Sean Scully: Dark Windows
In advance of the group exhibition Portals (10 February – 9 April 2022), featuring a new work by Sean Scully entitled Wall Landline Chrome (2021), this exploration of the artist's preceding Dark Windows series looks back over an extraordinary body of work produced by the artist in 2020 featuring central, black voids for the first time (included in a dual show at Lisson New York in 2021). In an essay by Ossian Ward, Lisson Gallery's Content Director and curator of Portals, these five paintings are mined for their references to seismic events in American politics and the first waves of the global pandemic, while also reaching back into art history for their homages to black paintings and windows by Goya, Malevich, Van Gogh and Duchamp, among others.
"The black square, nihilistic and negative, in the center of my romantic painting, has a very clear meaning. I believe that coronavirus is the direct result of our bad behavior, brutal treatment and abuse of nature and all the animals we use for industrial agriculture. We should all be vegetarians. We should stop abusing animals. We should drive electric cars. We should recycle everything, following the example of Germany. Otherwise, Coronavirus will be nothing but the younger brother of what will happen. This is more important than making beautiful paintings, because if we don't have a house, we won't even have a place to hang those beautiful paintings."
Dark Windows: Portals of pain and possibility
The painting, with its rigid, rectilinear form, has always been considered a window onto another reality. The artist is there to open up this window with a likeness of the external world or to fill the empty space with a representation of the interior self. The two-dimensional panel can also be seen as an aperture to escape from, or to burrow into and hide, but in place of the transparent panes of glass both artist and viewer are required to insert or intuit their own vision of what lies on or behind the picture plane.
A similar myth persists about the painter as lonesome author within the confines of the studio, struggling to express desires, knowledge or experience through this frame. The canvas, then, is not only a similar shape to the window, but also a metaphor for the journey of leaving behind the confines of one’s immediate environment and pushing through to an understanding of what else is possible. However, that same window of opportunity can become a restraint for the artist, a blank, accusatory surface that demands to be filled and yet can’t possibly contain the multitudes of possible worlds at the painter’s disposal.
A new body of work by Sean Scully, featuring inky black voids inserted into his fluid, shimmering bands of horizontal color, explores these contradictions and fundamentally tests the resilience of the painted window as a portal to other worlds, even questioning its supposed innate ability to reveal truth, likeness and feeling. This suite, entitled Dark Windows (2020), was created last year in his New York studio, as the world outside was rocked by a global pandemic, extensive quarantine measures, Black Lives Matter protests, political instability and mass uncertainty.
The act of inserting central windows into his paintings began three decades earlier in 1987 with works such as Flatland, Breath and Four Four and even before this, when there were hints of internal divisions and frames within frames taking place in works such as Windows (1973), not to mention his compositions employing numerous combined and conjoined canvases. The advent of the Dark Windows, however, represents the first time in Scully’s career that these interior panels (or indeed, any significant passages of paint since the late 1970s) are entirely blackened or effectively erased, suggesting a symbolic act of protest, solidarity or even of shocked silence.
The refusal of this opaque viewfinder to reveal anything beyond is certainly a moment of rupture in Scully’s own career, willfully severing or “disbanding” the horizontal continuity of his ongoing series of Landlines, paintings that have perpetually traced the world’s contours through stripes of glowing color for the past 20 years. By incorporating these unforgiving and impregnable windows into this liquid continuum, Scully has effectively blocked out the sun’s rays and denied his beloved landscape its permanency, signaling a pause or a disconnect with the natural world.
Whether decisive rifts or temporary disjunctions, these dark clouds and Scully’s suspension of the usual horizon lines of sky, sea and land might also be considered more than just a break with nature, signifying instead a collapsing of all time and space, a failure of the visual and a fissure opening up in art history – perhaps even within the very foundational strata of culture itself.
This apocalyptic reading has some precedent in Scully’s more pugilistic and political periods of painting. In response to a 2014 video showing the shooting of a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland at the hands of policemen, Scully produced a series of Ghost paintings (2016–18), depicting the American flag adorned with a pistol where the stars should be placed, the celestial bodies instead fallen from their perch into a pile among the stripes below. Scully has often likened his practice to a fight or a boxing match; while usually his battles are with his own forms and with the physical exertion of painting, occasionally that pictorial violence bleeds out and collides with real-world struggles.
The Dark Windows certainly refer to the extended moment of imprisonment experienced by Scully and the rest of the world, during the COVID-19-induced global lockdowns of 2020. Art history is likewise full of examples of freedoms being curtailed, from Francisco Goya’s haunting depiction of The Madhouse (1812–19), in which only the tiniest of windows offers a fleeting chance for escape from the asylum, to Vincent van Gogh’s famous Window in the Studio (1889). On first glance, this is an idyllic outlook onto a picturesque garden, but closer inspection reveals the prison-like bars across the windows of Van Gogh’s cell in the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Paul, where he admitted himself voluntarily, following his violent arguments with Gauguin and the infamous self-mutilation episode.
An even more claustrophobic sensation comes from paintings by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi of the apartment and studio where he lived with his wife from 1898 to 1909 in Copenhagen. Most of these interiors, painted at number 30 Strandgade in the Christianshavn neighborhood, feature Hammershøi’s spartan surroundings, the many lines and grids of the internal courtyard windows (without any significant views beyond) and often a shadowy central section or a “dark heart”, in works such as Interior with Ida Playing the Piano (1910) or Interior with Ida in a White Chair (1900).
Scully’s dark insets can’t be fully considered in art-historical terms without making reference to Kazimir Malevich’s brazen artistic full stop, Black Square, the first complete iteration of a painting acting as opaque refusal of the picture window (four versions of which were painted between 1915–23, while he also experimented with crosses and other geometrical shapes). Black Square (1915) launched a politically inflected movement, labelled Suprematism, a revolutionary call to abstraction, mirroring the social revolutions taking place across Russia. Far from mere statement, however, Malevich’s square was also a radical reset and is now considered as abstract painting’s de facto “year zero”. Similarly, Scully’s usage of the black square motif is not only a radical return to his roots – to the original tenets of abstractions, beyond even his own minimalist period as a painter in the late 1970s – but also a response to the toxicity, noise, fear and hysteria orbiting the world in 2020.
Of course, these painterly hearts of darkness, which dull or blot out all light, represent the mortality and transience of human existence – the blackness of the void suggesting the nothingness awaiting us in the afterlife, or at the very least a tender balance between the foreground and background, the thin line between life and death.
However, it would be a mistake to read the Dark Windows as unremittingly downbeat or negative paintings. Even in art’s greatest moments of erasure – such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) – there are always remnants of something, even the cracks and underpainting of Black Square contain infinite sub-meanings and messages.
Similarly, deep within the gaps and vacuums of the Dark Windows exist subtle passages of forceful gesture and signs of internal struggle – such as the occasional speck of a neighboring hue or tiny flecks of light. So, while Scully’s disturbing slabs of darkness certainly represent erasure and the abyss, there may yet be light at the end of the tunnel.
Scully has always professed to use his paint as a positive force, much as Henri Matisse commented on the use of dark backgrounds in works such as his French Window at Collioure (1914) as his attempt “to use black as a color of light and not as a color of darkness.” While also recalling the dark panes in Marcel Duchamp’s opaque readymade and punning play-on-words, Fresh Widow (1920), Scully does not consider this a conceptual act, but an expression of how an entire planet has been paused, his midriff punch into the void perhaps representing a violent but necessary break with the previous era. The interjection of black spaces within Scully’s painterly fields represents the triumph of abstraction over figuration and of modern art over the traditions of the salon, but there is also a puzzling reversal of the figure/ground, landscape/window norms of painting. If the window is murky and forbidding, then the surrounds – which could be the walls of the studio or the interior world of the artist – are all light, color and possibility. Scully is rupturing the pictorial rules of foreground and background, perhaps breaking through the “fourth wall” and forcing the audience to pick a side – abstract or figurative, darkness or light, memorial or celebration – the needle is continuously flicking between positivity and negativity.
Sean Scully making Black Square, the precursor to the Dark Windows paintings
"In the late ’80s, I started to put a lot of windows into the paintings, and they were real windows. I did try to leave some one colour, and I don’t know what it was, whether it was my emotion, my insecurity, my need to do something else first, or the general climate swirling around me, but I was unable to make [a solid colour insert] happen. You know, my work is always based on metaphor, so the meaning of [black] didn’t touch me as true at that time. It was only now when I returned to this window idea that I could see them as black, because of what’s in the air."
Scully’s Landlines have become an arena to contemplate continuity and eternity, so while there are many links back to his own work (especially in the device of using smaller supports inserted into larger paintings), the Dark Windows are also undoubtedly a reappraisal or a reckoning. It can be read as a group of Landlines “interrupted” or disturbed, with the positions of these blacked-out windows – slightly lower than center in each composition and not that far off the 79.5 cm (31 inches) size of Malevich’s original – suggests that there is still unbroken sky above and a bedrock of landscape below our feet (at least that is the case with the Dark Windows series, while in other standalone pieces, variously titled as Black Square or Black Window, the void is more central but can also float up or down within the composition). While there are ominous skies outside, Scully suggests, the blight will soon be over, the plague will cease, the world will heal itself.
As apertures, the window, canvas or blank sheet of paper are but tiny fractions of the whole, representing only glimpses of our visible reality. While this narrow view might contend that a window or a work of art is a necessarily compromised and merely partial inlet or outlet, it is equally true that much of our lives is now increasingly being mediated by these rectilinear boundaries – whether through a television screen, a page, a photograph or a handheld phone or tablet. Rather than permitting only a restricted field of vision, these windows could be seen as magical portals to other universes or even just uncanny and lifelike portrayals of experience. Scully’s Dark Windows are not simply black holes, sucking in all objects and light within their orbit, but propositions for an endless cosmos of possibilities or a transcendental consciousness beyond the immediate purview of the artist’s windowpanes.
Sean Scully, Flatland, 1987
Oil on linen
60 x 60 in (152.4 x 152.4 cm)
Photo credit: Elisabeth Bernstein
Sean Scully, Four Four, 1987–88
Oil on linen
60 x 60 in (152.4 x 152.4 cm)
Photo credit: Alan Zindman
Sean Scully, Ghost Something Black, 2017
Oil and oil pastel on aluminum
75 x 85 in (190.5 x 215.9 cm)
Photo credit: Brian Buckley
Francisco Goya, The Madhouse, 1812–19
Oil on panel
17 3⁄4 x 28 1⁄4 in (45 x 72 cm)
Collection of the Real Academia de
Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid
Vincent van Gogh, Window in the Studio
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, September–October 1889
chalk, oil paint and watercolor, on paper
24 x 18 3⁄4 in (62 x 47.6 cm)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with
Ida in a White Chair, 1900
Oil on canvas
22 1⁄2 x 19 1⁄4 in (57 x 49 cm)
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square
(Black Suprematic Square), 1915
Oil on linen
31 1⁄4 x 31 1⁄4 in (79.5 x 79.5 cm)
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow,
original 1920, fabricated 1964
Painted wood, glass, black leather,
paper, and transparent tape
Overall: 30 3⁄16 x 20 7⁄8 x 4 in (76.6 x 53 x 10. 2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gift of Deborah and Ed Shein
© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2021
Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de
Kooning Drawing, 1953
Traces of drawing media on paper with label
hand-lettered in ink, and gilded frame
25 1⁄4 x 21 3⁄4 x 1⁄2 in (64.1 x 55.2 x 1.3 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis
© 2021 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation /
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society
(ARS), New York 2021
Henri Matisse, Porte-fenêtre à Collioure
(Window at Collioure), 1914
Centre Pompidou, Paris
© 2021 Succession H. Matisse /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2021