For artists, the new pandemic reality means canceled exhibitions, day-job uncertainty, and fears of an industrywide contraction. Like everyone else, they’re trying to adjust. But those lucky enough to be working are also rethinking their practices, pivoting to new forms, media and colors to describe a troubled new world.
We are checking in with some of them about what’s changing in their studios, starting with the Irish-American painter Sean Scully. With work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and London’s Tate, Mr. Scully is most famous for paintings of deceptively simple geometries, especially broad stripes. (He once identified himself to a MoMA desk attendant by saying, “Sean Scully’s my name, painting stripes is my game.”) But wavering brushwork and unexpected colors infuse those stripes with more passion than you’d think they could bear. By FaceTime, we mostly talked about another longstanding series of his, paintings with rectangular cutouts that he calls “windows.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your show at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels was postponed because of the virus outbreak, and might yet be canceled. Are you worried about it?
No, I don’t worry about anything. I had a show in Taos delayed. There’s about five exhibitions of mine that are being either canceled or kicked up the road.
Why are you making art in light of the pandemic?
I’ve always thought of art as extremely positive — as I said to you, there’s no irony in me. I make art out of pure passionate belief, and it’s very important as a kind of example of what’s possible against all the things I’m against, first one being war.
So what has changed in your painting in the last couple of months?
The window that I put into my work went black. That’s the first time I’ve done that, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to.
You weren’t able to do it earlier?
In the late ’80s, I started to put a lot of windows into the paintings, and they were real windows. I did try to leave some one color, and I don’t know what it was, whether it was my emotion, my insecurity, my need to do something else first, or the general climate swirling around me, but I was unable to make [a solid color insert] happen. You know, my work is always based on metaphor, so the meaning of [black] didn’t touch me as true at that time. It was only now when I returned to this window idea that I could see them as black, because of what’s in the air.
You’ve talked candidly about your rough London upbringing, and about “going insane” after a personal tragedy in 1983. Can you compare making art in the face of your own turmoil to making art during a global catastrophe?
It’s easier to make art now than it was after my son [Paul] died. I was unable to work. You know, I really did lose my mind. The terrible thing about that is that when you’re crazy, you don’t really think you are.
In an art or style context, there’s something triumphant or powerful about the color black. But if there’s no irony in you, can I assume this new black window is an expression of despair?
I think what I’m trying to do is make myself, and anybody who’s prepared to look at my work, look at two things at the same time — because that’s what we’ve got. We have what we idealistically imagine, which is represented by this seductive painting, and what we actually have, which is a blacked-out view, a very uncertain, hard view.
The colorful stripes are definitely beguiling. So if we succeed in looking at the two things at once, what does that do?
The consequence is that you can actually think. [Pause] To think you have to be dialectical. It’s actually what women have been accusing men of for a long time, not being able to see both sides at once, which Joni Mitchell writes about in one of her songs, “Both Sides, Now.”
What is an artist’s responsibility in times of trouble?
I think that the artist is somebody who should be pretty engaged in issues. For example, Courbet was put in prison for being kind of a confrontational loudmouth, like myself. You know, I do things that people find pretty edgy — some of the pictures I’ve put out about Trump are borderline dangerous for me. I think you have to stand up, basically, for what’s right.
How many people do you employ altogether?
I employ seven. Some of them are feeling guilty. They keep asking me, Is there anything we can do?
You sent them all home, with pay? How long can you keep that up?
Two years. Then you can ask me again.