Back and front: The painting that changed the course of art


Among those in attendance to hear the commotion caused at Backs and Fronts’ first exhibition at New York City’s PS1 Art Center (part of the Museum of Modern Art) in 1982 was the art historian and writer Robert Morgan, who recently remembered the impact the work made back then. “This painting took the exhibition by storm. Nothing like it had been done before: 11 panels moving horizontally across an open field, an infinity of colored stripes, moving optically up, down and across. sides as if they were notations of a musical score. ” Morgan’s equation of the work’s vocabulary with the swell and grammar of musical composition is perfectly in tune with the very creation of the painting, which began as a smaller, more intimate, and contained response to the famous Cubist portrait. of 1921 by Pablo Picasso, Three musicians.

“I thought it would be better to have four musicians,” Scully told me, recalling how he initially set out to create a relatively modest quartet of panels to the rhythms of Picasso’s famous trio. Scully had resided in New York for five years, a young aspiring artist patiently paying his dues, after graduating from college in England in 1972. and I have always loved his geometric figures, which were close to abstraction but didn’t have never crossed the line. As I went along, I had the courage to start expanding the work. And then I started to extend it stylistically until, at the end, it was thunderous. ”


American art historian and philosopher David Carrier also witnessed the thunderclap of Backs and Fronts. and writer. “Shortly after it was shown,” The carrier wrote, “everything has changed for [Scully]. Usually an art historian has only book experience of the events he describes. But I know this story by knowledge, because I was there. I remember as if yesterday, entering PS 1. At that time, Scully did not have a dealer; he was also not very well known in New York. As soon as his art inspired me, I met him and when I tried to explain it, I became an art critic. “

For Scully, the breakthrough that Backs and Fronts represented, personally and creatively, cannot be overstated. It was, he told me, “a very big step.” Like all big steps, however, countless little ones before him have made this ultimate leap possible. As a teenage apprentice to a printer in London (where his family had moved from his native Dublin as a toddler), Scully regularly found himself pondering the humble grandeur of Van Gogh’s chair (which then resided in the Tate) – to learn from a master how a weightless color can be alchemy into the weight of sacred substance, and how even the space surrounding an object can be sanctified into something both tactile and transcendent. Subsequently, as a student at Croydon School of Art, the only institution that was willing to give him a chance, Scully made the decision to move away from figurative painting, which he had experimented with with precocious panache. – breaking the body into a puzzle of damp hues in paintings such as Untitled (Seated Figure), 1967. The craze for the scattered spiritual grids of Piet Mondrian and the poignant character of the alluring panels of mystical colors of Mark Rothko began to percolate in his mind.

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