After his grandfather killed himself, Sean Scully and his family left Ireland for north London. "He was going to be shot for desertion," says Scully. "So he hung himself, so they couldn't shoot him." Later, his father would go to prison on the same charge. "We lived in extreme, extreme, poverty," the abstract painter says. "I don't know why anyone said I came from a working class background—I didn't. I had a tremendously difficult and stressful relationship with my parents. I wet the bed until I was twenty. I only stopped when I got married. I needed a wife to straighten me out."
Sean Scully is tall and broad and loud, and so uncensored that at times it's quite disarming. I meet him in China, on the 45th floor of the tallest hotel in Nanjing—the former Ming dynasty capital—where he's just opened an exhibition that will tour throughout the year. He's a big deal in China. In 2015, he was the first Western artist to have a major retrospective in Shanghai. Gallerists, superrich collectors, and journalists from around the world have come here for this latest opening. The day before our interview, I see him looking up at a picture of himself in paint splattered overalls, blown up onto a giant billboard. "In England, we don't like artists to be big personalities," he says. "But in America, in Germany, and in China, I'm a rock star." He's not joking.
In person, Scully is as bold as his paintings—big blocks of color that never seem to quite fit. Born in Dublin in 1945, he funded himself through "second chance school for dunces" Croydon College of Art, where he worked with "such intensity it scared the other students. "I was famous before I'd even left," he says. He quit the UK for New York in 1975. It was there, in the 1980s, he would teach the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei.
His work is abstract, but only in the academic sense. The subject matters are all too real—the death of his first son in 1983 led to a dark, desolate series of paintings that "only a maniac could have painted"; his Wall of Light series is a "political metaphor. It's about dissolving walls, which of course is impossible." Another series came out of drug addiction. Most recently, he's been painting landscapes. "I'm painting nice pictures at the moment," he says. "But it won't be long before I tear it all up again."
I spent the morning talking to Scully about his life, work, and censorship in China.
VICE: How did you start painting?
Sean Scully: I started at school. When I painted, all the girls would come and sit around me. I realized that this was a really good way to get girlfriends. I was only ten. When I was a teenager, I was very political. I used to make posters for demonstrations—anti-apartheid, CND. Then gradually, I worked my way into the idea of being an artist.
How did your family feel about you going to art school?
Not good. I was born in Ireland. We were travelers. My dad was a barber. The other side of my family were coal miners in Durham. I was the only one to go to university, and the last thing my dad wanted was for me to be an artist. But later on, when I bought him a house in the south of Spain, he thought it was OK then.
I guess the art world was pretty alien to them.
What usually happens in generations is that people either evolve, or they don't. And if they evolve, it's usually one step at a time. I went from the bottom of the staircase to the top in one generation. And that was really too much for them. They couldn't get their head around it.
You left school at fifteen, got a job in printing, and worked your way into art school. How did it feel once you finally got there?
I was so happy. Croydon was a good school, but it was a second chance school for dunces. I was a dunce. But art school saved my life.
Was there anyone else like you there?
There was nobody like me. Because nobody came from the wreckage that I came out of. I'm not trying to glamorize poverty, but they had parents who were doctors or plumbers or secretaries—almost middle class. And then there was me. I worked with an intensity that was scary. I've really calmed down a lot.
You moved to New York in the 70s, and you've been there ever since. I noticed in the exhibition that one painting from 1988 is called Pale Fire, after the book by Vladimir Nabokov. The book's an interesting comparison to your life—the main character is an outsider, a foreign body…
Yeah, he's the foreign guy in America—and I was too when I painted that. He looked at all the weirdness and the strangeness of it all. The fitting and the not fitting—that's the subject of my work. Pale Fire is this American-style painting, but it's got a hole in it with a very hesitant painting stuck in the middle that's very sure of itself. I felt like I was an insert.
There's a quote from you next to that painting that says reading books helped you reconnect with people after the death of your son in the early 1980s. How had that affected your work?
Well, it darkened my palette. And it made paintings like Durango, which isn't in this show. These are maniac paintings. Only a maniac could have painted them. Durango is almost scary—it's a huge, gray painting that's just about a kind of desolation. And again, it doesn't quite fit together. But I've never been interested in making nice pictures.
So why do you do it, then? Is it cathartic making your work? Do you see it as therapy?
After my son died, I went to a psychiatrist. He proved—or I proved—that Sigmund Freud was correct when he said that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis. After three months of therapy, I was looking after him—straightening the pictures in his office. In the end, he told me to go away. He said, "There's nothing about yourself that you'd want to change. So you should just go away."
You've found a lot of success in China. Do you like it here?
I'm a big supporter of China—this goes back to my political days. And I don't believe in this idea that China should just get in a fast car called democracy and start the engine. When a country has been smashed—which this country was—you've got to have communism. You couldn't start any other way.
Abstract art is becoming increasingly popular here. Why do you think that is?
Once people start looking at art, and the audience is gathered—which usually starts with figurative art, then abstract art will follow. A Chinese guy told me last night that since my exhibition, there's been a huge emphasis on abstract art in this country with all the young artists. And that's just the influence of one person.
Still, the government has clear ideas about what contemporary art should be. Here's a statement from the general secretary of the Communist party, Xi Jinping, at a 2014 art conference: "Contemporary arts must… take patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood, and culture." Have you felt any pressure being a foreigner showing here?
No. But it's also probably important that I'm a very sympathetic advocate of China. You know abstract art was illegal in China twenty years ago. Illegal.
Because it was seen as too decadent and bourgeois?
Because it's independent. It's independent thinking. And this is a problem. But I don't see why you can't have a slow evolution in a culture. And with a 1.3 billion population, it has to be slow.
Do you think it's harder to censor abstract art?
Not if you say it's illegal. But you're right, it's very difficult to censor it, because you can't really ever say what it is. This is where abstraction is very powerful—it's free. What's really interesting to me is that in England, there's democracy, but they can't really understand abstract art. I've always had a problem in England.
What do you mean a problem? That you've always been more successful away from home?
With people embracing my work. Because my work is really embraced in America and Germany, and now China. You talk about censorship here, but there's censorship in America. I was going to make a big sculpture for the American embassy. And the people at Fox News—which I like to call Fucks News—attacked it, viciously. They called my sculpture a pile of rocks and said it was a waste of public money. And in the end, it didn't happen. That's another form of censorship.
You taught Ai Wei Wei in New York. What do you think about his work? He's obviously very critical of China.
It's an entirely different idea about how to improve the world. I'm not saying he's not trying to make the world better. His work deals with the symptoms—it's reactive to specific situations. My work deals with the cause. Because abstraction—well, the best abstraction, not those nice big dopey paintings hanging in hotel lobbies—is about inner structures.
His work deals with government censorship, cover-ups, and the lack of freedom in China. Did that not freak you out when you first came here?
In China, there are more artists than there are in Germany and America. Have you ever been to the art gallery district in Beijing? It's massive and completely free. I say exactly what I think about everything. When I was on national news on China, I was watched—can you imagine such a thing—by three hundred million people. Nobody said anything to me about what I could say. There's a lot of misunderstandings about what it means to live in a socialist society.
But writers are still being arrested here.
Much more radical people than Ai Wei Wei—you know, people trying to bring down the government. I don't know what the truth of it is. But Ai Wei Wei's original issue was tax evasion.
If everyone can still access Google and Facebook, for example, why does the firewall still exist?
The thing you've got to understand about the Chinese is that they don't give a shit what you think. They really don't. This is the 21st century, and they do what they want, and the West is somewhat befuddled by it… Ai Wei Wei has found some solace in the West. But what do you think about Ai Wei Wei—and I ask this as a father—lying in the shadow of a refugee boy that drowned and having his discomfort written about it as he lay on the pebbles? Poor Ai Wei Wei, lying on the pebbles, making all those dents in his body.
But he got put in prison.
I went to see Ai Wei Wei when he was locked up. I go all the way out there to see him, and he's not locked up at all. He's got this huge place. We go outside and get in this limo, go to this nice Japanese restaurant, and drink sake all afternoon. That poor, suffering boy.
Hang on, that was when he was incarcerated for eighty-one days?
Yes… We went out. Look—I can't speak about it with authority, because it's not my life. I don't know how it was with his father. I don't know what all these old grievances are. I don't have a lot of pity for it—the Irish were basically a slave colony for hundreds of years. I can't weep for somebody making a lot out of their past. But if you go to New York, to Parsons where I taught him, you've got to be able to pay for it.
There are difficulties in all the world. I remember the police in Britain used to hunt down homosexuals—and it's not that long ago. Everybody's evolving in their own way. And one has to be tolerant of this. Otherwise we don't get anywhere. It's a question of communication, and understanding, and tolerance. If you're invited into a country to put on exhibitions in a way that I have, multiple times, you're going to influence the culture.
*You said at the opening of the exhibition that "art is the enemy of purity." There's a caption next to the piece Four Days in your exhibition where you say you started painting horizontal lines because you'd got too many straight lines when you painted vertically. Was this an antidote to perfection?*
Well, actually I got very ill—that's how I stated doing the horizontal ones. I broke my back, and the doctors put me on Oxycontin. I got addicted to heroin for a few weeks. Being on that stuff stripped away my architecture. I had to get off. It was fucking murder getting off that stuff. But I did. And then when I got back to the studio, I just found myself painting horizontal lines. I made this huge painting with six panels called Horizontal Soul. I was strung out, and that was my soul. Art's got something to do with just being free—about giving yourself permission. About making art I've never been conflicted. I've been conflicted about a lot of other things, but I always knew art as right and just.
Follow Jenny Stevens on Twitter.