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By Karen Wilkin

Uptown, at Mnuchin Gallery, “Sean Scully: The Eighties” revisited some of this powerful abstract painter’s formative works—essentially the foundation of his preoccupations to date. The exhibited paintings, begun when Scully had definitively established himself in New York, after emigrating from England, are early manifestations of his now familiar vocabulary of blocks and bands of mysterious, unnameable color, applied with rough, deliberate strokes. Constructed in sections, with projecting elements, these robust paintings are ferociously present, with an implicit rough-hewn character that enters into a struggle with the subtly modulated, layered color—an invigorating contradiction rather like the artist himself, a big, fiercely intelligent, much-traveled guy who likes to present himself as tough and truculent. A few small, alluring paintings on board suggested the origins of the series. As we expect from Scully, the works on view insisted that we spend time to discover their nuances—of relationships, proportions, surface, and hue—and rewarded that attention. We noticed complex repetitions and variations; off-whites began to blush; blacks and deep blues entered into a conversation. And more. Since the ’80s, Scully has rung seemingly endless changes on his block and band motif, making consistently expressive, rigorous, eye-testing paintings. It was good to see the ancestors of his recent work once again. And for context, there’s the newly published Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully, edited by Kelly Grovier, a handsomely produced compendium of just about everything you might want to know.

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