I first stumbled upon Sean Scully in an Artnet article last year, but only a week ago did I go get some books of his work from the library. This post is about the notion of harmony and Scully’s approach to it, but I want to give a bit of context. Scully’s abstract paintings, drawings, and pastels are all based on a simplified vocabulary of stripes or short bars. This mature style developed by the early 80’s. Each painting has a different structure; the interest is partly in the composition, but more in the colors of each element — which I find lush and restrained at the same time — the and masterful way they are joined and coordinated.

That’s it for the introduction. If you want to know more, you can read the brief Wikipedia entry or check out the Body of Light exhibit at the National Gallery of Australia or his work at the Met.

Wall of Light - Beach
Wall of Light Beach

An unusual aspect of Scully’s oil paintings is that they are often made of separate panels joined together. They may fit tightly into a flat rectangle, or they may be layered in the third dimension and/or make an irregular outline in the plane. This feature is related to Scully’s ideas on integrity and harmony, which I found fascinating. Below are a few quotes on these ideas, taken from interviews or writings.

The pieces are generally painted separately. And sometimes they’re painted in different rooms. And sometimes they’re painted with tremendously long periods between them. So I’m not thinking about the whole, when I’m painting the pieces. I’m thinking about the pieces, what they are. And when you paint at different times, you feel differently, you are different; so that the spirit in the panels, the spirit in the pieces is different from part to part. So the paintings become emotionally dimensional. That’s my intention.

Harmony is coming out of what you know. It’s affirming what you already know. And as Einstein said, ‘when I know something, I don’t have to think about it.’ So disharmony is much more interesting and life affirming than harmony, because disharmony eventually, through history, we change into harmony.

Wall of Light - Desert Night
Wall of Light Desert Night

I put the things in competition with each other. So that, instead of trying to paint a relationship, I paint the areas and put them together and that makes a relationship, that is a relationship. But the relationships are not completely controlled or they’re not completely articulated. … It’s as if things are together, but they also have the possibility of asserting their independence from each other.

I reacted against the idea of perfection and of the holistic masterpiece. I wanted to make realities that were much more humanistic, where the problematic relationships between things could make a new kind of spirit and beauty. I am not trying to make masterpieces that are resolved. I want my paintings to express the pathos of relationships.


This process of deliberately bringing together potentially discordant or conflicting elements is basic to Leslie’s Hello Kitty series, which she has posted on here and here. Thinking of my own work, the only thing that comes to mind are my Patina series based on junkyard cars or weathered rocks (posts here, here, and here). Usually I am emphasizing just the abstract color design, but sometimes I include elements that tell you of the mechanical construction or of the three-dimensionality of the surface.


On the surface at least, deliberate introduction of disharmony seems counter to classical notions of art. But I wonder to what extent that’s true. Certainly the idea of the importance of tension among elements in a painting, say, is not new. Is Scully’s method just his personal way of achieving this? At the least, it seems that giving up fine and final control of the relationships is a modern conception.

Does any of your artwork involve playing with disharmony? Scully’s specific technique would seem to be especially adaptable to fabric art, or various kinds of assembly art.