Sean Scully: 1970

Dublin-born, New York-based painter Sean Scully talks about his artistic roots in the north and why there’s been profound developments in regional art since his career took off in the 1970s

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Sean Scully is in a reflective mood. The widely regarded abstract painter will soon present a retrospective exhibition at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. It is entitled Sean Scully: 1970 in reference to his career’s turning point. The event forms part of the Liverpool Biennial of contemporary art and Scully will be a special guest at its opening. He was born in Dublin and is now an American citizen, but his artistic roots lie in the north of England.

“I have extraordinarily fond memories of Liverpool,” says the 73 year old, who now lives in New York City. “I’m really happy to be closing circles and, in a certain sense, joining the late part of my life with the early part.”

Scully moved to London as a young child in 1949. He attended convent school and soon became enamoured by art, initially inspired by church paintings. As a teenager, he attended Croydon College of Art before venturing north to study fine art at Newcastle University in 1968. It was here that Scully developed his signature style: intricate, intersecting grids of bands and lines that demanded viewers to explore the spaces between them.

His paintings expressed his love of both the bridges crossing the River Tyne and visiting Morocco. “I was influenced by these industrial structures of metal which I always found very beautiful,” he says. “I painted them in bright colours that were in common use in cartoons and products at that time – orange, blue and red.”

Scully acknowledges that it took time to perfect his work. How does he evaluate his early efforts?

“They’re a young man’s paintings. They’re not full of nuance and mastery at that point, but I loved doing them.”

As an artist exhibited in many major galleries, Scully is delighted to finally see art travelling beyond larger cities. “What’s really great now, I believe, is that art is becoming regional. This is a profound development,” says the two-time John Moores Painting Prize runner-up.

“I love to show my work regionally in second-level cities like Liverpool. These cities are places where the inhabitants themselves visit the galleries, whereas, in cities like New York, Paris and London, they’re overshadowed by the tourist crowd.

“With shows like this, you are affecting the sense of wellbeing in the city. There’s no question that art has a huge psychological effect on people and they feel more pride too.”

The vividness of the paintings on display means the exhibition can be enjoyed by both adults and children. Scully has seen first hand that younger visitors interpret and enjoy his artwork differently from their parents.

“My paintings are adored by children because they don’t have that interpretation part to get over when they look at abstract art.

“Children are able to imagine my paintings reconfigured. They seem able to play with them because of the way they’re organised. They can look at them and do their own version.”

Scully’s retrospective marks 50 years since he established his identity as an artist in Newcastle. Since then, his artwork has been enjoyed globally, but what would the world itself be like without art? “I think the world without art would be intolerable – I mean, that’s like the world without love.”

Sean Scully: 1970 runs at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool from 14 July-14 October

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