It was a nice surprise to discover an exhibition of Sean Scully soon after entering the National Gallery in London this past Monday. I was accompanied by my nephew, a bright young man who when asked if he ever looked at art answered: ‘Yeah sure, I sometimes look at art’ but confessed that his taste was rather conservative, limited pretty much to the old masters.
Looking about at the abstract paintings hanging around us, I saw it as an interesting challenge to see if I could find the language to convey my appreciation of Scully’s rectangles and stripes to him. I did my best and he seemed to listen but of course I’m not sure what he made of it all.
It reminded me of the trips I made by car between art school in Memphis TN and my home in New York in 1972-73. I would regularly stop off in Washington DC, roughly halfway on my 20 hour journey and stay a few days at St. Anselm’s Abbey where my cousin, Brother Giles, a Benedictine monk, lived and taught art history and architecture to the children of foreign diplomats. The monk’s cell I occupied was very simple, but free room and board, important to a poor art student and I genuinely enjoyed talking with my cousin and discussing his work in his attic atelier which we visited initially by candlelight, ascending the long narrow stairs behind one another. Giles using the candlelight to slowly illuminate the planes and features of some of the plaster portraits he had made of his fellow monks. He would also take me to the National Gallery and the Corcoran Museum, taking the time to deepen my art appreciation, pointing out the various works of art to me, his younger cousin.
In retrospect I realized I had learned a lot from those sessions but at the time a lot of it sailed in one ear and out the other. I was a bit insecure and defensive at that age and although his knowledge and insights were certainly impressive and left their mark, I sometimes felt he was sharing ‘his’ experience and I wanted to have my own.
So it was that I launched into my own insights and understanding of Sean Scully’s works as we walked through the show together that Monday morning. He listened attentively, but of course you never know what remarks of mine hopefully might have added something to his own interaction with the paintings. I’m very curious what my discourse on the art of Sean Scully provided him.