Chinese legend has it that between you and your loved one, across eternity, there lies an unbreakable red thread. Red Light was one of the first paintings to establish Sean Scully’s reputation, winning him the John Moores Prize in 1972. With hindsight, Scully draws a thread back to the unified simplicity of Rothko’s favourite painting, The Red Studio (1911) by Matisse.  But back in the early 1970s, his intention was to ‘make a mystery or a compression of a surface’, and his compass points were Pollock (freedom, desire) and Mondrian (attuned geometry).  Scully tackles the colour red by constructing a psychedelic scaffolding, drawing the eye into an illusion of space through a dense grille of thin stripes, blue, canary yellow, pink, umber, bottle green, apricot. It is a noisy, luminous profusion that builds up over shadowy reaches behind and scatters the gaze every which way. Red light has the longest wavelength in the spectrum visible to the human eye, on the cusp of infrared. Notice the red horizontals, the last to be applied, sitting quietly on the top layer, like the warming filaments of an electric heater.
Scully’s early work is systematic. Clean, hard edges are achieved by means of a lot of masking tape. He would mark up a grid, lay masking tape onto the canvas, apply paint (acrylic), then another set of masking tape lines, more paint with heavy rollers, and so on until the canvas was filled up, a panel of taut plaid. He only stopped when information that been put down was being taken away. Architectural, these grid structures lend Red Light the soaring verticality of a skyscraper, anticipating perhaps Scully’s move from Newcastle to New York, Greenbergian terrain, in 1975 (he turned to oils at that point). William Feaver, a Newcastle neighbor, conveys the wow effect: ‘It followed a rigid, two-to-the-bar rock and roll beat, so overdubbed and multi-tracked that, rather like one of Phil Spector’s multitudinous, pop sound-barrier breaking record productions, the best of the completed paintings overcame colour barriers and, as Scully puts it, “became totally organic. So that the painting was not simply a demonstration of process.”’ 
More than a demonstration of process, Red Light harbours personal preoccupations. ‘Nothing is abstract: it’s still a self-portrait.’  From a rough childhood in South London, Scully had moved to study and teach at Newcastle University (1968–72). It was a singular time, when Newcastle enjoyed a distinct scene of its own, associated with Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton (‘I had heard of Richard Hamilton, and was happy he wasn’t there’ ) and Brian Ferry. Scully’s red thread takes in the all-over-ness of his tutor Ian Stephenson’s drip-drop atmospheres, the overlapping frisson of steel girders of bridges over the Tyne, and the ‘low optical hum’ of Bridget Riley.  Often described as unashamedly modern, Scully’s avowed disinterest in fashion (even at this nascent stage) feeds into a preoccupation with Britishness. He stresses Britain’s island position – in physical, temperamental and aesthetic terms – in between Europe and America. It is ‘desirable but difficult to invade. The Spanish Armada was chased all around the coast of Britain and Ireland, by sailors who understand that navigation (the ability to blow with the wind) was more important than big guns. It was that chase that caused the Armada to self-destruct incrementally, detail by detail. And it is this space that exists between the border of things that has made the British character.’  The idea of the border of things is paramount in Red Light. Scully navigates the elusive inlets, stripe-to-stripe, with a brawny nimbleness.
© Dorothy Feaver 2009
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
2 Sean Scully, ‘The Phillips Collection Lecture’ (2005), in Resistance and Persistence, Selected Writings (London: Merrell, 2006), 165.
3 William Feaver, ‘Sean Scully’, Art International (December 1973), 26.
4 Sean Scully, ‘Zurich’ (2006), in Resistance and Persistence, 78.
5 Sean Scully, ‘Ian Stephenson, Man of the North’ (2005), in Resistance and Persistence, 100.
6 Sean Scully, ‘High and Low, or the Sublime and the Ordinary’ (1989), in Resistance and Persistence, 18.
7 Scully, ‘Ian Stephenson, Man of the North’, 104.