be relevant to bring into discussion what Paul Klee declared about form, perceiving it as an open and living dimension, quite close to Scully’s idea:

Form is… nowhere and never to be regarded as a finishing, as result, as end, but as genesis, as becoming, as being. Form as appearance, however, is an evil, dangerous apparition. What is good is form as movement, as doing, the active form is good. […] form is the end, is death. Forming is movement, is deed. Forming is life.19

14If we continued from this perspective, we would have to analyze other unavoidable canvases like Four Days (1990-1995), Four Large Mirrors (1999) or Passenger (1997-2000)20, three key works for the comprehension of Scully’s art21. Instead of this, I shall retain one of the most relevant notions for all these paintings from the nineties till today:

Scully later starts to give such fields a stretcher of their own, so that they can be produced independently from the whole and only later attached or even inserted into the larger whole of the picture. In the case of these picture-on-pictures one is dealing with the so-called “insets”.22

15These fields coming into contact emphasize the chromatic vibration between different areas of the canvas and show us another trace of the temporal process of creation.

IV. Towards a definition of Time

16In his understanding of time, Scully asserts one concept above all:

This painting [Raphael, 2004] was made over a very long time. […] It is painted in layers, and as the layers are added over a long period of time so an experience is being made. […] So the issue of time, layering –not just a simple measure of time but time lived, is in this painting.23

17‘Time lived’ –this is Scully’s artistic conception, layers upon layers added in time in order to create a physical complex. As I shall demonstrate, we can analyze this from the perspective of two main frames, the ‘horizontal time’ and ‘vertical time’. When using these two concepts, it is certainly necessary to make reference to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who firstly defined these dimensions as related to poetry –in his text The Intuition of the Instant, published in 1932. However, our use of it will be broader when applied to Scully’s work.

These paintings are being constantly emotionally unravelled by what is at the back. So here you are looking at a white painting that was an orange painting, which was a black painting, and has been converted to a white painting over time.24

18In practice, the Irish painter’s canvases integrate the temporal dimension in several manners that could be described as follows:
The first, which stands as the most obvious of all, is the allusion to an objective time25, the artist using temporal concepts to name his works: it is the case, already mentioned, of Four Days, but also of Long Night (1985) and Light in August (1991), among others. This emphasizes once more the magnitude of experience in Scully’s poetic and maybe, though in a less obvious way, the impressionist origin of abstract expressionism, as Clement Greenberg asserts26.

19The second modality is less apparent but equally positioned in experience, this time however in the perceptive, the so-called ‘esthesic’27, moment:

[…] in the process of perception neither the unity of the subject nor that of the object can be presumed, ‘but that both presumptive units are on the horizon of experience… This side of the idea of the object as well as the idea of the subject, it is a matter of finding again the fact of my subjectivity and the object in statu nascendi, the primal layer from which ideas as well as things first arise28

20A. Zweite appeals here to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la Perception to describe the idea of the object that is completed in the subjectivity of the viewer himself: Scully’s painting is understood as an object extended and concluded in the moment of perception by the observer. This stresses again the temporal dimension, given that we need time to appreciate, to seize the act of creation and to complete it in our subjectivity. It is not only a case of physically looking at something but, more than that, one of embracing the whole process.

21A third modality of time integration derives from Scully’s close contact with specific music styles and genres. Since his adolescence in London, where he became the owner of a blues club at the age of eighteen, his fascination with ‘urban rhythms’ has been a constant feature:

I’m very interested in the issue of spirituality. And soul in art. And R&B is soul music. I mean it hits you in your soul –and that’s music. Also it comes out of a sense of loss. But it has a life-affirming driving beat that runs all the way through it. And my paintings have the same thing… The lines are almost like guitar strings in a room. And they’re vibrative.29

22Several allusions to the rhythmic quality of this type of music, such as its power to profoundly move the listener, emphasize Scully’s focus on the musical beat and its continuity throughout time; similarly relevant there stands his statement related to ‘vibration’, the lines of his paintings being compared with ‘guitar strings in a room.’ Referring to this aspect, Carrier asserts:

For Scully, admiring [Etta] James’s voice and [Muddy] Waters’ guitar blues didn’t show him how to make abstractions. Although he heard their music in the 1960s, it was only in the early 1980s that he started to make paintings with comparables rhythms.30

23Again, rhythm is the unavoidable feature in this interdisciplinary bond with the urban music of those years, R&B –rhythm and blues– and soul. Yet, what surprises in Carrier’s quotation is his statement about Scully’s start of making use in his art of ‘comparable rhythms’ as to the ones in the music he felt so much attracted to, an aspect we shall further tackle in the present article.
The rhythmic property of this type of music can be identified as mainly repetition: persistent –in the strict metronomic sense– and circular –in the melodic one. Talking about popular music, Scully asserts that

[…] isn’t repetitious in order to be ordered, but in order to be emotional, that’s been pioneered by Beckett, but it comes really from Africa, from Morocco, and it comes from Irish culture. Irish music, African music, and contemporary music are deeply intertwined. Irish music leads to folk, African to Rhythm and Blues. Popular music is a fusion of the two.31

24In connection with this, we should mention the outstanding position of Back and Fronts in Scully’s catalogue since the herein presence of Afro-American music and urban rhythms of Newcastle is, indeed, a main feature.

25However it is not only popular music that the painter is interested in; it is true that he extracts the rhythmic strength from this genre, but when he also focuses on the expressive quality of music, classical style emerges clearly. In this case, reference is made to Johann Sebastian Bach’s suites for cello and Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata op. 8 which:

[…] is enormously powerful and, yet, for most people it is too much, and the reason for this is that it is unknown, although it happens to be one of the best works ever written for violoncello… The work’s pathos signals the medium’s incapacity to fully express the artist’s intent32

26Nevertheless, this reference to the expressive power of music does not trigger, according to Carrier, an artistic response as obvious as the seduction of rhythm in the popular genre.

27To conclude this section and before beginning the analysis of the Wall of light series, we should return to the temporal concerns in the Irish painter’s work as stated by himself. In a dialogue with the artist, on Scully’s paintings, Kevin Power takes the following position:

Your work is intensely musical. It has the kind of intensity of listening to each other that one finds in a string quartet or in the Miles Davis albums of the 1960s. It is characterized by rhythms, modulations, intensely felt chords. It surges and affirms a highly nuanced presence and emotional range. It seems to hold time within it.33

28Power’s analysis thus focuses on the emotiveness and intensity of Scully’s work, the artist further developing, as an answer to Power, the problematic of time in music and his painting:

[…] It is sometimes said that all art aspires to the condition of music. I would like my art to aspire to something like the condition of music, but a condition that can be felt and experienced in a deep moment. I think with painting you can get rid of the problem of time. You can feel it abstracted in the rhythms, in the layers of paintings, but you are, for a moment, free.34

V. Horizon sketches of the ‘Walls’ of light

29In Scully, rhythm is constantly associated with the process of creation, the Wall of light cycle being no exception to it. Again, as Zweite asserts:

Each of these modules as its own characteristic color, whereby the two side elements of the three-part fields have the same coloration. The symmetry created through the seven-fold repetition lends the whole rhythm and cadence.35

30‘Rhythm and cadence’ characterizes Scully’s work in his Wall of light series, ‘a silent fugue’36, which was officially launched in 1998, with Wall of light Pink, yet whose leading beginning can be located fourteen years earlier with Wall of light 4.84 (1984), a watercolor created on the beaches of Mexico. The cycle runs at least until 2011, when Scully proposes his Wall of light Pink Pink, and includes other artistic disciplines, like sculpture and installation, as it happens in Wall of light Cubed (2007) –to be visited in Aix-en-Provence (France).
It would be difficult to establish the exact number of pieces that form the complete cycle, granted that there is not yet a unique and detailed catalogue of Scully’s series, this being spread throughout various national and private galleries37.
Obviously, all pieces of the cycle share the concepts of wall and light, both of them bearing an intense value, in symbolic and biographic terms, starting from Scully’s early career in the seventies –though the symbolism of the wall appeared a little later in his artistic poetics. As Carrier asserts, ‘The Walls of light are usually associated with very specific places and times in Scully’s working life.’38 Regarding the wall, we have to pay attention to the artist’s position when he faces the installation project in Aix. Given the fact that, in the end, he could not make the work exactly as he desired, it would be relevant at least to underline the importance that the artist confers to his Irish origin even when he lives far from his home country.

When I first had the idea of doing the wall, I wanted to make it out of material from Ireland. I had this extremely sentimental idea that I would almost dig my hands into the ground in Ireland and pull up this wall, and it would come out black and white. It would refer to the black and white in a lot of Irish façades.39

31On the other hand, we have the concept of light; from this perspective and according to what Scully said above: ‘I am trying to give light a feeling of body […]. Light means hope or illumination. The words ‘light’ and ‘spirit’ are interchangeable.”40 This utopian dimension is pointed out by Carrier as the most complex and stimulating analysis of the series, beyond the obvious, ‘…a wall seen at different times of day or diverse seasons’41. Moreover, the utopian thought appears in Scully’s discourse due to his ethical aspiration to represent the absolute:

Often I think long to return to figuration. Maybe one day I’ll be able to reconnect with the appearance of the world, and its examples. But right now my need to paint everything rather than something or one thing makes it impossible. I’m always trying to paint the whole thing, the whole world42

32Besides the ‘wall’ and ‘light’ symbolism, the series opens up the hermeneutics of the conceptual dimension of time, in its confrontation of the horizontal and vertical views. This poietic confrontation between categories has been a constant in Scully’s work since the seventies and, later, more intensely, in the eighties, when he creates pieces like Long Night (1984) on which he writes:

[…] the paintings are based on a number of contradictions: like the opposition of horizontal and vertical, the opposition of the banality of the subject-matter (stripes) ant the lofty claims that I make for the paintings (my intentions). The gesture in the surface constantly affirms and insists on the human presence.43

33This vertical-horizontal opposition is manifest in most of Scully’s paintings. Nevertheless, I would like to define this opposition in its poietic extent, which will lead us to a more conceptual analysis of these two dimensions and hence, to the definition of a close contact with a certain musical process.
We should begin by considering the vertical dimension; this viewpoint will help us to study the Dubliner artist’s process of painting in the affair created by the different layers and its progressive addition which confirms the final appearance of every piece. Describing Scully’s work starting from the very whiteness of the canvas in the beginning of the act of painting to its upper final surface, we could imagine how every layer lives each other creating an intense ‘chromatic vibration’ in the finished artistic object. This term, ‘chromatic vibration’, is rooted in the restoration theories and we must understand it here as ‘the pictorial result achieved thanks to the consecutive juxtaposition of little touches of colour’44; this means the complex constitution of a colour tonality following a vertical section.

34According to this definition, we would be placed in a genuine and accurate description of what tone or timbre is in music: the quality of complexity that can be detected in all sounds, that is, the spectrum that constitutes the final sound that we perceive.


Fig. 1

35As it can be seen in the image above, we have a line that indicates a vertical instant formed by multiple sounds-notes, in an artificial composition of tone by Mauricio Sotelo (Madrid, b. 1961). Profoundly inspired by Scully’s work, the Spanish composer is engaged, in a conceptual manner obviously, with some of the Irish painter’s creative guidelines:

What interests me most about Sean Scully’s painting is the process of its creation, the path to the finished picture, the manual method, how thin layers of various pigments are laid one over the other, which –arranged with an almost mystic severity– through transparency become visible again and exhibit unique, unusual emotional tones of great depth. It is certainly the clarity of the composition through which the light is liberated from material bonds and which can come to light as oscillations of air, and respectively ultimately as music.45

36The musical example is extracted from a piece written in 1995 and it helps the art receptor to be aware of how the vertical concept in music can be understood. In addition, it must be said that Sotelo has created his own cycle of compositions devoted, at least in his conceptual desire, to Scully’s work. Between 2003 and 2007, he wrote Chalan –Wall of light earth (2003), Wall of light red– für Beat Furrer (2003-2004), Sonetos del amor oscuro. Cripta Sonora para Luigi Nono (2005) –with Scully’s paintings projected in the background–, Wall of light sky (2005-2006), Wall of light black –for Sean Scully (2005-2006) and Night (2007). What should be underlined is that we do not talk about a mere translation of art into music but a deep and complex contact between the artistic and musical sensibilities: despite their careers developing in different fields, they can talk a common language when focusing on the inner conditions of creation, on the ‘creative premises’ that they share; thus,

C’est pourquoi le passage des arts plastiques à la musique ne doit pas être cherché, à mon sens, en termes de traduction d’un art à un autre, mais en termes de saisie des principes créateurs –les principes poïétiques– que le peintre perçoit chez le compositeur en l’écoutant, et à partir desquelles il développe son propre style plastique dans un médium qui obéit aux contraintes d’une forme symbolique qui se donne au regard dans l’espace, et non à l’oreille dans la linéarité temporelle46

37Hence, Sotelo’s Wall of light pieces must be understood as another kind of music dimension of Scully’s work.
Referring to the horizontal category, this implies the relations established not between layers but between the different colour fields, as we can notice in the pieces created in 1999, Wall of light Red or Wall of light Light, among others. Here, the Wall of light cycle offers a main feature of Scully’s world: we can clearly identify the temporal property; on the one hand, that ‘life process’ detected earlier when analyzing the successive addition of different layers –the vertical view; on the other, the notions of rhythm, symmetry and cadence which underline the horizontal view.
In this last sense, Scully’s approach displays the transition from the different colour fields to an imaginary perspective of the painting surface. There are not clear boundaries in this transition from one chromatic area to another; as it happens in the vertical view, a chromatic vibration emerges when these fields come into contact.


Fig. 2

38When this contact occurs, as we can see in the above framed details from Wall of light Light (1999), it is possible to see the passing of one field into another; there are no fixed stripes, but colours in continuous growth while still leaving some transitional spaces. Here emerges the opportunity of seeing an attempt to illustrate a certain silence, a vacuum, in the form of the least quantity of colour put on the canvas; moreover, the white surface of the canvas can be detected as well. If we take the artistic credos of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg at the beginning of the fifties as a precedent in the definition of silence in both disciplines47, we could transfer this use of artistic silence to Scully’s paintings and see it as an example of musical dimension.
It is true that Scully does not create any of his paintings based on Sotelo’s music; and it is equally true that we are not trying to find objective musical meanings in the Irish painter’s work. However, this last part of the article has emphasized the relevance of the inner links between a painter and a composer given the fact that these connections could enrich our perception of the artists’ works and thus launch their hermeneutic and phenomenological reception into new æsthetic dimensions.


39Sean Scully’s work opens up a wide range of analytic possibilities, the article above trying to approach and clarify the meanings of time and music in his catalogue.

40Firstly, it should so far be obvious that Scully’s paintings do display a rhythmic virtue. As he explains himself, this rhythm invites us to think of urban music genres and, going deeper, of compositions of a more elaborate nature, like those by classical authors as J. S. Bach or Z. Kodály. If we consider Scully’s essays as an explanation of his own work –and we ought to–, his statements about the influence of music in his paintings prove the obvious presence of the time and music dimensions in his catalogue.
Secondly, Scully’s creation should be understood as a result of a ‘time lived’, that is to say, a ‘process of life’, experiences and feelings seen as added to each and every layer painted on the canvas. This condition confers the final object a rich and complex appearance which can be analyzed from two perspectives: a vertical one, that is, from depth to surface, and horizontal one, that is, from left to right. In both of them we can detect a time process visible in the relation between layers and in the passage of one colour field into another. From this relation there emerges a particular type of vibration, collocated as ‘chromatic vibration’.
Thirdly, the Wall of light cycle is an unavoidable step in understanding Scully’s process of creation, one reason being the wide time span it covers but, above all, because of its condition as an æsthetic paradigm: the ‘Walls’ of light cycle offers a clear archetype of the temporal property and it equally summarizes the main frames of Scully’s thought: the utopian, the light as the spirit of creation, the body and the poetry of acting, the avoiding of boundaries and, finally, the rhythm and cadence of a music dimension.
Last but not least, I have tried to illustrate the connection between the Wall of light cycle and Mauricio Sotelo’s music creation. Beyond the similarity of the titles used by both artists –a visible but maybe banal affiliation– there should stand as remarkable the close relation between the inner qualities of their poietic proposals and the chance of seeing spatial horizons in a sound world as music and vice versa.


1  Kevin Power and Sean Scully, “Conversation with Sean Scully”, in David Carrier, Sean Scully, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004, p. 210.

2  I would like to thank to Dr. Ecaterina Patrascu for her kind revision of this english version.

3  Armin Zweite, “Abstraction and Authentic Experience: Double strategies in the Œuvre of Sean Scully”, in A. Zweite et al, Sean Scully. Paintings, pastels, watercolors, photographs 1990-2000, Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001, p. 68.

4  Carolina Maestro Grau, Sean Scully: La dimensión humanística de la pintura abstracta, Valencia: Universidad de Valencia, 2007, p. 155.

5  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 15.

6  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 21.

7  I shall use this term as meaning the first level in the artistic process, that is, the moment when the artist becomes aware of the main frames of his conceptual proposal and of his will as an artist (see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and discourse: Toward a semiology of music, Princeton/New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1990, pp. 11-12.

8  Sean Scully, “Rohtko. Bodies of light”, Resistance and Persistance: Selected writings, London/New York: Merrel, 2006, p. 81.

9  Scully, “Rothko…”, p. 85.

10  David Carrier, “Walls of light: Scully’s utopian pictures”, Sean Scully, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004, pp; 186-207.

11  Vesela Sretenovic, Sean Scully: Walls, Windows, Horizons, Provicence, Rhode Island: The David Winton Bell Gallery, 2001 http://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2001-02/01-012.html, (Accesed August, 20, 2012).

12  Maestro Grau, Sean Scully. La dimensión…, pp; 102-103.

13  Scully, Resistance…, p. 43.

14  Scully, Resistance…, p. 25.

15  Carrier, Sean Scully, pp. 94-95.

16  Scully, Resistance…, p. 167.

17  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 48.

18 Idem.

19  Paul Klee, Unendliche Naturgeschichte. Form – und Gestaltungslehre, Basel: ed. Jürg Spiller, 1970, p. 269, from Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 59.

20  Related to this, it is interesting to mention the film directed by Robert Gardner in 1997, entitled Passenger/A video in four movements and realized in the Film Study Center of Harvard University. In this film one can witness Scully’s process of creation; the title is obviously suggestive, refering clearly to the conventional division of a classical music suite.

21  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 56.

22  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 51.

23  Scully, Resistance…, p. 185.

24 Idem.

25  Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music. New Meanings. New Temporalities. New Listening Strategies, New York/London: Schirmer Books, 1988, p. 6.

26  Clement Greenberg, “La pintura moderna”, La pintura moderna y otros ensayos, Madrid: Siruela, 2006, p. 117 and ff.

27  I refer to the methodology cited above when the concept ‘poietic’ was understood as the first level in the process of artistic creation. Esthesic is the third level, that is, the moment of the final perception by the viewer in the case of paintings (Nattiez, Music and discourse…, pp; 11-12).

28  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, p. 38.

29  Carrier, Sean Scully, p. 45.

30 Ibid., p. 45.

31 Ibid., p. 61.

32 Ibid., p.46.

33  Kevin Power and Sean Scully, “Conversation with Sean Scully”, Carrier, Sean Scully, p. 210.

34 Ibid.

35  Zweite, “Abstraction…”, pp. 67-68.

36  Kosme de Barañano and Kelly Grovier, Sean Scully. Luz del Sur, Granada: Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife, TF Editores, 2012, p. 63.

37  The last reference to the Wall of light series is Wall of light blue yellow blue, exhibited at the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin, visit http://www.kerlin.ie/.

38  Carrier, Sean Scully, p. 195.

39  Scully, Resistance…, p. 76.

40  Sretenovic, Sean Scully: Walls…

41  Carrier, Sean Scully, p. 195.

42 Ibid., p. 202.

43  Scully, Resistance…, p. 28.

44  Umberto Baldini, Teoría de la Restauración, Unidad de Metodología vol. I, Florencia: Nardini Editore, 1997, p. 48.

45  Mauricio Sotelo, Wall of light. Music for Sean Scully, Wien: Kairos, 2008, p. 23.

46  Jean-Jacques Nattiez, La musique, Les Images, Les Mots. Du bon et du moins bon usage des métaphores dans l'esthétique comparée, Québec: Fides, 2010, p. 72.

47  Branden W. Joseph, Random order:Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003, pp. 25-72.


Pedro Ordóñez Eslava, «‘Walls of light and sound’: Temporal and Musical Dimensions in Sean Scully’s Work», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, Musique et Arts plastiques, mis à  jour le : 26/09/2013, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=591.


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University of Granada, chercheur invité du programme Fernand Braudel - Programme IFER Incoming à la Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme Paris.