Their wedding rings were tattooed on their fingers.
“That was my idea” Sean Scully say. ‘It’s because artists, we always have to wash our hands, you have to take off your ring. Then you watch your wedding ring spin around in the sink – just as you reach it, it disappears into the drain. ”
Much has been written about artist couples. The usual story is of the great man whose work and mission take precedence over that of his wife, who works in the shadows until she finally, if at all, achieves her right. But between Scully, one of the world’s leading abstract artists, now 76, and his Swiss-born wife Liliane Tomasko (54), there seems to be a deep collaboration. They share studios in New York and Germany – “We can literally work side by side: we did not even need different rooms,” says Scully – and even exhibitions. They exhibited their work together in Valencia, Rostock and Berlin, and now have their first joint exhibition in the UK, titled Van The Real, at Newlands House in Sussex.
But in the show, Tomasko explains, the rooms is separate: the work is parallel rather than mixed. Her looser, more expressive and gestural abstractions in glowing colors are, she says, based on domestic life; his distinctive stripes, so much denser and more intricate as they first appear, appear everywhere from canvases to sculpture. Scully’s new work includes black paintings made during the pandemic year and a sculpture in Murano glass.
This artist couple goes even further. In the luxurious dining room of their home outside Aix-en-Provence, they chat in the impressive early 19th century manoir just a week earlier – I discovered that they had even made a painting together. As I scream to see it, Scully pulls out his phone, and I see a picture of a large canvas decorated with stripes of Scully in simmering terracotta, ocher, gray, and black, with a square “window” in the middle, filled with a painting of Tomasko in all her freer, psychological intensity. Perhaps surprisingly, it works: it’s definitely much more than a gimmick.
Who went first? I ask.
“You have,” she replied.
“No, you did, ”he says. ‘I want us to do even more, and I want to put it in an exhibition that is about duality, about dialectics.
And the title?
‘I think it’s called’ Mejor lo mejor ‘? Say Tomasko.
“Yes, that’s right. It’s hard to translate. The best is better? To improve the best?”
The Spanish, who both speak fluently, is a nod to their years in Barcelona, where they recently left their home and studio. It was a decision driven by the growth of nationalism in the city they loved.
“In Barcelona you go to meetings and they speak completely Catalan – like saying ‘Fuck you’, ‘says Scully. At the playground with their young son, Tomasko was told they should speak Catalan, instead of Spanish. “There was too much of it – it made it impossible,” she says quietly. Scully, in his more robust way, adds: “In the end, we could not stand Barcelona because of this shit.”
For this multinational couple, with studios and homes in New York, London, Munich and Berlin — and now Aix-en-Provence — the arrival of their son Oisin, in 2009, changed their thinking around the world. As a young artist, Scully received a scholarship to travel to Harvard, from where he visited New York, with his astonishing arts dominated by minimalism and abstract expressionism.
‘New York was like a rectangle of tension and nervous energy. I was attracted to it because I felt attracted to trouble. There is no space between buildings, no forgiveness. Everything is a battle. In a devilish way, I enjoyed the trouble of it.
‘I’ve seen New York destroy so many people, including Americans coming from naive places. If I had gone to New York first, God knows what would have happened to me. ”
However, Scully flourished in New York and in the American art world and made his name by breaking through the prevailing artistic orthodoxy, especially with one of his most famous works, “Backs and Fronts” (1981). In this he placed a tight grid on a wildly colored Ab-Ex ground so that he could penetrate. One commenter said Scully broke the back of minimalism.
“Well,” he said, laughing, “someone had to do it.”
But as a family man, his feelings about present-day New York changed. He shows me a picture of a work of his in which his stripes have changed into those of an American flag and the stars in the upper left corner are being replaced by rows of guns.
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When I grew up with his Irish immigrant family in a difficult area of London, ‘I would get involved in so many street fights’, he says,’ but you knew you would not be shot. [In the US] the gun is inherent in their idea of identity. That’s why we do not leave our son at school in America – we have to get out of there. ”
Family life also had a powerful impact on his artistic practice. A lifelong abstractionist, a few years ago he made a dramatic ‘swing’ in figure. Some of these photos are included in the show at Newlands House: blocky colors, Malevich-like, depicting tender scenes of a woman and child playing together. I saw these images in a show in Venice in 2019 called Human, which surprised everyone who thought they knew what Scully’s job would always be.
Tomasko explains that they vacationed every year in Eleuthera, a quiet island in the Bahamas with a ‘strong sense of innocence’. Scully took photos of Tomasko playing with their son on the beach, but “although I liked the photos, despite what people say, photography will never painting replaced. Painting is eternal. I realized that if I want to immortalize Oisin and Liliane, and the experience of creating this amazing, beautiful boy, I have to make the paintings. So I made the paintings and now I have made my detour and I am back to my highway.
‘Tell me another artist, an abstract artist, who separated into figurations but returned to abstraction. It is not so easy. ”
Tomasko started as a sculptor, and the couple’s plans for the property in Provence, with fields and forests in which they hope to make a sculpture park, may include a return to it. After a brief semi-figurative dedication, she dedicated herself to the abstractions that made her sought after: a full-scale solo exhibition in Magdeburg, which opens on September 7, is the next important thing on her calendar.
I have to ask the inevitable question – whether the work of her famous husband overshadowed her own. If she answers “NO!” I find I believe her. ‘It’s always a problem that comes up. But it by no means [overshadowed]. I do not do good on my own. I like to have family. ”
Scully adds: ‘Here’s the thing about art making. David Hockney said this recently, but if he had not done so, I would have said: art is a matter of love. You can not make art competitive. You are not running a race. Picasso spoke nonsense when he said that art is war. Art is the opposite of war. The antidote to war. Because it does not resolve difficult positions that lead to insoluble conflict. ”
During the fall, the family will travel together, as ‘we always try’, Tomasko says after a worldwide series, including Copenhagen, Berlin, Poland and Texas, where Scully has a big flashback to Fort Worth. This is just one of a dozen international performances for him in the coming year, which is nothing new for this prolific artist.
We talk a little bit about this level of success, about the contemporary art world, about the gallery system. They laugh at some journalistic rumor that they own a private plane – ‘It would be like owning a shark. I would rather be in hell, ”says Scully. He tells me he has a reputation as ‘difficult’ because ‘I did not like all the big galleries.’ He and Tomasko have mostly worked with smaller galleries, but he is now at Lisson. He admits that the demands of the market and breathtakingly high prices meant “it is now out of my control. It pulls me together.
“Actually, I deliberately depressed my market.” I do not express to him what he means, for he has just looked up and out the window at the rolling gardens of their new home, with its delicious cypress and olive groves outside. ‘If I wanted to be rich, I would just do the real estate. I’m really good at it. ”
Until October 10, newlandshouse.gallery
‘On the Line: Conversations with Sean Scully’ by Kelly Grover is published by Thames & Hudson, £ 25
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