ART / athens / exhibitions / greece / review

Sean Scully’s abstract awesomeness

FOR THOSE who haven’t gone to see the Sean Scully retrospective of 103 works at the Benaki Pireos yet (which runs till February 13), then please take a word of advice: Go! Sean Scully, is considered to be the most famous living Irish artist of our times, and he is also one of the most famous abstract artists of our times.

‘Madonna 1’, 2018. Photo taken by Brian Buckley courtesy of Sean Scully

What is amazing about ‘Sean Scully: Passenger – A retrospective’, at the Benaki Pireos, is the shear size of most of the paintings. They are enormous! Skyscrapers of art! (Or nearly ceiling scrapers in this case). One imagines him up on scaffolding or ladders in order to paint the top sections. The big rectangular blocks of colour on many of the works, are as bold and strong, and reminiscent of, those Cyclopean walls in Mycenae. But does size matter? Well, it certainly adds impact, and presence, that’s for sure. Is this boldness bombastic? I think brave is a better way to characterize it.

Partial view of the exhibition at Benaki Pireos

The colours, are at times as warm and deep as the setting sun, just before it disappears, and other times as cold and distant as a frozen, barren landscape’s. They are laid on in an expressive manner, via which you can see the thickness of the luscious brushstrokes. There’s no emphasis on ‘detail’, or keeping between the lines. But then, how could there be, seeing as the humongous size of many of these paintings governs that ‘detail’, would be a waste of time. Rothko’s colour-field painting comes to mind, but Scully’s blocks of colour don’t ‘float’ the way Rothko’s do.

‘Diagonal Inset’, 1973, acrylic on canvas

It is interesting to see examples of Scully’s earlier acrylic abstracts, with their layers and more elaborate grid-like compositions, the ‘Crossover’ paintings of the ’70s, that also bring to mind textiles in the way that the lines of colour are ‘woven’ onto the canvas. The dark ‘Fort’ painting, is a mesmerizing piece, for which Scully says the following: “I took the title from the design of a Roman fort, which is why I divided it into four. I was making four entities that would come together in a kind of sculptural whisper. The vibration between them would be exciting, if you let it work its magic. But of course it requires time.”  In 1981, Scully mostly abandoned acrylics in favour of the depth that oils offer.


On show are also Scully’s early works of the ’60s (when he was a student at Croydon College of Art). Here, one gets a sense of how he uses colour to organize the shape of the human figure. Influences of fauvism and German expressionism are prevalent.

Example of Scully’s work from his student days at Croydon College of Art

The large figurative works on aluminium of 2018-19, namely the ‘Madonna’ series, are arresting works that often celebrate the relationship of mother and child, and blissful family moments, although the poses do also have a scare factor at times, such as in ‘Madonna 1’, where there is ambiguity in the gesture of mother’s hands: are they protecting the baby, or are they threateningly close to its neck? David Fehrer says of this period: “Many people were astonished by Sean Scully’s return to figurative depiction. This dramatic turn was connected with the birth of his second son, Oisin, in 2009, whose presence brought about a substantial change both in Scully’s life and his art.” Scully’s first son had died in a car accident at the age of 18 (in 1983). One can imagine therefore why the birth of his second son made such an impact on the artist’s life.

Partial view of the exhibition with an iconic sculpture by Scully also on show

David Fehrer, the exhibition’s curator, explains how “One of the most prominent motifs in Scully’s oeuvre is the window. Since the late 1980s, he has often cut a window–like opening into the ground of his pictures, filling it with another, smaller picture – the inset. The picture inserted into the picture can be interpreted simultaneously as a body, a figure, an opening and a window.” This feature of Scully’s work is indeed an intriguing aspect of this work.  

Scully’s hommages to the works of other artists, such as Klee and Van Gogh, present the artist’s interest in analyzing the colour harmonies of former masters. Compositionally-speaking however, the Doric architectural form was also a major influence. Scully explains: “The inspiration of Doric was the architectural form that accompanied the birth of democracy. Athens being the cradle of democracy, and all that followed in the West, was what I wanted to pay homage to. I wanted to express order and humanism.”

The current retrospective at the Benaki, comes ten years after the ‘Doric’ exhibition that introduced the art of Sean Scully to Greece. The current exhibition was launched at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest and will go on to travel to several European destinations.

‘Doric 2.24.12’, 2012, pastel on paper

Abstraction vs Figuration in contemporary art

According to, “figuration represents 87% of the auction market for in-demand paintings made after 2010”, and so, contemporary abstract artists are in for a rough ride. Having said that, one of Gerhard Richter’s abstract works was the third most expensive work to be sold last year (at $12.3 million), as presented in an article by But then, the world of the art market is a cruel one, and Gerhard Richter, born in 1932, (a factor which might make his work very attractive at the moment), is topped by Banksy. But I’m diverging of course… However, the point that should be made, is that it takes guts to go abstract these days, and of course even more guts to go BIG abstract…

A bit more about Scully…

Sean Scully is arguably the most eminent representative of abstract painting today. His work combines the tradition of American abstract expressionism with the sensitivity of European modernism. The resulting visual language is in constant dialogue with major painters and artistic movements of the past while maintaining a personal perspective, brimming with emotion. His work is included in the world’s greatest museums and private collections.

Sean Scully was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1945. Four years later his family moved to England, where they lived in a working-class part of South London. By the age of 9 Scully knew he wanted to become an artist. His apprenticeship as a typesetter at a commercial printing shop in London in the early ’60s greatly influenced the art to come. At the age of 20 he began to study full-time at Croydon College of Art, London, before moving on to Newcastle University in 1968. In 1970 Sean Scully won the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation prize before going on to receive runner-up prize in the 1972 John Moores Painting Prize. That same year he was awarded the Frank Knox Fellowship to attend Harvard University. In 1975, at the age of 30, Scully was awarded a two-year Harkness Fellowship, with which he moved to New York.

Sean Scully’s works are in the collections of nearly every major museum around the world. In 2014 he became the only Western artist to have had a career-length retrospective exhibition in China. This led to his being awarded the International Artist of the Year Prize in Hong Kong in 2018. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Landline’ at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which was also shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Connecticut; a retrospective titled ‘Vita Duplex’ at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Germany, which toured to the LWL-Museum for Art and Culture, Münster, Germany; ‘Sean Scully: Sea Star’ at The National Gallery, London; the first major exhibition of his sculptures at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK; ‘HUMAN’ at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy, for the 58th Venice Art Biennale; and ‘Sean Scully: Standing on the Land’ at Pilane Sculpture Park, Klövedal, Sweden, among others.

‘Vincent’, 2002, oil on linen

2021 saw the opening of a major fifty-year career retrospective, ‘Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas’ at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, which will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania in 2022. ‘Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective,’ which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest in 2020, will continue its tour of Europe in 2022 after its Benaki Museum showing. Sean Scully lives and works between New York, London and Germany.

  • Curators of ‘Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective’: Dávid Fehér PhD, Curator of 20thcentury and contemporary art, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest; Constantinos Papachristou, Curator, Benaki Museum / The Ghika Gallery, Athens.
  • BENAKI MUSEUM / PIREOS 138 I 138 Pireos Str. & Andronikou Str. I 210 3453111 Ι Opening hours: Thursday & Sunday:10:00-18:00, Friday & Saturday: 10:00-22:00, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: Closed Ι Tickets: € 8 I Reduced ticket: € 4
  • ‘Art Scene Athens’ is written and run by artist/journalist Stella Sevastopoulos, who has been covering the Greek art scene since she moved from London to Athens in 1994. For examples of her artwork, you may visit her online portfolio.

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