The abstract artist taking on Luis Barragán’s famed modernist estate
In 1983, while traveling through Mexico, the Irish-born, American artist Sean Scully made a series of watercolours inspired by the stacking of stones in Pre-Columbian and vernacular constructions. Although he put them aside at the time, these aquarelles came to shape his Wall of Light series in the late 1990s, introducing stripes and bars, arranged vertically and horizontally – an approach which has characterised his painting ever since.
Coinciding with the 15th edition of Zona Maco, Mexico’s leading art fair, Scully’s work is celebrated at Cuadra San Cristóbal, one of Luis Barragán’s modernist masterpieces, on the outskirts of Mexico City. The site-specific exhibition, entitled ‘Sean Scully — San Cristóbal’ and opening today, is the first to take place at the equestrian and residential complex, privately owned by the Egerström family since it was completed in 1968 by the late Mexican architect. It features 15 recent paintings and three sculptures, installed in a bold yet poetic dialogue with the architecture of the estate.
‘I fell in love with the country, and with its ruins,’ the charismatic, 72-year-old artist tells me as we stroll through San Cristóbal’s iconic, pink-walled stables. Indeed, he has continued to visit Mexico regularly since the early 1980s, and produced different works here, including a series of photographs in the 2000s, now included in his book The Color of Time. ‘This is the reason why I speak Spanish,’ he continues.
Known for his intuitive brushstroke and visceral colour panel, Scully’s geometrical abstract paintings are blessed with a handmade quality which, unlike the Minimalists, evokes an emotional state. So it seems rather fitting to see his work installed here, one of the most emblematic works by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Barragán, who coined the term ‘Emotional Architecture’ with his long-time collaborator, the artist Mathias Goeritz.
Installation view of ‘Sean Scully – San Cristóbal’. Photography: Felix Friedmann
Scully’s paintings on aluminium and copper are daringly installed directly within the horse stalls, amid the hay and, well, the smell. The authenticity of the equestrian setting — with its painted interior walls and metal fences — enters into a surprising, near-spiritual dialogue with the works.
‘Sean’s had hundreds of shows with white walls, concrete floors and harsh lights,’ comments Oscar Humphries, the curator of the show. ‘When you’re working with a great artist, there’s room to be more nuanced, and make installations like this.’
Meanwhile, the sculptures are installed outside in the grounds, poetically echoing the linearity of the estate and its grooming beams (it is the first time that Scully’s sculptural work is shown in Latin America). An iteration of Boxes of Air, an airy lattice steel-structure, will continue to grow throughout the duration of the show, eventually tripling in size. Then, on the other side of the estate, reflecting in the azure L-shaped pool, is an imposing rectangular volume, made of locally-sourced stone and marble cubes stacked together, rendering the composition of the Wall of Light paintings.
‘What I love about stone, is that you’re not actually fabricating, you’re only reorganising what’s already there,’ explains the artist pensively. But what he really wants, is to make a monumental sculpture for Mexico or Brazil, similarly to his 20m-long, permanent stone sculpture at Château La Coste, near Aix-en-Provence, which he says conveys a powerful, spiritual experience. ‘A kind of Machu Picchu, you know? You can ask it questions, but it never answers.’ ... Any takers?